Thursday, October 15, 2020

More historical ethics

The Guardian reports on the disturbing case of a British historian being sued for having violated "the postmortem personality rights" of a now-deceased Holocaust survivor. A German court has ruled that the historian infringed against the dead survivor's dignity, and a descendant is now seeking damages.  Apparently postmortem personality rights are a thing in German law; that is, in Germany you can libel the dead.

It's a complicated story. The historian, Ana Hajkova, studies the experience of queer victims of the Holocaust. She became interested in the case of a woman prisoner of whom a female concentration camp guard is said by witnesses to have become enamoured. Hajkova had promised the daughter of the woman prisoner not to name the mother, but did. And Hajkova wrote that the guard and the prisoner had a sexual relationship, while the daughter denies there is real evidence of this.

So the historian seems to have been ... negligent? ... in dealing with interviewees, and perhaps also in carrying a story beyond what the sources confirm.  But the suggestion that historians are not free to do scholarship on people now dead without fearing legal challenge from descendants of their subjects is chilling.  It's not clear from the story whether "truth"  -- that is, establishing that evidence justified Hajkova's account -- would be a defence in a personality-right dispute. It's also not clear whether identifying a dead person as queer can be a posthumous offence against her dignity.  


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