This is our truth, tell us yours
Ken Livingstone’s defenders, of which there are more than you might expect, are asserting that he can’t be criticized because of the facts he deployed in his arument.
However, I don’t think it goes far enough. Either Livingstone knew what he was doing, and wished to provoke, or he is, quite simply stupid and shallow. I’ve already cast my vote on that one – as I said here, to be so widely read and so shallow is an astonishing achievement, but also the logical destination of a man who picks and chooses his facts to suit his theories.
To Livingstone’s supporters, of course, the first suggestion I would make is that they do some basic historical reading. E H Carr’s What is History is a superb primer in understanding the difference between facts, historically significant facts, and the history those facts might support. The example Carr uses is of Caesar crossing the Rubicon; each of the people who crossed the river each day were a fact; Caesar crossing, with his troops,was an historically significant fact. Anything beyond that, like why Caesar did it, or what it meant, is historically contestable unless supported by other evidence, such as quotes from Caesar or other supporting material.
The second thing Livingstone’s supporters need to remember is the principle of Occam’s Razor, useful in history as much as in science. The simplest solution is always preferable, taking account of all we know.
Now, I haven’t read any of the scholarly texts on the Haavara agreement. I suspect Livingstone has read only some of them. However, the topic of Hitler and agreements he signed is a routine question at A level history. What did agreements that Hitler signed actually mean?
The forst thing you have to note is how many of them, of genuine historical significance, he signed and then broke. Munich for instance. The pact with Soviet Russia in 1939. If you have in front of you a piece of paper signed by Hitler, you cannot assume he meant anything more by it than that it suited his purposes at the time.
Ken Livingstone has plucked one fact from the pile, like an urban fox finding a half eaten burger in an upended bin, and decided it suits his purposes. This is the apotheosis of ahistorical cherry picking; the agreement was signed on behalf of a government led by a man who viewed agreements as less than binding, with a group of Zionists who felt, in the face of force majeure, that they should do anything necessary to achieve their aims. Citing Lenni Brenner as supporting evidence for his claims is like the fox seeking to excuse the upended bin by pointing out that another fox has done the same thing further down the street in the past- Brenner may be many things, but he’s no historian.
If Ken Livingstone cannot see that, or refuses to see that, he is possibly beyond redemption, and certainly unlikely to ever pass A-Level history. He also cannot be excused, because ignorance is no defence.