Over on Twitter – as ever, a reliable source of evidence to confirm one’s most pessimistic, dark-night-of-the-soul judgements on humanity – an alleged artist is protesting loudly about being banned from the Edinburgh Fringe for being “too political” in her support of Palestine and criticism of Israel using the delightful hashtag #holohoax. A supporter responded to a critical tweet by demanding to know whether the critic had ever properly looked into the claims of Revisionists, attaching a link to a video of a lecture by David Irving with the hashtag #thucydides – and responded to a criticism of that by yours truly with the line “Revisionist history is not smearing, ask Thucydides if his histories concur with Cleons?”
I’m not sure if this is the first time that Thucydides has been expressly evoked in the cause of Holocaust denial (there are some significant examples of engagement with his ideas in the literature on the historiography of the Holocaust, above all the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet – one of the things on my ‘to do’ list is writing up my paper from a conference in Strasbourg that looks at some of this and the wider ‘historiography of trauma’ theme) but it does seem all too depressingly obvious. Just as the term “revisionist history” is intended to make the enterprise seem virtuous and indeed authoritative – proper historians look at accounts critically and revise existing views constantly, so clearly it’s the partisans of the Holohoax who are abandoning professional standards of objectivity in favour of politically-motivated dogma – so David Irving is placed in the tradition of the sceptical and impartial Thucydides, refusing to accept received wisdom but insisting on questioning everything without fear or favour. Dissension from mainstream opinion thus becomes a sign of one’s fearless independence and hence trustworthiness.
Of course this works best if you don’t know much about Thucydides besides his inherited reputation for objectivity and reliability. Certainly his account of events differed from that of Cleon – but Cleon made no claims to be any sort of historian, and more importantly it is precisely Thucydides’ depiction of Cleon where many commentators have felt most concerned about whether he was as objective as he claimed. Somehow I don’t think that the intended message was “Revisionist history is like Thucydides: a politically-motivated hatchet job masquerading as a reliable historical account”. Thucydides is a more ambiguous and problematic example than a simplistic evocation of his reputation tends to recognise; is his demolition job on the story of the Athenian tyrannicides a noble exercise of critical historiography, concerned solely with the truth, or an underhand oligarchic assault on one of the founding myths of democracy – or, most obviously, both?