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Argument in Holocaust denial: the differences between historical casuistry and denial, casuistry.

Casuistry and rhetoric both are terms long maligned for their unpredictability and ethical bendability. (1) The debate about rhetorical ethics is ancient and ongoing-as is the debate surrounding the appropriate use and application of casuistry. Since the sixteenth century, casuistry has been considered a flawed approach to moral decision-making, consigned by Pascal and Ramus to the arenas of argumentative nonsense, the worst excuse for ethical laxity and individual immorality. It is a "form of ethical problem solving with a dubious pedigree" (Miller 7). Recently, however, casuistry has been rehabilitated. Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin describe it sympathetically as

the analysis of moral issues, using procedures of reasoning based on paradigms and analogies, leading to the formulation of expert opinions about the existence and stringency of moral obligations, framed in terms of rules or maxims that are general but not universal or invariable, since they hold good with certainty only in the typical conditions of the agent and the circumstances of action. (257)

The key to legitimate casuistic reasoning is the human ability to relate and compare disparate objects and events appropriately, without splitting hairs. Discussing the range and limits of argument by example, John Arthos describes the Catholic Church's use of casuistry during the Middle Ages as exaggerations of situational, specific reasoning: "the vast and sprawling casebooks of canon law were exercises in the art of qualification" (332).

Casuistry is a consideration of the situatedness of situations, a nod to the contingencies of life, and it is rhetorical in that it has the power to shape and alter our perception of "fitting" responses and propriety: "Because of the complexity of reality and the variation of circumstances, immutable laws are not immediately helpful in determining the disposition of a case. Thus, a body of examples model prudent discrimination in conflicting and ambiguous decisions of conscience" (Arthos 332). These models of prudent discrimination demonstrate the ethical difficulties that casuists confront. When facing what Bitzer called an exigency, requiring judgment and decision, one has not only a logical responsibility to compare the present situation with previous precedents but also a moral responsibility to balance and evaluate each decision as it comes.

It is important for scholars of argument and rhetoric to study casuistry (whether used for good or ill) for two reasons. First, casuistry is a necessary and inescapable attribute of language (Burke, Rhetoric 72-73). Casuistic stretching. (2) is a function of language that enables social and collective meaning (Burke, Attitudes 229). Rhetoric, as the determination of persuasive means in any given situation, recognizes the space between certainty (syllogisms) and probability (enthymemes). Without this space, if only formal logic was acceptable, how would communication occur? How would history get told? Where would be the room for error and revision, correction and reapplication? Professors employ casuistry to relate old ideas to new ones. Politicians employ casuistry to form coalitions. Parents employ casuistry to get children in bed on time. Casuistic reasoning is intimately related to the process and business of language. If truths could not be stretched, and logic could not be expanded, language would be impoverished. Common ground between audiences and speakers would prove impossible because we cannot always stand in the same space, at the same time, with the same perspective.

The second reason to study casuistry is because casuistry is convincing. Pascal was outraged at what he believed to be the immoral (and random) rationalizations of the Church in part because they were so effective. Situational reasoning accommodates the contingencies, particularities, and uniqueness of exigencies. Bitzer's discussion of the rhetorical situation reveals the casuistry required of effective rhetors (5-6). That being said, the rhetorical value of casuistry, its argumentative efficacy, can be demonstrated by careful examination of its operation in specific rhetorical situations. Such examination reveals not only examples of casuistic arguments but also standards for evaluating their ethicality and effectiveness. By studying casuistry in its ethical and unethical forms we learn about the places where people shop for arguments and the form and function of convincing arguments.

This essay examines the process of argument as well as its effects. I do not claim that all casuistry is bad or, necessarily, that all casuistry is good. What I do want to suggest, though, is that there are good and bad forms of casuistic reasoning, and I lay out the differences between them by studying a recent instance of casuistic stretching: the libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving against Penguin Publishers and Deborah Lipstadt.

David Irving is a prominent Holocaust denier/British writer who was mentioned, briefly, in Lipstadt's 1993 Denying the Holocaust. In July, 1996, he sued both Lipstadt and her publishers, claiming that his career and reputation had been harmed when Lipstadt identified him as a key figure in Holocaust denial, or the global movement to rehabilitate the Nazis. In an attempt to turn the tables in his own favor, Irving chose to bring the suit in a British rather than American court because British libel laws favor the plaintiff: Lipstadt would have to prove that what she wrote was true, rather than Irving having to prove that it was deliberately false.

