Holocaust experts slam inaction on flawed thesis by Birmingham

February 23, 2007

Two renowned Holocaust scholars have rounded on Birmingham University for its decision to stand by a "flawed" PhD thesis that argues that a prominent survivor of Hitler's death camps could have been a Nazi collaborator.

David Cesarani, professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in the US, believe Birmingham has severely compromised its academic standards by allowing the work to stand despite accepting after a review that it is blighted by "inaccuracies", "contradictions" and "omissions", and by a "naive" and "sloppy" use of sources.

The thesis, by Charlotte Exon, examines the life and work of Austrian conductor Rudolph Schwarz, who survived three Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Belsen. After the war, he established a successful career in music in Britain.

Dr Exon poses a hypothesis that Mr Schwarz was a Nazi "sympathiser" or "collaborator" who became "Hitler's willing victim".

Professor Cesarani, a member of the international task force for intergovernmental co-operation on Holocaust education, remembrance and research, writes in a letter to The Times Higher this week that it is "peculiar" of Birmingham to argue that the thesis can not be revoked or revised.

"Unless Birmingham University rethinks its current position, will it be necessary to assume that every PhD it has passed in recent years may be marred by 'contradictions', 'inaccuracies' and 'sloppiness'? Is there not a danger that, by refusing to invalidate one, it risks invalidating them all?"

Professor Lipstadt, who saw off a libel action from historian David Irving after she described him as a Holocaust denier, said: "Most shocking is the fact that the university could let (the thesis) stand as a 'quality-assured' piece of work. They look like fools."

The Times Higher reported this month that Mr Schwarz's stepson, Peter Ohlson, had identified major errors and omissions in the thesis relating to the Nazi period.

The university commissioned an independent review, although the reviewer's identity was never revealed.

After undertaking a review in the "broadest possible terms" without "forensic scrutiny", the reviewer found that Dr Exon "seems to have simplified or debased her argument by ignoring certain crucial details".

He identified "sloppiness" and "naivete" in the use of primary source material and highlighted "inaccuracies, contradictions and ambiguities".

He concluded that there was no evidence of "deliberate mendacity" and said that the problems did not invalidate the thesis as a whole, but he recommended that the work should be made public only "with an extremely detailed errata slip" and alongside the original source material.

The university reneged on a commitment to accept these recommendations.

Adrian Randall, the dean of arts, ruled that because the work had already been passed for the award of PhD after examination, it "stands as a completed and quality-assured piece of work in its own right... it cannot now be corrected, revised or revoked".

Birmingham's position has also been attacked by key associates of Mr Schwarz.

Anita Lasker Wallfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen who knew Mr Schwarz, wrote in a letter to Michael Sterling, the vice-chancellor of Birmingham: "I find it incomprehensible that a prestigious institution should (allow)I Charlotte Exon's PhD to stand without attaching the suggested errata slips... The addition of errata slips... would be a small concession to the preservation of a semblance of truth."

Raymond Carpenter, a former colleague of Mr Schwarz at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, whose taped interview with Mr Schwarz was extensively used by Dr Exon in her thesis, said that Dr Exon had "grossly misused" his material.

"For her university to condone these allegations by accepting her thesis is a crime against civilised behaviour."

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