Canterbury tales

by Philip Matthews / 20 September, 2003
Ten years ago, Canterbury University passed a controversial master's thesis that denied the Holocaust. The student has long since apologised for the offence that it caused and repudiated some of its content, but others at Canterbury are unwilling to let the matter rest. This year, the controversy was re-ignited when the university withdrew a history department journal, a historian threatened to resign and the original student re-entered the debate. Is Canterbury University in the business of suppressing academic freedom? Or is this issue really about academic standards? And why do New Zealand academics allow themselves and their work to be exploited by Holocaust deniers?

There is a question that, judging from the tone of his response, no one had previously thought to put to Canterbury University historian Thomas Fudge. What is his opinion of the Joel Hayward master's thesis on which he seems to have staked both his public and academic reputation? "My opinion on the Hayward thesis?" he says. "I don't know that I've got an opinion on the Hayward thesis."

Well, is the thesis correct or is it flawed? "I'm not in a position to judge that, actually."

Because he is not a specialist in the area? "Yeah, yeah."

Its rightness or wrongness is not an issue? "No, it isn't. And I'm not just trying to dodge the question. It is a subject that is not within my scholarly purview. It would be unfair of me to say that it's a good thesis or a bad thesis."

So, because his field of expertise is medieval and reformation history, Fudge is unable to offer any judgment on such Hayward claims as "The weight of evidence supports the view that the Nazis did not systematically exterminate Jews in gas chambers ..." He can't even hazard a guess or offer a hunch. But this seems to contradict his privately circulated views of the thesis.

Last year, when the Listener investigated the ongoing controversy of the Hayward thesis ("In denial", November 2, 2002), the thesis's supervisor and examiner, Canterbury history professor Vincent Orange, broke his silence at the eleventh hour to release a letter to the Listener. The letter, written to former Canterbury University chancellor Phyllis Guthardt in April 2001, describes the documents that Orange had compiled in his and Hayward's defence when a Canterbury University working party examined the thesis - although Orange did not release the documents themselves.

Describing a letter from Fudge to Orange, written in April 2000 just as the Hayward thesis became a national story, Orange writes, "His [Fudge's] warm approval of the thesis attracts no comment from the working party ..." In another entry, Fudge "finds much merit in the work", according to Orange. He offers support to both Hayward and Orange in further letters, as does fellow Canterbury history professor Ian Campbell.

Orange's summary of Fudge's April 2000 letter continues, "and yet Thomas is recognised as a careful scholar. It may be objected that he is not a specialist in Holocaust studies. The same is true of all three members of the working party. I regret that the university did not ensure that at least one member of that party had proven expertise in the field."

The one historian who did have unquestionable expertise in the field was Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge. In 2000, Evans had just completed work as an expert witness in the David Irving trial at the High Court in London. Irving, the world's most famous Holocaust denier, had sued author Deborah Lipstadt; Evans's analysis of the falsifications in Irving's work destroyed both his legal case and his reputation as a historian. The New Zealand Jewish Council sought Evans's opinion on the Hayward thesis and submitted that opinion - a 71-page report - to the working party. Evans argued that Hayward's thesis was "a thoroughly tendentious, biased and dishonest piece of work" that clearly constituted Holocaust denial. He recommended that Canterbury strip Hayward of his master's degree. While agreeing that the thesis was "flawed", the university was unable to prove dishonesty, a required grounds for revoking a degree. Thus, Canterbury remained the only reputable university in the world to endorse a work of Holocaust denial.

Yet the affair still nagged at Fudge. In his capacity as editor of the history department's journal, History Now, Ian Campbell commissioned an essay from Fudge on the Hayward story. Given the support that both men had offered Hayward, it was no surprise that the resulting essay attacked Evans and others while seeking to rehabilitate the Holocaust-denying thesis. When the journal appeared in May, the department withdrew it, sacked Campbell as its editor and held a crisis meeting at which the volatile Fudge spontaneously offered his resignation (he has since publicly signalled his intention to remain "for 30 years"; but also says, in a subsequent interview, that he may yet leave).

Why did the department withdraw the journal? Among the reasons cited are fears of defamation action, Fudge's misuse of personal and interdepartmental correspondence and breaching of an informal agreement that Fudge would stop discussing the Hayward affair in public. It was also noted that Campbell should have sought the prior approval of his departmental colleagues, most of whom did not share Fudge's view that Hayward was an academic martyr.

A bowdlerised version of the Fudge essay, minus some of the more extreme claims and the 85 footnotes, appeared in newspapers in July. The same newspapers made righteous noises about "academic freedom", although, as Evans has since written, the issue is different. "It is rather the upholding of academic standards. Nobody has stopped Hayward or Fudge from publishing what they have written. Whether or not it should receive the imprimatur of a respected university is the question at issue." It's a question that seems to be beyond Fudge's understanding: he charged that the university's vice chancellor, Roy Sharp, suppressed his academic freedom. Last month, the University Council found that Sharp had not done so. Fudge had always, Sharp has said, been free to publish in the public arena. "Indeed, Fudge was offered suggestions as to other media in which he could publish."

