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December 01st 2008 print

William D. Rubinstein

Historical Revision versus Holocaust Denial

In some respects Denial: History Betrayed by Tony Taylor, an associate professor at Monash University–Gippsland, is a useful book. In it, Taylor has given an account of six types of “genocide denial”, ranging from the well-known deniers of the Jewish Holocaust to deniers of Japanese war crimes and recent atrocities in the Balkans. Refreshingly—and rather unexpectedly, given his obvious orientation to the left—he includes a chapter on the denial of Stalinist crimes by British communists.

These chapters, in general, provide a useful guide to the dimensions of propagandistic genocide and massacre denial, although his chapter on deniers of the Jewish Holocaust appears to be in near-total ignorance of the long Australian history of this phenomenon, and totally ignores many Jewish community studies and sources. Up to a point, Taylor amply documents the ubiquity of attempts to deny or downplay many cases of genocide and massacre.

Beyond that point, however, Denial is highly tendentious and much more problematical and biased than the average reader is likely to be aware. There is, first, the concept of “genocide denial” itself, which is far more problematical than he credits. In and of themselves, efforts by historians or commentators to arrive at lower figures for slaughters than previously given or accepted are not “denial”, but a part of the process of historical research and debate: their accuracy depends wholly upon the evidence.

Ironically, Taylor himself engages in at least one example of this process of revised underestimation, when he correctly notes (on page 45) that David Irving’s estimate of 250,000 dead Germans in the Dresden air raid of February 1945 overstates the actual number of dead by more than 1000 per cent. Presumably, Taylor does not regard the whittling down of Irving’s figure as “massacre denial”, but, on the contrary, of a reasoned critique of propaganda. Historians constantly undertake this process of revision, as of course they should, as uncomfortable as their conclusions may often be.

Taylor’s chapter on the apologias for Stalin made by British communists, although in one sense obviously quite valid, does not itself tell the full story. In the 1960s and 1970s, historians like Robert Conquest routinely gave estimates of 20 to 30 million or more as the number of Soviet people killed by Stalin. Since glasnost and the end of the Soviet Union, as Soviet archival sources have opened, Western historians have without exception come to the conclusion that these earlier estimates are wild exaggerations, horrifying as Stalin’s regime obviously was. The best estimate is that about 850,000 persons were killed in the Great Purge of 1937–38—an astronomical figure, but far below previous estimates—and that the total death toll attributable to Stalin, including the millions of Ukrainians who perished in the famine of the early 1930s, was around 7 million. As a lifelong anticommunist, it gives me no pleasure to report this, but facts are facts. Taylor makes no mention of the debate over Conquest’s estimates or of recent research on this subject.

The most objectionable section of Taylor’s book, however, is his venomous chapter on Keith Windschuttle and the debate on the killing of Aborigines. This chapter, by far the longest and most tendentious in the book, is apparently meant as the central example of “denial”. Holocaust deniers, apologists for the gulags and for Japanese atrocities—these are but minor demons compared with His Satanic Majesty, Keith Windschuttle, who is repeatedly compared by Taylor, in all seriousness, to David Irving, a characterisation both absurd and defamatory. Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History struck me, when I first read it, as a masterly and much-needed correction to the unsubstantiated accounts of alleged white genocide and massacre of the Aborigines which, in examples given by Windschuttle, appear to be based in some cases on deliberate distortion of the evidence. Had Windschuttle’s book concerned, not Aborigines, but an historical subject of purely academic interest—say, the number of victims of the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe—and, above all, had he not challenged a central shibboleth of the contemporary Left, it would surely be hailed almost universally as an outstanding example of historical correction and revision.

One fundamental point which might be made about Windschuttle’s central claim about the catastrophic decline in the population of Australian Aborigines, that direct killings and massacres played a surprisingly small role in this process compared with other causes, is closely paralleled elsewhere. In the United States, the best estimate of the decline in American Indian numbers is that they decreased from about 2.2 million at the time of first contact to about 350,000 at their nadir around 1900. How much of this decline was the result of killings by whites? An 1894 estimate by the US Bureau of the Census claimed that “about 30,000” Indians had been killed by whites between 1775 and 1894. Recent historians have raised this figure to about 53,500 (and 19,000 whites killed by Indians). Many regard the American frontier as synonymous with gun violence and the philosophy that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, and this figure—about 450 Indian killings a year—will surely seem surprising. As Steven T. Katz pointed out in his history of genocides, less than 4 per cent of the decline in American Indian numbers can be attributed to killings by whites; all of the other deaths were due to other causes, especially the spread of virulent diseases to which Indians had no immunity.

These facts closely parallel the Australian example. Windschuttle claims that of the decline in Tasmanian Aborigine numbers from 2000 to zero, 120 deaths can be attributed to killings by whites, or 6 per cent. What do his critics say? The normal range of estimates of Tasmanian numbers in 1788 centres around 5500 or so (in an island the size of the Republic of Ireland!), and the number of killings by whites, although difficult to estimate, centres around 450, or 8.2 per cent of the initial number. In other words, for all of their venomous hostility to Windschuttle, the percentage estimate of Aboriginal deaths given by his critics is virtually identical to that given by Windschuttle: all of the rest of the decline to zero by the mid-1870s was due to other factors, just as in America. If Windschuttle is a “denialist”, so, too, are his critics.

Much the same is true for the decline of Aboriginal numbers in Australia as a whole. The well-known estimate of about 20,000 Aborigines killed by whites given by Reynolds and Broome has to be set against the decline of Aboriginal numbers between 1788 and 1900 of around 250,000, in which case 8 per cent of the decrease was due to killings, or set against the much higher (and very implausible) recent estimates of a 700,000 decline, in which case less than 3 per cent was due to killings by whites, all of the rest due to other causes.

To this observer, who has been overseas since the storm over Windschuttle blew up, it is thus rather difficult to account for the enormous hostility which his work has generated, other than that he has taken deliberate aim at the central assumption of the Australian Left that the white man is always guilty. This widespread presumption, found ubiquitously today in the growing field of “genocide studies”, also highlights another aspect of what is surely massacre denial: the denial through silence of genocide and massacre by one non-European people against another. To be sure, in his book Taylor does include a chapter about the denial of Japanese atrocities, but this only scratches the surface of a universe of silence. Virtually no histories of genocide and massacre published in recent years include accounts of, for example, the Taiping rebellion of 1850–64, in which, by a conservative estimate, 10 million Chinese were killed by other Chinese, or of thuggee in India, in which perhaps 3 million Indians were murdered by other Indians before thuggee was suppressed by the British around 1840.

Nor do accounts of Australian Aboriginal society often focus on the fact that, given that they were classical hunter-gatherers who did not develop agriculture, total numbers had always to be kept to a minimal level by infanticide and other means. One estimate is that 30 per cent of pre-colonial Aboriginal infants were killed at birth. If this figure is accurate, and if the Aboriginal population of Australia was steady at 300,000 for 40,000 years, this means that 150 million Aboriginal infants were deliberately murdered at birth in Australian tribal society. One is not likely to find a frank account of this figure in Taylor’s Denial, or in many other recent histories of pre-colonial Australia, perhaps because it is not politically correct to discuss such embarrassing realities, or, more likely, perhaps because such murderous practices were suppressed by the British.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of history at the University of Wales–Aberystwyth. Until 1995 he was professor of social and economic history at Deakin University. He is the author of Genocide: A History (Longmans, 2004) and many other works.