The trial began in London on January 11, 2000. Libel defense in a British court is always a difficult task; this trial, however, was a particularly important (and complicated) case (Hasian, "Holocaust" 130). Because Irving's main contention is that the gas chambers are a grand, conspiratorial hoax, Lipstadt needed to prove her own claims in particular and the reality of the Holocaust in general. In essence, this trial

was a battle neither side could afford to lose. Irving, who represented himself, risked his reputation as well as his livelihood. Defeat would mean professional ruin, and probable bankruptcy. For Lipstadt and her British publisher (and co-defendant) Penguin Books, the stakes were even higher. Irving's strategy of putting the Holocaust itself on trial meant that Lipstadt and her lawyers had to defend not just her veracity, but the integrity of all of those caught up in the Nazi onslaught. (Guttenplan 2)

In an effort to move his version of the past into the limelight, Irving put history on trial, forcing Holocaust denial into a legal and academic position ostensibly equal to careful historical methodology. Challenging historians to meet him in a courtroom, Irving provided deniers a potential entree to legitimate historical discussions. Had Irving prevailed, the veracity of historical facts that most of us take for granted-that Hitler killed millions, that the Nazi factory of death was frightening, bureaucratic and efficient, that European Jews were decimated by a decade-long campaign to exterminate them (Guttenplan 2-3)-and the validity of accepted methods of historical research would have been seriously weakened. Such a ruling would have been a solid victory for deniers and a crushing blow to analytical historical methodology.

Studies of Holocaust denial as a persuasive and dangerous rhetoric cannot be overvalued. Because history is revised constantly (properly so, as new discoveries are made), critical historical investigation is a protean, mutable pursuit. Holocaust denial becomes increasingly convincing against the contemporary backdrop of historical revision. Pierre Vidal-Naquet argues that historical and rhetorical changes in the language used to describe genocidal events turn genocide into a spectacle, a pure language event better fit for mass consumption (98). This does not prevent assessment of changes in denial rhetoric; instead, critics and consumers must recognize and adapt to shifts in historical understanding of the Holocaust.

As time passes, carrying us farther from the epiphanic moments of the 1940s and 1950s, we can rely no longer on familiar routes of perception; as Holocaust deniers renovate their language and reconstruct their images, we must be vigilant in our evaluation of their rhetorical and political moves. Michael Marrus defines the difficulties facing historians and scholars: "In time, as a result [of the deaths of survivors and witnesses], the mystification [surrounding the Holocaust] will be dispelled and is bound to be replaced by the historical perspective. Doubtless some of the exercises that result will be misguided. But the alternative, silence, is surely the counsel of despair-yielding the field to falsification or oblivion" (7). Despite the possibility of misdirection, an ongoing process of adaptation seems a safer, more legitimate course than acquiescing to politically driven assaults on history.

One form of vigilance consists in thorough examination of the Holocaust denial movement's language and arguments (Hasian, "Canadian" 44, 48). In doing so, we necessarily enter the realm of casuistry, which is necessary to language but ethically slippery. With an eye to the tensions between necessary situational adaptation and ethical reasoning, I explore casuistry in three places: argument theory, historical research, and Holocaust denial. First, I provide a more expansive description of casuistry. Next I examine the function of casuistry in scholarly historical research. Finally, I examine an instance of casuistry used for ill: David Irving's closing remarks at trial. By comparing the ethical practice of casuistry, in historical research, with its unethical practice, in denial casuistry, I hope to illuminate some methods available to analyze and evaluate casuistry in discussions of the past.


A form of reasoning located between the logical pull of precedent and the moral push of situational appropriateness, casuistry superbly reveals argument and conviction at work. To argue successfully (e.g., to convince an audience), one must pinpoint and activate connections between historical precedent (warrant) and situational understanding (claim). A good arguer, unlike a good analytic philosopher, must be a good casuist. And, despite the latter's claims, a good casuist is not necessarily morally bankrupt (Strong 327). Situational reasoning, however, is fraught with ethical dangers (see McKinney; Miller). In order to reason well casuistically, one must compare and contrast historical decisions and judgments with novel situations. (3)

Scholars long have acknowledged the simultaneous value and danger of casuistic stretching. Plato viewed casuistry as "a deviation and a deficiency, due to the imperfect way in which worldly reality embodies and represents the ideal, whereas for Aristotle the exception, far from weakening the law, actually improves and corrects it" (Mahoney 235-36). Because he, unlike Plato, separated the theoretical from the practical, Aristotle viewed case-by-case reasoning as "corrective of both a legalistic literalism and an overly legalistic severity" (McKinney 466). This dilemma still lies at the heart of the contemporary debate about casuistry. (4) Carson Strong proposes that casuistry, rather than top-down reasoning from principles, is central to moral decision making: "When casuistry is used (and is successful), for example, it is the casuistic reasoning that brings one to a decision about how to assign priorities; only then is one in a position to proceed with the task of deciding how the principles ought to be specified" (327). Unlike "idealized," "atemporal," and "necessary" concerns like geometry, practical matters are sticky and inelegant (Jonsen and Toulmin 25-28). As a rhetorical response to exigency, situational reasoning shapes not only moral discussion and decision making but also the ways in which these decisions are implemented. A study of casuistry includes both the method and results of situational reasoning. To show how method and results are inextricably linked, let us turn now to the question of how to talk about history ethically.


