Wednesday 24 March 2010
The Arithmetic of Death
Stalin is reputed to have said that one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. I suppose it's possible for one to relate to the sentiments behind this statement. After all, it's about the limits of human imagination, the limits of empathy. I can understand a single death; a million deaths is beyond me.
On a recent blog on the question of the Armenian massacres of 1915 I wrote "I think it wrong to reduce the debate to numbers; it’s just as terrible if a ‘mere’ 300,000 Armenians died rather than 1.5 million, a figure favoured by those who define the event as genocide." On reflection, and thinking beyond that particular historical example, there are issues to be considered; that numbers, precision in numbers, are important if one is to avoid sinking into a bog of relativism, or into a haze were one figure is no more meaningful than another.
Recently Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, was asked why the arithmetic of mass murder was so important he replied-"There is if you don't want to surrender to nihilism entirely the matter of a record. Does the record matter? In my judgement it does." Now a German historical commission has established, after a five year investigation, that the number who died in the bombing of Dresden in the air raid of February 1945 was around 25,000, as precise a figure as we are ever likely to get.
Yes, it's still shocking, as Peter Beaumont said in recent a press report, but it's still a long way short of the 135,000 given by David Irving in his 1963 historical pot-boiler The Destruction of Dresden. This figure has long been under challenge by historians a lot more credible than Irving, who, as has become increasingly clear over time, writes with a specific political agenda in mind.
The sad thing is Irving has considerable skills both as a writer and as a researcher, almost seductively so, but these have now taken second place to his politics. He's a Holocaust-denier and an apologist for the Nazi regime. His invention of the death toll at Dresden, and it is pure invention, a figure he may very well have conjured out of the air, was to serve those who have attempted to establish a kind of moral equivalence between Allied and German crimes.
Accurate accounting is, indeed, part of the process of historical understanding.