Grave Offenses vs. Tendentious MisconstrualsThe David Abraham CaseThe historical field concerning the Weimar Republic, Germanys parliamentary government during the interwar years, is not only an extremely sophisticated area of study, but an extremely competitive one as well. In the early eighties, a much heated and unprecedented scholarly dispute arose surrounding The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, written by David Abraham at the time, a fledgling historian and assistant professor at Princeton University.
Nazi seizure of power from the Weimar Republic has long intrigued scores of historians. Various models have been constructed in an attempt to explain how an entity such as the Nazi movement came to power over such an industrially, culturally, and socially advanced society such as Germanys (Notes from Jamie van Hook 2/14). One such model, and the one used in Abrahams book, seeks to illustrate the role of capitalism, German industrialists, in the fall of the Weimar Republic (Notes from Jamie van Hook 2/14). More specifically, Abraham attempts to decipher: how did Germanys divided economic elites attempt to articulate a national agenda around which they could unite, how and from whom was popular support won (if it was); how could the institutionalization of accord first work and then fail? Initially, the book received favorable reviews; it was called imaginative and interesting and distinguished, among other praises. But alas, high praises gave way to harsh, uncivil criticisms.
Abraham was attacked for having a fanatical attachment to his preconceived notions and a complete insensitivity to and lack of interest in what actually took place in the past. The controversy ultimately ended with David Abraham being effectively ostracized from the historical community. So how did Abrahams book go from being deemed the most important book on 20th century Germany written in the last 15 years to being called fraudulent? What was the reasoning behind Abrahams downward spiral? Why did the events surrounding Abraham escalade into an academic crucifixion rather than culminating in nothing more than a passionate academic debate? Abrahams Marxist-like viewpoints might have something to do with it. Here, the word Marxist-like is used because although Abraham himself acknowledged the pronounced Marxist influences in his book, he had hoped his work would be distinguished from recent Marxist scholarship and debates.
However, the situation calls for more complicated reasoning; after all, Abraham was not the only Marxist historian. Jon Wiener points out that if Abraham had written a Marxist study about the Weimar Republic that did not discuss the role of businessmen, Henry Turner would probably not have bothered to check his footnotes. If he had written a Marxist theoretical essay on the Weimar Republic that did not include archival evidence, Turner would not have been interested. Jon Weiner concludes: What aroused Abrahams critics was his having placed his empirical research on the politics of big business within a framework of a Marxist theory. In order to be able to adequately grapple with the issues of interpretation or misinterpretation, it is first imperative to understand what Abraham was arguing in his book. He believed that for the industrialists, there was no feasible and acceptable alternative to the NSDAP, because no other force could claim real popular support while also demonstrating a credible commitment to eliminating Weimars fragmented political democracy and generous social welfare system.
He emphasized that the issue was not one of evil but of how industrialists . . . in light of the Nazis independently achieved successes, attempted to insert their interest into what Bracher has called the power vacuum of the last eight or nine months of the Republic. The movement against Abraham began in 1983 by Dr. Henry Turner, an opponent of Marxist theory and who was himself writing a book that ran countercurrent with Dr. Abrahams book.
He held that big business gave relatively little support to the Nazi movement. Turner: If Abraham is right, Im wrong. Through a private campaign of letters and documents sent to colleagues, Turner accused Abraham of forgery and misquoting, misdating, and misattributing several key documents in such a way that they appear pro-Nazi. Dr. Gerald Feldman, who had initially recommended the book for publishing, was among the colleagues to receive the letter and sided with Turner. When Turner finally went public with his accusations (seven months after the initial private letter campaign) in an article in the American Historical Review, Abraham, who had returned to the archive in West Germany, responded and conceded his dating and attribution of certain letters had been erroneous.
One of the letters in question was one from Paul Reusch, a Ruhr industrialist, to Edgar Jung, a political writer who was interested in establishing a unified right in Germany. However, Abraham misidentified the recipient of the letter to be Martin Blank, Reuschs Berlin bureau chief. Abraham had also cited a report misattributed to Blank instead of to August Heinrichsbauer, a right-wing business journalist. Abraham maintained that his errors were not intentional nor was his material forged or fabricated, as Turner had accused. He also pointed out that the correct attributions would have actually strengthened his case; Heinrichsbauer was known as a key middleman between the Nazis and industry and was more important in this area than Blank.