As an argumentative endeavor, history must be both appropriate and convincing. Appropriateness is required because the very nature of historical investigation involves questioning, revision, and redirection. Historiography, the story of history, puts the events of the past into a narrative that brings levels of meaning and importance to events that depend upon their manner of selection and description and the audience to whom they are presented. History as story must adhere to certain ethical standards created and maintained by historians-historiography, in other words, is the practice of explaining history appropriately. History as story also must respond to the exigency of the human desire for understanding: historians, who study historical events, craft descriptions of these events, and present these descriptions to appropriate audiences, must deliver fitting responses.

History as argument also must convince (Alonso 8). Conviction comes in part from the language of history; historians exercise a language of scientific reasoning, from which their ethos derives (Najarian 80). Citing evidence, employing proofs based on this evidence, and reasoning soundly, historians and historiographers assume the responsibility of telling us what happened, when it happened, and why.

Kenneth Burke proposed that history could not be told or understood without the judicious application of casuistry. Casuistry, to Burke, is more than a mode of moral reasoning: it is a necessary function of language, involving the deliberate bending of an argument's topic and scope. Casuistries engage in varying degrees of rhetorical manipulation, promoting changes in thinking, belief, and interpretation:

The general and the particular directions of rhetoric overlap insofar as all unique cases will necessarily involve the application of the universal topics to the particular matter at hand, and insofar as even situations considered very broadly may possess uniqueness. (Since any one particular era in history, for instance, will be unlike any other in its exact combination of cultural factors, historiography seems naturally vowed to a measure of rhetorical casuistry, however scientific may be the pretensions of historians, economists, sociologists, etc., though the scientific pretensions themselves might be less effective rhetorically if such enterprise were formally recognized as involved in the rhetoric of casuistry.) (Grammar 596-97, emphasis added)

Historiography requires a kind of casuistic reasoning: historians constantly revise narratives of events as they uncover new information and documentation.

Such mutability of casuistic reasoning lends itself to casuistic stretching, which Burke defines as "introduc[ing] new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles" (Attitudes 229). Examples of casuistic stretching include definition and redefinition, the "transference of words from one category of associations to another" and unification of opposites such as "morality and amorality" in a "higher abstraction" (Attitudes 230-32). "The process of casuistic stretching," Burke admonishes, "must itself be subjected to continually conscious attention" (Attitudes 232). Casuistic stretching is unavoidable-it is a symptom of language, the process of naming, defining, and categorizing elements of our world. As Burke notes, such omnipresence demands care. To use language and casuistry ethically (especially in situation-to-situation reasoning), speakers and arguers must be conscious of both how casuistry is working in language and what those casuistic stretchings are doing to the language they create.

The story of history is a story of shifting motives and meaning. History, to Burke, is a group of "collective poems"--a series of creations and explanations. In order to study those collective poems successfully, we must examine "the productive and mental patterns developed by aggregates" because no history stands by itself: the collectivity of these poems is the key (Attitudes 111). Every story of the past builds (or depends) upon the stories that came before and after it. In a move from individual strategies to collective ones, the emphasis shifts from the "poetic to the historical" (Attitudes 111). The fluidity of history is a point of interest for Burke; he explores the concept that an ending of one story becomes the beginning of another tale. (5) These perspectival shifts demonstrate the casuistic stretch of historiography. He tells the story of historical understanding as if it were a play in several acts, moving reasonably from scene to scene. The emphasis in these historical scenes, then, is on the idea of reasonable movement.

That history constantly is constructed and reconstructed is, at this point, fairly obvious. (6) The goal of this essay is not to re-cover that ground. Instead, we should pay attention to the connections among and collections of historical events. History, made into a long, continuous narrative, is the performance of reasonable connections-between actors, between events, between wars, between catastrophes. For Burke, the human endeavor is to explain with reasons the way the world works. History is one way of doing that. Without casuistry, the connections between what was and what is could not be seen. That is a great power (Hasian and Frank 97). But, Burke warns us, that power carries heavy responsibility, and telling history is one of those responsibilities we must bear ethically. Legitimate historians accept this responsibility:

Historians are the ones who should be described as revisionists. To receive a Ph.D. and become a professional historian, one must write an original work with research based on primary documents and new sources ... revising knowledge about that event only ... Holocaust deniers claim that there is a force field of dogma around the Holocaust ... Nothing could be further from the truth. (Shermer and Grobman xvi)

Holocaust deniers cite such revisions as "proof" that the Holocaust did not occur and that the promulgation of Holocaust studies is part of a Zionist conspiracy in academe. Because there is constant revision, deniers say, there is constant deception. But historiography is necessarily casuistic: history depends upon reinterpretation and evaluation, which need not be deceptive. Evaluation of casuistic argument is difficult, therefore, because it often hinges on the arguer's motivations rather than the argument's form. However, just as casuistry does not mean deception, difficult does not mean impossible. Therefore, in the following case study, I explore the differences between historical casuistry done ethically and denier casuistry done deceptively.


