Blogs > Cliopatria > Imposters, Historians, and History

May 27, 2004 9:08 pm

Imposters, Historians, and History

In recent years most of us have become aware of a loathsome practice that has come in the form of imposters stealing a slice of identity as Vietnam veterans, claiming service in a war they never saw up close. An alarming example of this came when Tim Johnson, then Toronto Blue Jays manager, used his war stories (here and here) to rally his stirrup-hosed troops as they did battle on the, er, baseball field. The confluence of sports and war has always been rhetorically fraught, never moreso than now when we are actually at war and a Pat Tillman can reveal to us the difference between the war on, say, the gridiron and that on the front lines.

Uncomfortably closer to home for those of us who are historians was the story of Joseph Ellis, the respected historian of early America, who also taught a Vietnam War class to his students at Mt. Holyoke College. He was able to weave stories of his war experience into his classroom, thus using a technique that many try to use to bring to life events on the written page. The only problem was, Joseph Ellis had never served in Vietnam. (The story is surely familiar to readers, but see here and a take on HNN here) He thus broke a trust that I daresay is even more significant than that between manager of a fourth place team and his players – that of teacher and student.

Now comes word of a similarly execrable trend – the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors staking a proprietary claim of their own on the Shoah. In an eviscerating, but to my mind fair (keep in mind the point of Rebunk, folks), review of a group of books and essays by children of survivors of the Nazi death camps, Ruth Franklin tackles this topic.

I find this especially important because it tackles a series of significant questions for historians. First off, it reveals some of the most vacuous uses to which various forms of theory, postmodern and other, can be put to use. I’m not much of a theorist, and I suppose I could even be described as being hostile to most postmodernism (writing well is not a crime, people, and there are such things as facts and even truths). But I am especially hostile to theories that privilege one group of people over another when that first group does not have any legitimate claim on the privilege in question, in this case, the Holocaust. This ties in to my second issue, which is that no one has a proprietary claim on history. When people criticize the critics of the war, for example, veterans often get up and claim some special status. (Tom can and will give us more on this theme down the road, I am sure). But the problem is, while people own their own experiences, they do not own the larger history. Furthermore, a critical distance is often vital to doing good historical work. Participants are not always likely to be able to attempt to be objective. To be objective does not mean to avoid having opinions. History without interpretation is mere chronicling. But those opinions have to be informed by a serious and critical reading of the evidence. In C. Vann Woodward’s felicitous phrase, “The twilight zone between living memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology.” Having lived through something does not necessarily make someone a historian of that event or era. Finally, it seems clear that some people out there are using this proprietary claim on history to shut down varying interpretations but their own. And yet how a son of a Holocaust victim has some interpretive insight on an event they never experienced, especially over scholars who may have devoted their lives to such questions, is beyond me. No one owns history. It is all of ours.

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Steven Heise - 5/29/2004

Mr. Lurker, you're right about the first two groupings you make in response to my writing. I should have made that more clear when I wrote my initial response. The Holocaust deniers are an odius group that are only able to exist because they WEREN'T at Dachau, Auschwitz, or any other concentration camp run by the Nazis, and George O'Leary and Joe Ellis were intentionally misrepresenting their place in history for their own personal gain, and while I think you can make comparisons between the second and third group, I doubt I am quite well versed enough in histographical theory to hold a debate of any worth on the subject.

I must thank Prof. Catsam though for clearing up the story which I quoted, and showing that your third group was not what I had portrayed it to be (hazy memories muddling the historical record, I know), that of a civil rights worker who had simply forgotten certain details, but actually a reporter who made up a story concerning the actions of those involved in the Freedom Rides.

Anyways, thought I would clear that up, as I'm sure you were all waiting on my words of wisdom to continue with your own pursuits.

(And a reply to Prof. Catsam's PS, simply because I've always wanted to do this to a prof who's written this on MY papers a number of times....cliche. Seriously though, thanks for the welcome and the compliment.)

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/28/2004

Ralph --
We've been at this HNN stuff for how long, three years? And I still end up posting things where they absolutely do not belong. It's clearly just another case of the man keeping us down.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/28/2004