More importantly, Abraham had not attempted to conceal or deny the errors and profusely apologized. He attributed them to committing the embarrassing and elementary error of hasty and niggardly note taking. Although many in the historical community believed that Abrahams work was sloppy, there was a subsequent general feeling that Abraham had beaten charges of forgery. Many began to view Turner as a man with an ax to grind; a man bitter perhaps because his own work had been preempted by a younger scholar whose Marxism he disliked.
Turner relinquished his attacks. However, Feldman picked up where Turner let off, perhaps partly due to having originally supported and recommending Abrahams work for publication .What ensued was a vicious cycle of accusations and counter accusations and what transpired had far-reaching effects that went beyond the scope of a single historian being attacked for a single book. The age-old dilemma of interpretation and trust and its vital role in academia were among the many issues raised by the David Abraham case. At the root of the controversy was the relatively high frequency of errors that seemed to plague Abrahams book.
Were Abrahams errors so numerous, and of such a serious nature, that he could no longer be considered a trustworthy historian and should thus be banned and prevented from practicing or teaching history? Here, the word relatively is used because this case was indeed unprecedented. Never before had a historical work undergone such close and systematic scrutiny. Thus, there was no definite standard which other works were measured and judged against, and therefore, no standardized range for books to be measured as having a high frequency or low frequency of errors. What percentage of error is acceptable for a work to meet some predetermined scholarly standard? Who is to decide what this predetermined scholarly standard should be? What exactly constitutes an error (for example, do typographical errors count)? Will different types of errors be weighed differently? It seems awkward to try to attach such concrete and definite questions to such an abstract and dynamic area of study such as history.
Yet this is exactly what the historical community and scholars had to grapple with. Despite its dynamic nature, there are those who do believe that the practice of history and procedures for historical research can and should be treated as more or less analogous to the natural sciences in that historical archival research and treatment of facts should be more along the lines of scientific research methods and strict treatment of facts and data. The empiricists of history prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. Those critical of the empirical school of thought deem that empiricists confine themselves to the chronicle of events and that their attitude is that because the footnotes dont contain errors, the understanding of history is correct.
On the other hand, structuralists prefer to use the facts to explain larger patters of behavior and seek to identify broad levels of causation. Turner and Feldman fell into the empiricist category, whereas Abraham fell into the structuralist one. Because of their fundamental differences, the age-old question of interpretation played a crucial role in the David Abraham case. Empiricists and structuralists differ in the manner in which they treat facts. In his book, In Defense of History, Richard Evans defines a historical fact as something that occurred in the past that can be verified through sources left behind.
Theory and interpretation then come into play when a fact is converted into evidence (when a fact is used in support of an argument). Thus, a fact can be interpreted and used as evidence differently by different historians. Whereas a fact interpreted by a structuralist might be seen as sufficient evidence to support an argument or thesis, an empiricist might argue that the same fact is insufficient evidence to support the thesis. In the same manner, what Feldman called an error might well have been a different interpretation of the facts.
The questions of interpretations become more complicated when put into practice. Ulrich Nocken, a former graduate student of Feldman, stated in his article Collapse of the Weimar Republic (Dusseldorf), that only four of seventy of Abrahams citations were correct and that ninety-eight of three-hundred twenty-seven pages contained errors. This seems like detrimental statistics against Abraham. However, this article, later used to support Feldmans efforts to undermine any chance of employment for Abraham, circulated as an unpublished manuscript.
Additionally, Nockens review of the book was one in thirty reviews in which the thesis was not understood to be what Abraham had intended; thus, meaning that Nocken had interpreted the material in Abrahams book differently than the author himself as well as other reviewers. If it was possible for Nocken to interpret differently or perhaps misinterpret the thesis, it was also entirely possible that what Nocken calls errors are different interpretations or misinterpretations of the data.In A Collapse in Weimar Scholarship, Feldman chose the following passage to illustrate a characteristic example of Abrahams inventive misuse of documents . He italicized the portions which he alleges to be fabricated. The Nazis are not to be circumvented; more than that, they are the positive force. We should contribute to them and their efforts and assist them in altering some of the utopian aspects of their economic policies.
SchachtAfter a productive two hour talk with Hitler yesterday, I fully and completely agree with your suggestion . . . I find myself in complete sympathy with the National Socialists, though they are a bit tactless. ReuschI have begun a collection for the purpose of supporting them and enlightening them on economic issues.