Consideration of the rhetorical and perceptual effects of history on our understanding of the present brings us to Irving's libel suit. Initially, it is important to understand the elements of Holocaust denial, which Richard j. Evans defines as

a thin but seemingly continuous line of writing since the Second World War that has sought to deny the existence of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other extermination camps, to minimize the murder of Jews killed by the Nazis until it becomes equivalent to that of the Germans killed by the Allies, to explain away the killings as incidental by-products of a vicious war rather than the result of central planning in Berlin, and to claim that the evidence for the extermination, the gas chambers, and all the rest of it had mostly been concocted after the war. (1-2) (7)

Denial rhetoric often is assumed to be totally illogical. In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut likens the totalitarian mind "unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine ... whirls with the jerky, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell ... The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten year olds" (162). Such a simplistic understanding of Holocaust denial should be avoided. As I demonstrate below, denial arguments have grown increasingly sophisticated, supple, and dangerous.

The antecedents of contemporary Holocaust denial lie in a seemingly unrelated event-the First World War. Holocaust denial is an outgrowth of World War I revisionism. After the conclusion of the Great War, a group of disenchanted historians began to question the validity of the victors' version of events. Some members of this group were apologists for Germany while others merely sought less propagandistic ways of describing events. In any event, there were arguably legitimate reasons to question the dominant interpretation of events. The victors, revisionists concluded, had exaggerated, or even falsified, much evidence of German atrocities in an effort to increase political power, facilitate economic recovery, and fortify national pride:

[World War I] revisionists did not just exonerate Germany; they excoriated [the victors], accusing them of behaving duplicitously before and after the war. In their view, the British and French, anxious to lure the United States into the war, prevented it from learning about the very real German desire for peace and the "reasonable and statesmanlike" proposals offered by the Germans in order to avert war ... According to the revisionists, even when World War I ended the ]victors] continued to behave in a deceptive fashion and refused to consider evidence that contradicted the notion of sole German war guilt. (Lipstadt 33)

Although some of their research was biased and incorrect, "much of the revisionist argument was historically quite sound" (Lipstadt 33).

These doubts surrounding German atrocities during World War I set the stage for Holocaust denial following World War II. After all, couldn't these incredible charges of extermination of the Jews be equally untrue? The earliest deniers might better be called Holocaust defenders. People like Paul Rassinier, Maurice Bardeche (prominent French fascists), Austin J. App, and Harry Elmer Barnes were intent on defending Nazi anti-Semitism. (8) For the first two or three decades after the war, they formulated moral apologias for the debilitated country of Germany. They also launched outright attacks on the Jewish people: "Distorting the truth, they blamed Jews for Germany's financial and political plight and made the wildly exaggerated claim that Jews had been the prime beneficiaries of the chaos of Weimar. Jews were disloyal citizens, likely to be subversive and spies" (Lipstadt 52). These early deniers exploited a general miasma of disbelief (especially in the United States) surrounding revelations about National Socialist activities during the war. Rather than denying the Holocaust, they justified it.

Many contemporary arguments proceed from these earliest instances of Holocaust denial (Lipstadt 47-55). The motives of the denial movement, however, have evolved over time. As details of the camps became more widely known and accepted, a second wave of deniers realized that pretending that the Nazis were right (rather than anti-Semitic) no longer was tenable and brought their own motives into disrepute: "So, instead, they began to 'concede' that the Nazis were anti-Semitic. They even claimed to deplore anti-Semitism, all the while engaging in it themselves. They acknowledged that some Jews may have died as a result of Nazi mistreatment but continued to argue that there was no Holocaust" (Lipstadt 52). In short, more recent deniers have adopted an argumentative strategy of imitation and distraction. Rather than defense and attack, they strive to maintain an air of objectivity while playing upon the old biases and prejudices of uninformed audiences.

This second wave of deniers is, arguably, represented in the person of David Irving. There are three reasons to treat Irving as an exemplar of contemporary denial. First, Irving exemplifies the tactics of denial. In a thorough examination of his career, Richard Evans shows how Irving's conclusions have changed over the past two decades (104-48). In his first works about the war, Irving discussed the import and impact of Nazi death machinery. His Hitler's War, first published in 1977, has been reprinted several times. The 1991 version does not refer to either death camps or a Nazi program of Jewish extermination (Evans 111). Such omissions are fundamental to Holocaust denial.

