Brian O’Higgins and Holocaust denial

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—As Mr Handley has now published two letters accusing me of deliberately slandering the late Brian O’Higgins and of doing so from political motives, and is now dragging the good name of the Dictionary of Irish Biography into the matter, I feel obliged to respond.

In the second of these letters, Handley says, ‘Not having a Dictionary of Irish Biography to hand, I am unable to check whether O’Higgins is labelled a Holocaust denier in its illustrious pages, but I am sure he is’. Handley’s certainty is misplaced; he isn’t. I know, because I wrote the relevant article.

My DIB entry on Brian O’Higgins was submitted in the early stages of production, when we had less space and scope to explore detail than in entries submitted later. I have long had an interest in Brian O’Higgins, have felt that he has been neglected by academics and have wanted to write something about him. Although pressure of other work has kept me from engaging in detailed research, I have over time built up a collection of odd copies of the Wolfe Tone Annual, and when some time ago the editor of History Ireland asked me to write something on O’Higgins and the Annual I saw an opportunity to go over them and produce a ‘work in progress’ piece as a step towards a more substantial analysis. It was while undertaking this reading that I came across the passage which I quoted from the 1948 Wolfe Tone Annual.

Above: Brian O’Higgins, editor of the Wolfe Tone Annual.

I accept that this passage does not have some characteristics of Holocaust denial as the term is usually employed. (I have occasionally read such literature for the purpose of analysis, though my stomach cannot stand very much of it.) O’Higgins does not engage in the sort of indignant moralism combined with barely concealed gloating over the victims found in such literature, nor does he display the sort of obsessive anti-semitism found in such figures as William Joyce or Fr Denis Fahey. (O’Higgins’s portrayal of a Jew—prosecuted for having his name in Irish on a cart by a policeman who cannot distinguish Irish from Hebrew—as a funny foreigner with a funny accent in his pre-First World War satirical ballad ‘Moses Ritooralalay’ may be in questionable taste, but it is nowhere near that level.) Nor is he singling out the Jews among the victims of the Nazis (the best-known newsreels, from detention camps in Western Europe such as Belsen, included large numbers of non-Jewish victims).

On the other hand, he does display other characteristics of Holocaust denial. Such writers make it one of their first aims to discredit the newsreel evidence because it is so graphic, and they do so by taking a conspiratorial approach that takes it for granted that the material was faked by the Allies and that those who believe in its authenticity are hopelessly naïve. They do this to ensnare those who are not, at least at first, conscious liars as they are, but who from a variety of motives—including prejudice and wishful thinking—are guilty of ‘denial’ in the sense of refusal to face unpleasant facts. It is in that sense that the passage I quoted from O’Higgins constitutes Holocaust denial.

I would add that Handley’s description of O’Higgins’s reaction to the newsreels as ‘scepticism’ in the second letter is misplaced. Scepticism implies suspension of judgement while awaiting further evidence; O’Higgins roundly declares that the newsreels were ‘manufactured … as part of their war of revenge on defeated peoples, their successful propaganda for the blackening of their enemies’, refers to Belsen as a ‘torture camp’ in inverted commas and dismisses as ‘credulous’ anyone who believes in their authenticity. Such an attitude may have been understandable in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of the camps, given the history of war propaganda, but the piece that I quoted was written and published by O’Higgins two to three years after the end of the war, after the Nuremberg Trials had taken place and large numbers of survivors and witnesses—including Irish doctors and clerics who attended the victims—had testified. If this is scepticism then the businessmen who ‘bought’ the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge were sceptics. I leave it to your readers to judge Handley’s view that I have insulted the victims of the Holocaust by describing, on the basis of stated evidence, that O’Higgins engaged in Holocaust denial but that O’Higgins did not insult them by implying that their sufferings were fabricated by the British.

I may be mistaken in my interpretation of the data that I have presented and the analysis that I describe, and, if so, I am ready to be corrected; but Handley does not even examine the possibility that I am mistaken in good faith but jumps straight to the assertion that I am slandering O’Higgins from political motives. Let me say straight away that I do not agree with O’Higgins’s political views, but also that in my work for the Dictionary of Irish Biography I have to deal with a great many people of varying beliefs and careers, and that it is a matter of professional ethics to try to understand how they saw themselves and why they acted as they did rather than condescending to them. The existing academic literature on O’Higgins generally treats him as a mere simple-minded traditionalist; my article places him in a tradition of popular history going back to Young Ireland, links his political beliefs to contact with Famine survivor relatives, and points out that he was quite well read in nationalist literature and made criticisms—some of them legitimate, and shared by later professional historians—of individuals and material with which he disagreed, and that he made considerable sacrifices for his beliefs. Handley may call this ‘damning with faint praise’ in the first letter; I call it trying to strike a balanced judgment. Once again, I leave it to your readers to judge between us on the basis of what we have published.

I apologise to readers for taking up so much space with this reply, but to read the evidence, to think about it and to present it is a lengthy business.—Yours etc.,

Dictionary of Irish Biography


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