SchachtIn this passage, I might interpret giving money to enlighten them on economic issues as sounding like politician-language for active collaboration with the Nazis. Although big business was not the initial mastermind behind the Nazi movement, by giving monies to their cause, they were probably hoping to ride the wave of a seemingly rising movement in return for favorable economic policies. One must concede to Feldman that the italicized portions strengthen the power of the passage. However, in defense of Abraham, even without the italicized insertions, big business shows a propensity, a tendency, if you will, toward engaging in active collaboration with and lending support to the Nazi movement.
Feldman presented the aforementioned erroneous passage as a characteristic example of erroneous passages found throughout Abrahams book; one whose errors are extreme in character. He used these examples to strengthen his argument and justify his leading role in the character assassination of David Abraham. But surely this example – cited because it was characteristic of the erroneous representations throughout Abrahams book, a quintessential Abraham error – is not so grandiose as to constitute the type of assault mounted against Abraham. Arno Mayer, a professor at Princeton University, judged the assault to be petty and full of sniping attacks . Nevertheless, Feldman did accuse Abraham of other errors that may not be attributed to or explained by questions of interpretation. Among other things, Feldman charged Abraham with misidentifications, false datings, false attributions, and false connections.
As a specific example, Feldman cited the Christmas 1930 Exchange, an alleged conversation between two German industrialists. Perhaps the most damaging of Abrahams errors was found in the Reusch letter to Jung and the report attributed by Neebe to Heinrichsbauer. In the letter, by leaving out the word nicht which means not, Abraham transforms a negative position to a positive one.
Reusch had actually written that he did not wish to create a point of crystallization between the bourgeois right and the NSDAP . Did errors like these prove intent, and thereby justify Feldmans accusations of fraud? Lawrence Stone, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton, disagrees with Feldmans belief that good historians do not make mistakes:When you work in the archives, youre far from home, youre bored, youre in a hurry, youre scribbling like crazy. Youre bound to make mistakes. I dont believe any scholar in the Western world has impeccable footnotes. Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life Other historians also believe that close study of many works of history would reveal errors like Dr. Abrahams . For example, the publishers of the great British historian Sir Lewis Namier had planned a second edition of Structure of Politics at the Accession of George 3rd.
However, when editors checked the footnotes, they found endless, constant, minor errors. The Vatican librarian had also criticized Frances most celebrated historian, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie for mistranslations and other errors in Montaillou. The purpose is not to offer excuses for Abrahams work, which he himself called sloppy and accorded to hastiness accompanied by occasional hurried translation . The purpose is to determine whether the punishment fit the crime. What was the crime? What was Abrahams grave offense? According to Feldman, Dr.
Abraham committed a violation of scholarly trust. The punishment: academic crucifixion and alienation from the profession he had spent his adult life pursuing. It is true that trust is the foundation upon which other scholarly work is built . For the sake of progress and because no one scholar could personally research every single detail to construct an overall thesis, scholars depend on and trust each other. It is this trust in academic integrity that allows scholars to stand on the shoulders of those that came before in order to see further and continue building on or improving previous ideas (progress).
In this sense, Feldman was partly right in calling Abrahams work dangerous. Perhaps Feldman feared that the shaky foundation laid by Abraham would spawn legions of scholars, each building on the errors of the one before.However, Feldman not only perceived a violation of scholarly trust; more specifically, Abraham had committed what in his mind constituted as fraud. Fraud is any misrepresentation or omission of a material fact on which a reasonable person would and does rely to his or her detriment. However, fraud necessitates the element of intent to deceive. Did Feldman ever prove intent to deceive? Moreover, did Feldman ever even try to prove intent to deceive? In his article, Collapse in Weimar Scholarship, he wrote whatever the reasons for what Abraham has done..
. With this statement, it is clear that Feldman does not care whether Abraham acted intentionally or not: whatever the reasons. Yet, Feldman acted as if he did have definite knowledge of Abrahams intent by accusing him of fraud.
Whether or not Abraham purposefully and intentionally filled his book with egregious errors, tendentious misconstruals and outright inventions is a difficult matter to determine. One way of going about determining whether it was innocent misrepresentation or fraudulent misrepresentation is to crudely attempt to judge the characters of the individuals involved by their outward manifestations (actions). Fellow colleagues called Feldman petty. Arno Mayer concluded, you Feldman vent your anger at David Abraham for daring to publish a book on a topic on which you yourself have been working for years . . . What this profession needs and expects from you is not sniping attacks on young scholars who have the temerity to trespass on an intellectual territory that you declare to be your private preserve .