However, Fudge and others managed to sneak some copies of the original journal past the ban. Fudge sent one copy to Hayward, for example. The original, unedited essay has also appeared on the website of a group dedicated to the circulation of Holocaust-denying material. "The above complete version has been kindly sent to us by the author," the site's reprints editor writes. Fudge professes ignorance of the website - which is not one that any credible historian would be willingly associated with - and claims not to have given permission to reprint. Contacted by the Listener, the site's manager reiterates his claim that Fudge "supplied the copy".

The original, unedited essay challenges Fudge's image as "a careful scholar". Lincoln University lecturer Greg Ryan has written to the Press (July 31), claiming that Fudge "selectively and inaccurately represented" a private conversation held nearly three years earlier. "I am left to ponder the ethics of Fudge's approach to oral history in that private conversations are documented and reproduced without the knowledge or consent of the source," Ryan wrote.

This writer has also had experience of Fudge's peculiar biases and inaccuracies. Among the material cut from Fudge's essay for newspaper publication was a paragraph on the Listener, including a quote attributed to myself that I did not recognise ("Nothing new had appeared for a while," was attributed to me as the reason for doing last November's story). "It came from one of the people that you talked to late last year," Fudge said, when asked. "I don't remember who it was, offhand." When it was put to him that he was unable to provide a source, he replied: "I don't know if I am unable or unwilling."

Huh? What was the mystery, as I obviously knew the names of all those I talked to last year? My belief is that this quote might be a distorted version of a comment made to Hayward during an off-the-record conversation. This would call into question Fudge's endnote that "neither Joel Hayward nor Vincent Orange has been associated with the preparation of this article". Clarifying, Fudge says, "that endnote was put there simply to deflect comments that Hayward and Orange were behind it".

From there, the interview - my first of two with Fudge - descended into farce. Fudge spoke about "speculation" - "I'm not going to mention names" - about myself, the Listener and "your motivations and your journalism". When asked to elaborate, he said, "I'm not at liberty to repeat ..." Pressed further, he offered, "speculation among media specialists in the country". Which media specialists? Pressed further still, he managed to come up with Canterbury's public relations department. "There's all kinds of people," he added. But what about these secret motivations? Are they at all related to "the specialist interest group" - read: the Jewish community - that the website of Holocaust denier David Irving believes is behind the Listener's journalism?

Of course, paranoid weirdness is never too far from the surface when one looks into the world of the Holocaust denier and those who apologise for them. Running contemporaneously with Fudge's ill-fated "academic freedom" campaign has been the re-emergence of the story's self-styled victim, Joel Hayward. When Hayward's thesis emerged from the obscurity of its six-year embargo into the glare of negative attention in late 1999, he was moved to attach an addendum that apologised for his errors and any offence caused to the Jewish community. Many took the apology as sincere.

Since July, Hayward has broken his silence in some media. In the absence of an explanation from him - Hayward is unwilling to answer any questions put by the Listener - one can only speculate about why. Either Hayward has sensed that public and media support for a nebulous idea of "academic freedom" is strong enough to rehabilitate him and his thesis, or, having resigned from his position at Massey University last year, he sees that he has nothing to lose in the academic world. When he apologised in 2000, he had a teaching position to protect.

Many in the media have happily bought the image of Hayward as victim. TV3's 60 Minutes went to air with Hayward's claims that he received death threats in 2000, even though, the story's producer Paula Penfold concedes, no evidence of threats exists and Hayward never lodged a complaint with the police. "We spent a couple of days with him, and found him to be genuine and credible," Penfold says.

In this same report, Hayward produced a bullet that he claimed had been handed to him, in his Massey office, to signify a threat to his life. "You'll get yours, mate," was the alleged threat. However, the

Listener has a signed affidavit that this bullet - a dud from a World War II-era rifle that few in New Zealand would use - was presented to Hayward as a "keepsake" by a defence studies student. If this "you'll get yours, mate" sentence ever occurred, it did not come from that student.

Is Hayward a harmless fantasist or is this victim act a smokescreen for the rehabilitation of the thesis's more dangerous leanings? Certainly, Hayward's former cohorts in the Holocaust denial industry never believed his apology to be genuine. Active deniers Irving, Frederick Toben and Robert Countess - on whose Alabama property Hayward was photographed shooting a gun in 1994, during a period in which he said he had no further contact with deniers - have written and spoken of continued correspondence and contact with Hayward that suggests a different image to the mask he has worn in public. "I have no reason to believe that Hayward really changed his view of his fine thesis," Countess wrote to me, "but he did make a public apology 'for fear of the Jews'." Countess goes on, using appropriately muscular language: "Hayward is not a man of the personality type to be bold. He is a good and decent fellow and a fine scholar, but his personality is weak ... He erred greatly in his personal weaknesses before the Jewish onslaught." Publicly, Hayward has made efforts to distance himself from this kind of rhetoric. In his addendum, he wrote about "negative experiences with certain revisionists" who spread "anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi conspiracies".