In addition, that Irving has worked as a historian for decades makes him a bridge between historical and denial casuistries. To demonstrate the argumentative differences between these two kinds of casuistries, it is helpful to observe them in the same person. It is easier to notice these differences when, as it were, they stand next to one another.

A final reason to study Irving as representative of denial argumentation is that the libel trial was a key moment. The trial was much discussed among historians, journalists, rhetoricians, and legal theorists (Evans 238-65). Further, British libel laws turned the trial into a test not only of the Holocaust but of historical method. A judgment for Irving would have dealt a terrible blow not only to the memory of survivors and victims but to historical methodology: "[I]t was not [just] memory that triumphed, and it was not merely the evidence of tens of thousands of witnesses that was vindicated. For the judgment was above all.., a victory for history, for historical truth and historical scholarship" (Evans 265). Although Irving did not prevail, his arguments still may convince. That the concerted efforts of professional historians were needed to disprove them emphasizes the danger of Irving's arguments: "The potential readers of Irving's books are in no way trained historians. He wrote and writes for people who interest themselves in the Second World War in their spare time" (Eva Menasses, qtd. in Evans 265).


I examine two forms of denial casuistry in Irving's closing remarks at trial. First, I analyze the denial casuistry of Method, which employs a myopic method of particularization in which idiosyncratic conclusions and isolated bits of evidence are more reliable than consensus reached through peer review. Second, I analyze the denial casuistry of Redefinition, which involves bending analogies and stretching labels. Each of these casuistries reflects larger denial goals (explained above). Moreover, each relies on the other: in order to redefine historical terms, deniers must attack historical method and, in order to attack historical method, deniers must question and problematize labels.


The defense's goal at trial was to prove that Irving is, in fact, a Holocaust denier; Irving's goal, on the other hand, was to prove his historical credentials (Evans 205). The defense needed to demonstrate that Irving does not engage in historical casuistry and, instead, employs denial casuistry. The fundamental rhetorical issue, therefore, concerns the methodology of history.

In his closing remarks, Irving both attacks others' historical methods and defends his own research. His remarks casuistically stretch the meaning of method: historical casuistry depends upon expert agreement while denial casuistry privileges individual conclusions. Irving contends:

These Defendants have reportedly spent some $6 million, and 20 man-years or more, in researching this case: this blinding and expensive spotlight has been focused on the narrowest of issues, yet it has still generated more noise than illumination. I heard the expert witnesses who were paraded before us use phrases like the "consensus of expert opinion" as their source so often-in fact, I did a check, the word "consensus" occurs 40 times in the daily transcripts of this trial-that I began to wonder what the archives were for. I suggest that these experts were more expert in reporting each other's opinions and those of people who agree with them than in what the archives actually contain and what they do not contain which is equally important. ("Shofar" 65)

Here Irving draws attention to the difficulties of historical scholarship but, rather than acknowledging how individual scholars face these difficulties, he rebukes other historians for merely reporting each others' opinions. Historical casuistry employs peer review; although nothing in history is indisputable, conclusions can be generally agreed upon. Irving's reliance on individual interpretation negates the value of peer review in safeguarding research, checking facts, and reaching consensus. Denial casuistry, instead, enables dismissal of documents, erasure of contrary evidence, and silencing of opposing viewpoints.

Unlike the peer-review method of historical casuistry, denial casuistry is myopic. Its preoccupation with individual notes, diaries, and personal translations, and its acceptance of solitary (as opposed to collaborative) research, produce a kind of insular history. Although the historical casuist must investigate these materials as well, she will not limit her study to them. Nor will she be satisfied with her personal interpretations. Individual interpretations have a place in any discussion of history, but these interpretations must be validated within a larger pursuit of consensus. What one person may miss, others may see.

Later, Irving invokes reluctant testimony in service of a tu quoque argument:

[A] somewhat reluctant and even curmudgeonly Professor Donald Watt ... used these words: "I must say, I hope that I am never subjected to the kind of examination that Mr. Irving's books have been subjected to by the defence witnesses. I have a very strong feeling that there are other senior historical figures, including some to whom I owed a great deal of my own career, whose work would not stand up, or not all of whose work would stand up, to this kind of examination."