Lots to deal with here --
First, keep in mind that the particular brand of Holocaust appropriators here are not deniers, but rather are the children of Holocaust victims who are claiming some privilege about the Holocaust. I think we all agree about Holocaust deniers these "Second Generation" folks are more vexing because as Jonathan points out, they may have some claim, however amorphous, that others do not have.
Interesting that you mention chicken dinners, Ralph. Steve -- I'll forgive you for forgrtting the story in question -- I say lots of stuff. If you absorbed a quarter of it, you earned your A. The story in question does not actually damn civil rights acticists -- it damns a journalist playing a historian (why do journalists always get off so easy? Steven Ambrose got in all sorts of hot water for effectively fiootnoting poorly; Bob Woodward couldn't write a book without making up dialogue and not attributing sources, and he's a gazillionaire because of it.), in this case david halberstam. In his accout of the Freedom Rides, he goes off and tells this wonderfull detaiuled story about how Diane Nash and another Nashville student rode overnight to beg MLK to partake in the Freedom Rides, all of which culminated in a chicken dinner at King's house. Only problem? Nash had never eaten chicken at King's house. She had never dined there. Further, the chronology alone does not work. This story did not happen. This is more than simply misremembering what one ate for dinner. Furthermore, oftentimes participants end up being like Zelig, or Forrest Gump -- they remarkably remember themselves in places they were not, they smooth out the rough edges, and they sometimes remember things that they don't remember, but that have become so much a part of the story that what they are remembering is the narrative, and not the events themselves. Oral history can be tremendously useful, But it has some pretty serious shortcomings that we all need to be aware of. but if it has these shortcomings in dealing with actual participants, what does this tell us about the proprietary claims of the children of Holocaust survivors? It should tell us that we should tread lightly.
I actually agree, Steve, that my presentation of the Vietnam liars does not mesh as well as it could with the Holocaust review. However my larger point is about staking claims to historical events. I should have made the connections clearer, but I do think they are there.
Mr. Wisler, you, of course, have more reason to be outraged about the Tim Johnsons and Joseph Ellis' than most of us -- that proprietary claim, at least, I certainly believe you've earned. (See Jonathan -- I too am aware of what slippery terrain this is!)
(PS -- you all cannot see it, but my buttons are bursting at how well my former student presented himself in this forum!)

Ralph E. Luker - 5/28/2004

Damned threaded comments. I know what Tim Burke and Michael Tinkler complain about now. My comment (May 28, 2004 at 6:004 AM) should have followed Steven Heise's comment (May 28, 2004 at 1:42 AM). And it should have done so because it's a whole lot more apt and clever there than it is following Jonathan Dresner's comment.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/28/2004

Wait a minute: I think we're about to confuse things that are really quite different. 1) Holocaust deniers weren't there and, for whatever reason, simply fly in the face of a ton of evidence. Maybe because they weren't there and, thus don't have first hand experience, calling what they do a "lie" isn't exactly correct. They are committing a fraud, but as for me I only lie about things I've experienced first hand! 2) Joe Ellis and George O'Leary were there. They lied; and they lied because they knew what they said was not true. I don't know whether 1 or 2 is worse; but they obviously are quite different phenomena, probably are incomparable, and thus ought not be compared. 3) Whether a civil rights activist had a chicken dinner with MLK at a particular time or whether he lies about it or not is _nothing_ like either 1 or 2. For one thing, we know MLK ate a lot of chicken. Chicken eating is ubiquitous among us preachers. It was near ubiquitous among us civil rights activists (sorry, Derek). If I claim to have eaten a chicken dinner with MLK, when in fact we had country fried steak, or if I mis-date my chicken dinner with MLK, it ain't a lie -- it's a hazy memory. Now when you whipper-snappers get to be as old as I am, you'll have a lot more patience with hazy memory than your freshness yet allows -- either that or you'll go nuts. If I claim to have eaten a chicken dinner with MLK when, in fact, I never ate a dinner of any sort with MLK on any date, then it's probably a lie. We preachers and civil rights activists do that now and then.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/28/2004

I suspect we don't fundamentally disagree, but we do, as historians have to tread a fine line (which means wander aimlessly in a huge gray area) around memory as primary source. I don't mean the egregiously wrong or fictive: how we weigh memory and heritage when evaluating and interpreting events is not a simple function of right and wrong. Particularly when there is a moral calculus involved, either personal or social, neither memory nor our own rarely-unbiased reactions are unquestionable sources.

Sorry if this seems slippery and vague; I'm probably only a little more comfortable in the realm of theory than you are (my graduate education would have been nearly theory-free had I not spent time at Berkeley), and I want to suggest the realm of problem without allowing the truly postmodern to offer a facile solution.

Steven Heise - 5/28/2004

I remember hearing a mention of things of this sort a year or so ago during a lecture giving by Prof. Catsam where a similar theme was brought up concerning the 'memories' of some of the members of the Civil Rights movement who claimed to have had a chicken dinner with MLK and a few other major players from the Movement (names I should remember, but don't at the moment, which is making Prof. Catsam quickly reconsider my grade in his class I'm sure).

At the time I was rather shocked that members of the Civil Rights movement would think up stories such as this, because these are the so called 'good guys' of History. They're the people who stood up and fought for their rights under an oppressive social system at the risk of their wellbeing and lives. The distortion of the facts, one would think, would only serve to harm the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, but soon after that I came to the realization that this phenomenon is not solely related to simply misrepresenting history, but rather is, in a way, almost endemic throughout society. Coach George O'Leary lost his job at Notre Dame because he falsified his football playing prowess on his resume. It is not uncommon to hear of CEOs on down to teachers being fired or disciplined for their lack of honesty in reporting their credentials. Although I wasn't able to read the report that Prof. Catsam cites in his post, the intro speaks of a man who became popular on the Holocaust lecture circut throug his fabrications, and the post concerning Vietnam vets points out the last seven Confederate soldier pensioners all falsified their applications for pension.

