The Ivory Tower
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|Martin Barillas||August 8th 2016|
History Network News
On July 20 at 4:15 PM ET, New York Times bestselling historian Edwin Black conducted a global Q-A conference call for readers of his syndicated investigation Nazi Policy and Black Victims—Before, During, and After the Holocaust— from Africa to Berlin to North Carolina. The 10,000-word opus ran in various highly-condensed lengths in about 30 publications, but was published in full by just a handful of long-form platforms such as History Network News, The Times of Israel, and Spero News. The teleconference may be the first time a historian has organized a global conference call to respond to reader questions on a published essay and comments. This reporter and Spero News monitored that session.
By way of background, Black is the author of numerous award-winning books such as IBM and the Holocaust, War Against the Weak, and The Farhud. Earlier this year he began researching in depth the impact of Nazi policy on Black victims before, during and after the Holocaust, spanning a century of genocidal and discriminatory episodes from the 1904-1908 Herero massacres of Southwest Africa to the post-WWI and post-WWII eugenic sterilization and persecution campaigns in the United States. In February 2016 Black delivered globally broadcast lectures on the topic at Michigan State University and University of Michigan, earning a Plaque of Tribute from the Michigan State legislature.
Black then expanded his research to create his syndicated 10,000-word essay. Many editors routinely inserted their own headlines, Black states. The HNN version prompted Iowa State University professor Jeremy Best, who specializes in the history of nineteenth-century German missionaries, to write a lengthy critique asserting Black intended to draw a direct line of causation between the genocide in Southwest Africa and the Holocaust. Black rejected this interpretation and offered to answer any questions from readers in the global conference call held July 20.
The invitation to readers to participate was circulated at HNN and through Black’s website and email list. At the appointed hour, approximately twenty callers joined the Q-A session. Participants identified themselves as coming from various states including Florida, Michigan, Georgia. Black began with an introduction of the topic, his intentions in writing the piece, the scope of the research, and the critique by Best that had prompted the call-in. According to Black, Best’s claim that he was trying to draw a direct line from German Southwest Africa to the Holocaust via a so-called Sonderweg, or Special Way, was a completely misguided interpretation.
From the outset, several of the callers attempted to ask Best about his credentials in Holocaust research or publication. The author explained that Best had not accepted the invitation to participate or ask questions, either by email or on the teleconference. Black said he did not know Best. He added that while Best’s departmental bio seemed to reflect good background in nineteenth German missionary studies, Black could not find any publications, original research, or lectures on the Holocaust by Best anywhere. The author invited anyone on the conference call, including Best himself, to proffer any details of any of his Holocaust research. When a caller asked Black about his own Holocaust credentials, the author recited a list of award-winning books and articles spanning a half-century.
For forty-five minutes, Black continued to answer questions from various callers, often giving internet locations for readers to verify information for themselves about the subject.
A reader prompted a discussion of Nazi leader Herman Goering’s conceptualization of the Herero genocide and his personal connection to Southwest Africa. Cautioning readers first to ignore Best’s hypothesis, Black explained that “Goering's father served as governor of Southwest Africa. While his tenure was before the organized genocide, Field Marshal Goering held the events of German Southwest Africa in high regard. He swore as much in his testimony at Nuremberg and bragged about it in his own official biography.” Black read from his work: Goering swore under oath that of the leading “points which are significant with relation to my later development,” he counted among the top four as “the position of my father as first Governor of Southwest Africa.”
Another caller asked which of the syndicated publications created the most impact. The author answered that the Times of Israel version was liked and shared more than 21,000 times, but HNN was influential as well.
One caller asked if Best had actually phoned Black to ask what his intentions were in writing the essay. The author answered, “Clearly, as one of my editors has suggested, Prof. Best and I are in ‘different worlds.’ I commonly phone historians about their published works to discover if any publishing, writing, or factual errors existed. Frequently, they tell me about mistakes, corrections, or updates. This is why the careful historian must check before he writes. That is the journalist in me. Had Prof. Best called me, I would have told him his interpretation was way off-base. He probably would have written a more factual critique—or none at all.”
During the conference call, Black was asked about the “Ivory Tower” quibble which Best had referred to in critiquing the essay. Black stated, it was “safe to hypothesize and offer guesswork from the comfort of the Ivory Tower, but at “the front line of documenting genocide and human rights abuses,” many historians were risking their own safety. “We just saw an attempted military coup in Turkey,” stated Black. “Now Turkey is trying to extradite its intellectual opponents from Germany and Pennsylvania. All those who write about the Armenian Genocide risk the wrath of the Turkish regime and now we see extradition requests which our government may honor. I remember a genocide researcher in Minnesota who was frivolously sued for writing about the Armenians—very expensive to fight back. I know a historian who wrote about Mufti of Jerusalem and the Arab-Nazi nexus and feared physical retaliation. I remember my own New York premiere of my book Banking on Baghdad. I was appearing in a small bookstore across from the New York Public Library. During my lecture, ten Turkish protestors unfurled a gigantic Turkish flag and angrily threatened me nose to nose to follow me from city to city. I advise Prof. Best to stay in the Ivory Tower. It’s much safer than challenging powerful corporations and hostile government regimes. Leave that to others,” said Black.
Several callers expressed unhappiness about the injection of race in the critique by Best. Black replied, “Race can never be a factor in historical analysis and should even not be brought up.” The human rights author offered a list of ethnic minorities and other targeted groups he had written about, including Armenians, Appalachians, Gypsies, African Americans, Yazidis, Sunni, Shia, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Middle East Christians, and many others in addition to more known works regarding the persecution of Jewish groups.
After the conference call, Black was asked what is next for the topic. He replied that the article was being submitted for the Pulitzer Prize, and the Rockower awards, a national lecture series would start soon, and two major museums had asked permission to create a special exhibit based on the essay. Black added that the essay was being expanded into a full-length book, now slated for global release in fifteen countries next year. Asked how the book would differ from the essay, Black explained he was adding 1,000 years of historical perspective in Africa, setting the stage for the colonial period of the nineteen and twentieth centuries, and further detail would be added on the post-World War II period in the United States. “In the article, I pushed the size envelope with a 10,000-word essay, and scores of footnotes. In a book, we can introduce more of the archival materials we dug up. I expect we will quadruple the material. Probably more.”
In addition to call-ins, Black offered to take questions submitted remotely via email for those who could not participate live. One such emailed question, said Black, asked if he had published the many retractions by historians he has received over the years. The author replied that numerous signed retractions had been posted on his personal website, in a section entitled Retractions, but cautioned Best’s critique “does not even remotely qualify in that realm. His misrepresentations of my intentions were misguided, but honest expressions of opinion, just ordinary criticism.” Black added he hoped to meet Best one day to answer further questions.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas frequently writes about human rights and historical issues.