. . Have you no shame? Have you no sense of decency? The tone of Feldmans criticism was not the tone appropriate for constructive criticism. Instead, he uttered such statements as: Handing David Abraham a research library wouldve been like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank . Feldman also took matters into his own hands in order to make sure that Abraham was denied employment. He made unsolicited phone calls denouncing Abraham and provided condemning documents (Nockens article, which was never published, although Feldman promised and presented it as it would be) without allowing Abraham enough time to respond. Feldman even made veiled threats to bypass the selection committees and go to the Board of Reagents .
This kind of vigilante behavior certainly does not reflect kindly on Feldmans character.On the other hand, Abraham responded to a barrage of harsh criticisms in an appropriate manner and through appropriate channels. The tone of his articles lent itself to a man that listened to the accusations and responded as best he could. Could it have been that in a frenzied attempt to beat the tenure-clock, Abraham disregarded the intellectual canon of scholarly trust (class discussion)? Is it possible that he believed he would get away with it, knowing full well what a competitive and specialized field he was working in? My personal view is that anything is possible, and so, I must concede that there is a chance that Abraham disregarded and disrespected the canon of scholarly trust and believed he would get away with it. However, this scenario seems highly implausible.
What seems much more plausible is that his errors were born of inexperience and perhaps youthful over-ambition. On a personal note, I would like to address the notion of youthful over-ambition. It has been my observation that almost every scholar, or aspiring (as most college students are) scholars dream is to revolutionize, or at least revitalize their specific field of study.
Every one of us dreams of not simply recycling old ideas and tweaking them a bit, but of creating or discovering something completely new. In science, one dreams of discovering the enzyme cascade or cellular pathway that would finally answer some daunting problem. As with Abraham, perhaps he dreamed of providing the final word on the daunting problem of the relationship of German industrialists and the Nazi movement (Jamie van Hook). Weighing the actions of the central figures involved, the signs point to innocent misrepresentation. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
(NOTE: that a crime was committed is acknowledged; only that Abraham was guilty of a different crime than he was accused of). In the early 1990s the American Historical Association adopted standards of civility which this case helped bring about. The bond that grows out of lives committed to the study of history should be evident in the standards of civility that govern the conduct of historians and their relations with one another.
The preeminent value of all intellectual communities is reasoned discourse – the continuous colloquy among historians of diverse points of view. A commitment to such discourse make possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge .This was obviously aimed at Feldman and future-Feldmans. Although the AHA did nothing at the time to reprimand Feldman nor dissuade his actions, that they (the AHA) saw it necessary to adopt a standard of civility is admission enough that Feldman acted improperly and inappropriately. Along with the standards of civility, the AHA also stated: Historians should carefully document their findings and thereafter be prepared to make available to others their sources, evidence, and data .
. . Historians must not misrepresent evidence or the sources of evidence, must be free of the offense of plagiarism, and must not be indifferent to error or efforts to ignore or conceal it Abrahams work would not have met this standard. That the AHA issued this statement is acknowledgment of the fact that Abraham also wronged.
However, he has since been punished for his negligence. What is disturbing is that Feldman was not and has not been punished for his crime. He was allowed to use his established academic reputation to eliminate what he perceived to be a dangerous element from the historical community. Whereas Abrahams work might have been dangerous in that it laid shaky foundation for future historians, Feldmans actions are equally if not more so dangerous for truncating an aspiring scholars career.
Who is to say what Abraham might have contributed had he been given the chance.Ethical judgments and appropriation of suitable punishments for violators seem to be very problematic in the area of history. The purpose is not to attempt to provide oversimplified answers to overly complex scenarios.
Questions of interpretation will continue and the vital role of trust in the academic world must always be examined. The Abraham case is worthy of study because of its implications on the rest of the historical community and the issues present within. What does the Abraham case say about the historical community? It was the historical community as a whole that ultimately failed Abraham and that allowed Feldman to do what he did. Those hoping to practice history will tread carefully for fear of being Abrahamed. But what of those on the other end of the spectrum? What of Feldman, who went unpunished? What of the future-Feldmans? Will the historical community tolerate future reckless disregard for civility as it did with Feldman? Should not young scholars be given the benefit of the doubt and a chance to redeem themselves? BibliographyAbraham, David. Business Wars: On Contributions of Weimar Scholarship.
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