“In 1933, after competing in several democratic elections and finally becoming the leader of the largest party in the German parliament, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. In the subsequent election, his party went on to achieve a higher percentage of the vote than before his appointment. In the following years, he made attempts to reverse the details of a treaty imposed on Germany in the wake of the First World War that was agreed internationally to have been unjust. However, Germany’s neighbours, France and Britain—rulers of the two largest empires in the world—were unhappy about these attempted revisions and declared war on Germany in September 1939. In 1941, both the USA and Soviet Union joined the conflict, despite both having promised to stay out of it. The war was terrible, including the fire-bombing of German cities, the horrendous mistreatment of German prisoners of war by the Soviets, until ultimately the forces of totalitarian Russia invaded Germany, precipitating mass forced migration of Germans in Eastern Europe and destroying the capital, Berlin.”
Historical truth is a funny thing – it lives in the whole, not in the parts. Any relatively knowledgeable reader of the above paragraph would spot instantly that it is a terrible perversion of the historical truth of events in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, yet no individual part of it is factually inaccurate. The Nazis were indeed the largest party in the 1933 German election, though missing here is the important context that this was an election in which the polling booths were surrounded by Nazi stormtroopers; both the USA and the USSR did join the war having attempted to stay out, but in both cases it was because Hitler had declared war on them. Genocide is entirely absent. Important context and relevant evidence has been missed, to render these individual accurate facts into a something that no one remotely familiar with the period concerned could call “the truth”.
This is why, when Ken Livingstone announces he can’t have offended anyone because he’s told “the truth” about relations between pre-war Zionism and the Nazis, or when his online supporters spam everyone with links to the Wikipedia page on the Haavara Agreement as though it is game, set and match to their hero, they are perverting the truth, even whilst they are offering facts. There are fascinating, tragic and terrible stories to be found in the events they are selectively attentive to: one about the desperation of parts of the German Jewish community in the face of a regime besieging them in their own homes and workplaces; another about the confused and contradictory sinews of the Nazi state, working to a Fuhrer who made clear how much he hated the Jews, but ran a government so determinedly dysfunctional it could commit multiple contradictory evils at the same time, planning for the same victims both wholesale forced emigration and industrialised mass murder. But anyone with a smattering of historical learning and even a shred of integrity can see these facts cannot bear an interpretation that Hitler was a Zionist. The often arbitrary survival of evidence from the past into the present does generate valid disputes about historical details, and sometimes makes it impossible to conclude a “right” answer. However, any narrative that deliberately ignores obviously relevant evidence is very clearly a wrong answer.
Toxic inattentiveness to the rules of the historical discipline is the stock-in-trade of the grievance-mongers of the Far Left and the Far Right, the breeding ground for the conspiracy theories that frame their understanding of how change is achieved (as well as explaining why, despite them having seen the truth, they are singly unsuccessful in changing much themselves). These parasites on the past find a nugget of fact, rip it from any sensible context and build atop it whatever deranged narrative pushes their cause the best: Mein Kampf, for example, is full of it, and in the hands of the sectarians of the modern Trotskyite left, Marxism offers little more than a conspiracy theory with numbers, dressed up with occasional infusions of the word “hegemony”. The highest form of such pernicious abuse of evidence is Holocaust denial, in which not just the physical evidence of the destruction of a people but the words of the all-too-few survivors who walked out again from the places the Nazis had fated them to die, are dismissed on pretexts as flimsy as the alleged silence of the memoirs of others.
Livingstone has been suspended from Labour. If there is any decency left in this party, he will never be permitted to return. But he is not alone in indulging and endorsing this malignant conspiracy theorising, and the distortion of the historical record he has publicly engaged in and thus validated has, I fear, already found some parts of the public consciousness in which to dwell. It is clearly taking hold in parts of the Labour movement and party and this should be challenged robustly: historical distortion of this sort is a fraud upon the living and the dead, and it has no place in a decent and principled Labour Party, and no party that entertains it has a place in a humane and educated society.