I am not throwing myself on the charity of this court, my Lord, but I am asking that the court should be reasonable in the standards that it sets. That effectively is a line that Professor Watt has supported me in. It is fair to say, of course, that I had to subpoena Donald Watt ... What he was saying was that whatever mistakes or whatever unconventional interpretations of mine, the Defendants have revealed with their multi-million dollar research, and I am going to admit some mistakes that I have made, not many, this does not invalidate me as an historian, or my historical methods and conclusions. ("Shofar" 67)

His repeated references to the defense's costly research position Irving as a "dissident historian" (Guttenplan 28) outmanned by wealthy opponents. Interestingly, invoking Watt's testimony cuts against Irving's dismissal of historical consensus; enlisting Watt in his cause casuistically stretches his own position on historical method in order to suit his interests.

Importantly, Watt's statement is invoked in order to suggest that all historians make mistakes. In the face of direct challenge, denial casuistry often resorts to claiming the invariably human element in, and fallibility of, historical research. Irving emphasizes the "humanness" of historical methods, suggesting that others have made so many mistakes that they cannot see the truth: there were no gas chambers. Many historians who are very active in the field of Holocaust historiography testified for the defense. Irving, in turn, cross-examined them. The incomprehensibility of Nazi actions and our own beliefs about human interaction put these defense witnesses in a difficult position: "The truth is that nothing about Auschwitz is easy, even today. The sheer scale of killing is difficult for the mind to grasp" (Guttenplan 182).

In a standard denial move (Guttenplan 28), Irving also defends his own method as the vital one:

A judgment rendered against me will make this paralysis in the writing of history definitive; from then on, no one will dare to discuss who exactly was involved in each stage of the Holocaust-rather like in Germany now, you cannot do it any more-or how extensive it was. From then on, discussion will revolve around "safe" subjects, like sacred texts in the Middle Ages, or Marx in the old Soviet Union, or the Koran in some fundamentalist state today. Every historian will know that his critique needs to stop sharply at the boundaries defined by certain authorities. He will have a choice; accept the official version, holus-bolus; or stop being an historian. ("Shofar" 51)

Here Irving portrays himself as the lone voice of reason, one who dares to swim against the tide of enforced conformism by investigating, no matter where such investigation may lead. As Shermer and Grobman observe, however, historical casuistry by nature questions and revises knowledge of the past. Construing the current, bottom-up consensus among historians as top-down, "official" dogma casuistically stretches the former in ways both untrue and unhelpful. First, what constitutes a "safe" subject is unclear. Medieval texts, Marxism, and so on, remain valid and important subjects of inquiry and debate. Second, equating Lipstadt's personal comment that Irving is a Holocaust denier with Germany's legal limitations on hate speech is, quite literally, a stretch.

A final denial casuistry of method is functional: instead of responding, in print or at conferences, to charges of academic malpractice, deniers sue. Remembering that Irving is the plaintiff, the one who seeks to limit free speech, is vital to understanding this maneuver. Irving accuses the defense of abrogating his right to free speech, painting himself as the victim, when, in fact, he is the one who forced the issue:

I had to pinch myself to recall that it was Irving who had launched the court case; Irving who was attempting to silence his critics; Irving who wanted a book withdrawn from circulation and pulped, its author and publisher ordered to pay him damages and costs, and undertakings given that the criticisms they made of his work should never be repeated. Defending yourself in these circumstances is a matter of necessity, not a matter of choice. (Evans 27)

Historical casuistry is debated in print and on paper; rarely do historians seek to resolve historiographic disagreements in court. Taking the matter to court casuistically stretches the process of academic research into an adversarial one. In the libel trial, Irving's attack on historical method took the form of a legal challenge to free speech, disguised as a defense of it.


Casuistry, as Jonsen and Toulmin describe it, reasons about both process and situation. Historical casuistry acknowledges that previous conclusions and discoveries must be consulted. Historians engage in debate and discussion in order to understand past events (Evans 18-19). Denial casuistry, however, is preoccupied with the present, especially the current, allegedly hostile, political climate. Irving's closing remarks consistently redefine the issue, shifting the court's attention from past events to present politics.

First, Irving shifts attention from the events of the Holocaust to a label:

The phrase "Holocaust denier", which the Second Defendant boasts of having invented, is an Orwellian stigma. It is not a very helpful phrase. It does not diminish or extend thought or knowledge on this tragic subject. Its universal adoption within the space of a few years by media, academia government [sic] and even academics seems to indicate something of the international endeavour of which I shall shortly make brief mention. It is, in my submission, a key to the whole case. ("Shofar" 65)

Here Irving features the label in order simultaneously to belittle it (as "unhelpful") and emphasize its danger (as "Orwellian"). Lipstadt's label, he implies, diminishes not only his standing as a historian but historiography itself: this "unhelpful" phrase extends neither "thought [n]or knowledge." Finally, just as he dismissed the consensus of scholarly opinion about the Holocaust, here Irving criticizes the label's popularity. Its "universal adoption" does not make the label true; on the contrary, it signals an "international endeavor"-read: conspiracy--to silence historians like him.