However, the language of Hayward's most recent public pronouncements is beginning to differ from the prostrate tone of 2000 when he faced that alleged "Jewish onslaught". In a letter to the Press (August 12, 2003), he offers the opinion that "a student can ask honest questions about the Holocaust and arrive at unconventional answers" - how does that compare to the mea culpa of his 2000 addendum with its reference to his admitted "errors of fact and interpretation"? In that addendum, he fretted about "causing distress to the Jewish community". Now, in a column syndicated in New Zealand newspapers in late August, he believes that the university "should never have succumbed to external pressures from any minority or special-interest group ... rather than stand firm and hold up the principles of free inquiry and free speech, it buckled ..." Does this mean that Hayward has gone back on his apology? We would love to ask.

In the same column, Hayward mentions - three times, in fact - that Evans was paid for his assessment of the thesis and his work on the Irving case. The innuendo is nasty - could Evans be bought? By those Jews with their moneybags? - but is easily refuted. On the Irving case, Evans was paid the standard hourly rate that witnesses are paid. "Is Hayward implying that no expert witnesses in any court cases can be trusted because they are paid for their work?" Evans writes. For the New Zealand Jewish Council, he received a token fee for four days' work. "I did not want to be seen to be doing the work on a political basis, which no doubt I would have been accused of doing had I lent my services free of charge, but on a professional basis."

The reality of Evans's token fee undermines Hayward's self-pitying remark that he, unlike the Jewish Council, "could not afford to employ an expert". Such a fee would not have been beyond a lecturer's salary. The question is, what kind of "expert historian" would have gone in to bat for Hayward's thesis? Irving, perhaps?

Running parallel to all this is the circulation of a petition, devised by Victoria University economics professor Martin Lally, calling for an apology to be granted to Hayward. It also deals with other, more general issues of academic freedom and university process - so general, apparently, that MP Rodney Hide was happy to sign the petition without having read either the Hayward thesis or the unedited Fudge essay. However, at the time of going to press, the only two New Zealand historians to have added their names to it are both retired from academic life and implicated in the thesis's contents - Vincent Orange was its supervisor and internal examiner and John Jensen, formerly of Waikato University, was its external examiner.

These events are being watched with fascination by the international Holocaust denial network, who seem to see New Zealand as fertile ground (Irving has announced plans for a visit early next year). Fudge's essay and statements and Hayward's letters appear on denial websites with approving headlines and endnotes; Lally's pedantic correspondence with Evans somehow made its way to Irving's online "action report" (Lally claims that he has had no direct contact with Irving, and assumes that his emails were forwarded by one of the 300 that he copied his correspondence to) as did, somewhat amusingly, my own correspondence with Lally about how his correspondence reached Irving (same answer, presumably).

A thesis reconsidering the Nuremberg trial, written by former Canterbury student Stephen Daniel Eaton, marked by Orange and presented by Hayward with his own thesis to Robert Countess - although Hayward later denied, to the Listener, ever having even read Eaton's thesis - has appeared online with a new preface by Countess attacking the New Zealand Jewish Council as, predictably, "vicious, envious, hate-filled, racist, anti-intellectual ideologues".

The removal of New Zealand Herald cartoonist Malcolm Evans - who produced some work critical of Israel - was taken as evidence of a powerful and censorial Jewish lobby by media commentator Brian Edwards. Edwards was immediately hailed as a courageous spokesman by Holocaust denier Frederick Toben for his statement, recorded in the Waikato Times, that, "If I want to say that the Holocaust didn't happen, then I should be allowed to say that."

Edwards was trying to make a point about free speech, rather than deny the Holocaust. However, as it stands in New Zealand, he already is allowed to say that it didn't happen. The real point, though, is why would anyone want to? Why would such overwhelming documentary evidence as exists for the Holocaust be wilfully denied? Swiss Holocaust denier Jurgen Graf, whose work is titled The Holocaust on Trial, has summed up the mindset: "If the Holocaust were publicly exposed as a shameless fraud, if people all over the world learned that, while the Jews undoubtedly were brutally persecuted during the Second World War, there was no attempt to exterminate them, that the death factories, gas chambers and gas vans were a Jewish swindle, and that the six million figure was a fantastic exaggeration, the Zionist-led 'New World Order' would be all but finished ... [The consequences] would be catastrophic beyond repair for international Jewry and the state of Israel."

In the world of the Holocaust denier, naked anti-Semitism is now dressed up with otherwise unrelated criticism of Israel - this is why you will also find links to pro-Palestinian reporting on Irving's website. Valid criticisms can be made of Israel as an occupying military power, but Holocaust deniers are not renowned for their support of oppressed minorities, unless that minority happens to be engaged in urban warfare with Jews. Holocaust denial begins with anti-Semitism as the irrational driving force and then looks for intellectual or pseudo-intellectual support: it's the hatred of a race that extends to hatred of a nation. And in New Zealand, the Holocaust deniers have found otherwise reputable academics who are able to be exploited by this hatred.

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