Robert Hanks: First rule of history ...  Verify your references

Roundup: Talking About History

[Subhead: Truth matters; and if we think it doesn't, the door is ajar for anybody with an agenda and no scruples.]

Many of the reports last week of Kurt Vonnegut's death mentioned his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5, and the events that inspired it. In February 1945, the city of Dresden was devastated by several nights of air raids by British and American forces; tens of thousands were killed in the firestorm that the bombing spawned. Vonnegut was one of many Allied prisoners of war put to work clearing the dead; Slaughterhouse 5, with its science-fiction plot-devices and air of childlike simplicity, was his response to scenes of horror that challenged rational description or moral sophistication.

Putting a precise number on the dead is impossible in such circumstances. The figure given in Slaughterhouse 5, several times, is 135,000 -- as the book says, much worse than Hiroshima. On Thursday morning, the day Vonnegut's death was reported, "The Today Programme" on Radio 4 replayed an interview with Vonnegut recorded in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the raids: "The best guess I ever got about how many people were killed," he told James Naughtie, "is about 135,000. I don't know, you may have done research since ... That is between two and three per cent of the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust."

The same number was repeated shortly afterwards, in the news bulletin; it was also cited on the BBC website that morning, and in newspapers around the world - the obituary in the Independent. But the number is wrong: the true total of those killed at Dresden was almost certainly no more than 35,000.

In an important sense, this doesn't matter: the arguments that have raged for 60 years over the morality of bombing Dresden - a beautiful medieval city, and a target of minimal strategic significance -- aren't much affected by the information that "only" 35,000 died. But consider where Vonnegut got his numbers from: a 1963 book entitled The Bombing of Dresden, by a young British author called David Irving.

For many years, it was widely held that while Irving might be unreliable on Nazi genocide, his earlier work on Dresden was sound. But when Irving sued Penguin Books and the historian Deborah Lipstadt over claims that he had falsified records, the defendants retained the Cambridge historian Richard Evans to scrutinise Irving's published work and its sources.

In his instructive, entertaining and chilling book called Telling Lies about Hitler (2002) Professor Evans demolishes Irving's claims to historical authority, devoting a whole chapter to Dresden. Here he shows how Irving preferred an unsubstantiated estimate of 135,000 dead to lower but far better founded estimates.

One official involved in the collection and disposal of corpses wrote to Irving arguing, among other things, that mass cremation on the scale Irving assumed would have been impossible in the time given, especially considering wartime shortages of manpower, equipment and fuel. Irving ignored that point; but later he used similar reasoning to play down the scale of mass cremation in the Nazi death-camps, where all the equipment and manpower was in place.

What gives pause here is seeing how easily a "fact" becomes detached from its source, and can persist even when the source is discredited. The phenomenon is not uncommon. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbollah, has been widely quoted as saying "if they [the Jews] all gather in Israel it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide" and "they [Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment" -- indeed, I think I have cited the first comment myself, in a discussion with a friend. ....

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