Next, Irving emphasizes Hitler's innocence:

Allow me to rub this point in: What I actually wrote and printed and published in my flagship study [Hitler's War] was that Hitler was clearly responsible for the Holocaust both by virtue of being head of state and by having done so much by his speeches and organisation to start it off.

Where I differed from many historians was in denying that there was any documentary proof of detailed direction and initiation of the mass murders by Hitler, and I am glad to say two months in that respect has not brought us any closer. The view was considered to be heretical at the time. But this lack of wartime documentary evidence for Hitler's involvement is now widely accepted. ("Shofar" 73)

This presentation illustrates deniers' myopic near-obsession with the "wartime documents" that could assign blame. Irving's allegation redefines not only "wartime documentary evidence" but also "involvement" and "responsibility." Irving implies that his opponents must be part of a great conspiracy to fabricate the Holocaust because Hitler left no note saying, "I did it." What would an admission of guilt look like? What would wartime documentary evidence demonstrating Hitler's "direction and initiation" of the slaughter need to say? (9)

Later, Irving again shifts attention from history to present events, this time to attacks on him and his family:

By that time my family and I had been subjected to a catalogue of insults by the leaders of these various bodies. If a writer's books are banned and burnt, his bookshops are smashed, his hands are manacled, his person insulted, his printers are burnt down, his access to the world's archives is denied, his family's livelihood is destroyed, his phone lines are jammed with obscene and threatening phone calls, death threats, his house is beset by violent, angry mobs, the walls and posts around his address are plastered with stickers inciting the public to violence against him ... then it ill-behoves [sic] people to offer cheap criticism if the writer finally commits the occasional indiscretion and lapse in referring to the people who are doing it to him. ("Shofar" 186-87)

This passage is rich with redefinition and redirection. Irving describes his persecution at the hands of vague and numerous enemies. This time, his self-portrait as a besieged defender of truth and free speech enlists the imagery of the pogroms and Krystallnacht. His reference to "cheap criticism" is another attempt to belittle the denier label rather than disprove it.

Finally, Irving's statement works to highlight the dangerous and unprofessional responses to his scholarship--he is attacked and threatened, on a variety of levels, by the "people" (read: Jews) he occasionally refers to in a derogatory manner. This excerpt is a simultaneous rejection and defense of Irving's past anti-Semitic remarks. (l0) Obvious racism, he knows, makes his criticism weak; however, if he can prove the conspiracy claims (that he is, in fact, being persecuted by a particular group of people), then his historical interpretation might not seem so unhinged. The turn in this quotation is a tricky one for Irving: he must demonstrate the ongoing attacks by Jews and substantiate these claims with proof of their deliberate attacks on his person and scholarship. Therefore, he redefines his attackers as "those people" and "leaders of these various bodies." Throughout the trial, Irving tried to draw attention to the Jewishness of the defense. Evans, referring to the unique situation faced by the defense in finding credible historian-witnesses, writes, "Regrettable though it was, there was clearly something to be said for ensuring that most of them were not Jewish, since Irving would undoubtedly try to make something out of it if they were" (29). The essay mentions that denial casuistry is driven by anti-Semitism-this quotation is an attempted redefinition of that anti-Semitism. Irving, by contextualizing his hatred of "those people," attempts to redefine Lipstadt and Penguin as the attackers rather than the victims.


Casuistry assumes many forms and occurs in many contexts. Historiography must acknowledge the possibility of change in the historical record as new discoveries are made and old understandings are reevaluated. There is some danger in this, of course, and so new discoveries and interpretations must be tested against the conclusions of old, using accepted methods. Denial casuistry works differently. Whereas historical casuistry is a process of analysis and rebuttal, denial casuistry is a process of attack and questioning. Historical casuistry's goal is to bolster or challenge others' conclusions in an attempt to understand the past more completely and accurately. Denial casuistry's goal is to bolster or challenge others' humanity in an attempt to configure the present.

The arguments of Holocaust denial are important to study because they reveal both denial's method, such as its individualistic and myopic style of history, and its strategies of redefinition regarding, for example, what counts as evidence and who is the victim. These features, in turn, illuminate the motivations of the denial movement.

Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt offers a comparative case study of two very different forms of casuistic stretching because Irving takes pains to examine the process (and inevitable fallibility) of historical casuistry. But, whatever its risks, casuistry is unavoidable when studying the past. Denial casuistry, on the other hand, distracts from the past: it rejects accepted methods and the principle of consensus, and dismisses discussion and debate. Historical casuistry is the process of analyzing the past. Denial casuistry simulates ethical historiography in order to erase careful historical study.