The only thing I can tell that differentiates the Holocaust liars from everyone else mentioned is the Holocaust was an event that was more horrible by several orders of magnitude, and thus the fabrications these people create are all the more reprehensible. I think that Prof. Catsam misses the point a little in going off on a tangent about how people try to claim a peice of history for themselves, and create a mythology. The only reason this is happening is because money is involved in all the cases mentioned, and that is why there is a sort of 'gold rush' mentality in claiming bits and peices of history for one self (much like those who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a 'Get Well' card signed by Hitler).

The real problem we need to be examining, as historians (though maybe I ought to clairify now that I'm a historian in the very amature sense, lest I be raked over the coals as a hypocrite), is why there is this need for people to claim a bit of history as their own. The owner of a Get Well card signed by Hitler isn't gaining any sort of insight into the man's psyche or the historical factors which led to the phenomenon surrounding him by owning a bit of his memorabillia, nor are the second hand accounts from the child of a survivor of the Holocaust worth much in comparison to the volumes of first hand accounts from the survivors themselves. The falsifiers are simply following the smell of money and attempting to get in on the action (in memorabilia circles there are constant warnings about forged insignia and unit patches and medals), but the people who claim some authority over the events in question seem to simply be trying to connect with their parents, or their friends who did survive these horrible events.

Am I trying to justify what these people do by making false claims on history? No, not in any way shape or form, simply because it is not requisite for someone to claim they were somewhere they weren't to have a valid interpretation of an event. One could just as easily say 'My parents survived the Holocaust, they told me how horrible it was, and because of this I realize people need to wipe out hatred between different groups.' That is a perfectly valid interpretation of what their parents had told them, and it does not create any sort of exclusive, or inherent, right in and of itself.

Robert Wisler - 5/28/2004


I just wanted to say that I agree with what you said. First, for those people out there that claim they were some great war hero, etc., really gets under my skin. I served in the military, however, I never saw combat of any sort, and would NEVER claim to. When I see or hear people telling stories or wearing medals and badges they did not, or could not have possibly, earned I get, well lets be nice and sad I get mad, especially when they never served. (You can ask Tom about what happened this past Halloween at OU.) But, this is an insult to not only those that have served bravely, but also a major insult and slap in the face to those that actually EARNED the medals and badges.
As for those claiming to know more about the Holocaust because of some connection, such as family, is bunk. If this is his argument then darn near every BabyBoomer would be a freaking expert on WWII, because their dad “was there and experienced it”. Yes, child of the Holocaust may have a better insight to the emotional scarring and trauma that was caused by surviving, but that does not necessarily give a better insight to what actually happened in a Nazi Death Camp. With his argument, Jonathan is saying that my friends, who’s dads served in Vietnam and had, and still have, nightmares and emotional trauma from what they experienced during the war, have a more “distinctive, personal” insight as to what went on. No, this isn’t the case. You may know better what that person went through really screwed them up in the head, but it doesn’t give you a better insight as to what happened.
(sorry for the rambling)

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/28/2004

Jonathan --
Hopefully you can find a way to access the article fror you(email me, I bet we can figure a way to get it to you)because once you see precisely the sort of proprietary claims about which I am speaking we might have some common ground.
I'm not sure about the "continuum of" historical "ownership." I agree -- children of survivors may be "closer" to the events, but why is closeness better? Isn't it in many ways worse? This is why I brought up the Woodward citation. And I've heard enough people dismiss me because "I wasn't there" after they told a story in a way that was factually wrong, or who were trying to use their presence as a way to wield power over the events.
Think about this from a vantage point not of the victims, whom we would give wide berth to on these questions, but rather from that of the perpetrators. If "being there" on what my grandfather would have called the sh@% end of the stick, the victim's end, gives someone special claims, then so too does being the perpetrator. I am not ready to yield that control of the narrative just because they "were there".
That said, I probably could have stated my case, especially vis a vis the article, more carefully. But let's get that review to you, because I think you'll see the particular type of proprietorship that I am referencing.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/28/2004

Not being a subscriber, I can't access the article.

But I do have a question/quibble with your comments. You ask "how a son of a Holocaust victim has some interpretive insight into an event they never experienced" begs the question of what "experienced" means. The children of Holocaust survivors experienced the aftereffects and stories of the Holocaust in a way which is quite different from the scholar (cf. Spiegleman's Maus); not superior or inferior, but distinctive, personal, remarkably consistent from the literature I've read, and apparently powerful.

I'm no fan of the kind of identity politics which forbids outsiders to comment on proprietary history (see Hindutva), but I think there is a continuum of "ownership" to history (one which stops short of exclusive proprietary right) which should be recognized.

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