Over the course of this project, I have found myself dangerously close to calling everything casuistry. I do not mean to do so. Any intellectual pursuit involves an element of situational reasoning: we must be willing to change our minds when better evidence comes along. But there is an ethical limit to mutability. To prevent the wholesale erasure of the past, certain tests and standards of evaluation are required. As biased and spotty as sometimes it may be, history is designed to stretch. If something is missing (or amiss), historical casuistry hopefully will notice. If there is prejudice, historians must call attention to it and locate it within the larger project of historiography itself. Denial casuistry can explain historiographic error only as proof of contemporary conspiracy.

By exploiting the casuistic nature of historiography--its application of situational reasoning in a search for fitting narratives-denial casuistry inserts itself into discussion and debate about the past. Certainly, we must be alert to the perils of such debate. At the same time, there is more to see than this one dark facet of casuistry. Future research might give greater consideration to casuistry's benefits. Much like medicine, biology, neurobiology, and medical ethics, the rhetoric of historiography deserves deeper exploration. As the ever-changing face of history shows, the quest for historical understanding is necessarily casuistic; the insidious encroachment of Holocaust denial is only one of many possibilities.


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(1) For a discussion of casuistry's ethics, see Jonsen and Toulmin's The Abuse of Casuistry. On the ancient debate surrounding rhetorical ethics, see Hyde's The Ethos of Rhetoric.

(2) Casuistic stretching is Kenneth Burke's term, which I discuss later in this section. To limit confusion, let us think of casuistry as an umbrella term for situational reasoning and casuistic stretching as the rhetorical mechanism that enables the bending of meaning and exchange of qualities. If metaphorical language is casuistic, then the mechanism by which its meaning is bent is simile. Similes, that is, casuistically stretch metaphorical meaning.

(3) Legal decisions exemplify casuistry in action: each decision must consider both precedent and current situation. Casuistry also is a kind of job requirement in scholarly research, especially in historical research. Our understanding of the past is never cemented; we are always exploring the ins and outs of the past in order better to understand its relation to our present situation. I unpack the relationship between casuistry and history subsequently.

(4) The definition of rhetoric at work in this project is Cicero's: "The duty of an orator is to speak in a style fitted to convince lad persuadendum accommodate]" (I, xxxi, 138). This definition has the virtue that it includes ideas of propriety as well as conviction, both of which are situational (casuistic) in nature.

(5) In "The Rhetorics of the Past: History, Argument, and Collective Memory," Gronbeck explores the rhetorical fluidity required to make history a narrative: "Key to narrativization is the casting of a context that frames the historical enterprise generally and seemingly identifies and organizes a series of past events so that they can be.. bound together into a story" (52).

(6) E. Culpepper Clark and Raymie McKerrow discuss the rhetorical nature of history as story: "[H]istory's grip is ontological, not in any essentialist way ... but rather from an argumentative perspective. The way the discourse is constructed establishes its ontology. Because history is chronological, it is presumed to be causal ... [E]xpressed history is rhetoric and ... as a rhetorical construction, history is allied, albeit tenuously, with the fictive arts" (33-34).

(7) Holocaust denial's anti-Semitism is fundamental (Lipstadt 57). Denial rhetoric excoriates and implicates the Jewish people as a collective. All other motivations, including opposition to democracy, anti-Americanism, pro-fascist political agendas, and apologias for Germany and the National Socialists, are subordinate.

(8) Several key players in the early denial movement originally were World War I revisionists. Barnes was the most prominent "direct link between the two generations of American revisionists and the Holocaust deniers" (Lipstadt 67). For further discussion of these deniers, see Lipstadt, especially ch. 1-2.

(9) Continuing, Irving reiterates part of his cross-examination of Richard Evans, demanding, again and again, the "wartime documents" that prove the existence of gas chambers, and demanding to know where these documents might be found ("Shofar" 74). Irving persists in demanding a vast quantity of documents without ever indicating what those documents would need to look like in order to satisfy him.

(10) Previously, Irving is said to have claimed that more people died in the back of Ted Kennedy's car than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Although this is a paraphrase, both Lipstadt and Evans mention Irving's references to Jews as liars and conspirators. This quotation is only one instance of his constant anti-Semitism.

Jaime Wright, Department of Communication Studies, University of Texas at Austin. Jaime Wright is now at Department of Speech, Communication Sciences, and Theatre, St. John's University. A previous version of this essay received a top paper award from the Argumentation and Forensics Division at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, Boston, MA, November, 2005. The author would like to thank Randall Lake and the anonymous reviewers for their help and suggestions. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jaime Wright, Department of Speech, Communication Sciences, and Theatre, St. John's University, SJH 344B, 8000 Utopia Parkway, Queens, New York 11439. E-mail:
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Date:Sep 22, 2006
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