Bill O’Reilly Attacks on Muslims Another Facet of GOP Revisionist History

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According to Bill O’Reilly, author of several violations of history in Killing Patton (2014) and Killing Reagan (2015), both panned by critics and historians (the National Park Service found Killing Lincoln so awful it refused to sell it), Germans “let” Hitler come to power by not being sufficiently politically engaged, that they “looked the other way.”

He makes this argument in support of his claim that Muslims today are also “looking the other way” (only a “million Muslim march” will suffice) but not openly and aggressively opposing terrorism. Of course, they are doing exactly that, but were O’Reilly to acknowledge current facts he would have nothing to talk about, just like if he acknowledged historical facts he would have nothing to write about.

In fact, O’Reilly told USA Today, “I’m a snappy guy. I do things in a flamboyant way. I want to get your attention.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to get facts right. Your attention is enough. History, he said on another occasion, – that is books by actual historians about actual historical facts – is boring.

Agendas like his are much more easily pushed if all facts are ignored. Instead of writing fake history, O’Reilly would do better to read some real history. To let his opinions develop out of what actually happened, rather than forcing what actually happened to fit his opinions.

It isn’t true that Germans looked the other way. Germans were very politically engaged in what was going on in their country. Historian Richard J. Evans observed in 2003’s The Coming of the Third Reich that “of all the myths of German history that have been mobilized to account for the coming of the Third Reich in 193, none is less convincing than that of the ‘unpolitical German'” (emphasis added).

He makes the critical point (which escapes O’Reilly) that “Contemporaries could not see things as clearly as we can, with the gift of hindsight: they could not know in 1930 what was to come in 1933,” for example, and for every year after. It all seems so inevitable for us, because we can look back and see it happen. 20/20 hindsight is great – if you’re looking to convince yourself that what you already believe is true.

“Whatever Germany suffered from in the 1920s, it was not,” Evans tells us, “a lack of political commitment and belief, rather, if anything, the opposite.”

Unfortunately for O’Reilly, it doesn’t work that way. Evans tells us that “One of the greatest problems in writing history is to imagine oneself back in the world of the past, with all the doubts and uncertainties people faced in dealing with a future that for the historian has also become the past.” O’Reilly, like David Barton, would rather repurpose the past, reading the present backwards.

Ian Kershaw, a British historian who has specialized in Nazi Germany, has pointed out, in Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich (1983) that “for an outsider, a non-German who never experienced Nzism, it is perhaps too easy to criticise, to expect standards of behavior which it was well nigh impossible to attain in the circumstances.”

While some Germans may have felt better being thought not sufficiently engaged, and it may make O’Reilly feel better claiming Muslims are not sufficiently engaged, wishing does not make anything true. The facts are still the facts even if you ignore them. And O’Reilly makes his living ignoring facts.

Slate’s Laura Miller says of his novels,

Until now, the press attention to the Killing books has focused on their lack of historical rigor and their inaccuracy, which is considerable. You can collect errors as you wander through these pages as easily as a child picks up seashells on a beach. This flaw seems to bother the books’ vast readership not a whit. The whole point of the Killing books is that they aren’t like works of real history—that is, dry, slow-moving, and lacking in moral certainty. Books by historians are “boring,” O’Reilly told a radio interviewer, so he figured “if you can write exciting books you would sell a lot of copies and have movies made of them.” This proved to be true: Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, and Killing Jesus have been made into TV movies by the National Geographic Channel, and adaptations of Killing Reagan and Killing Patton are set to air next year.

You can see his agenda is something other than a retelling of actual events, let alone a concise and cogent analysis of those events.

None of this will stop Bill O’Reilly (or David Barton) from inventing “facts” more congenial to the conservative agenda, but the often unwary public must be more cautious in its acceptance of much publicized claims. Bad enough we see O’Reilly’s books listed under history by booksellers (including the very influential Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble) but to have what is, in fact, historical fiction, accepted as such is simply beyond the pale.

The GOP can’t cope with actual events, past or present. In this sense, Bill O’Reilly is a symptom of a larger problem, but he is also a willing participant in falsifying facts to bolster the conservative agenda for America. It may be an effort that seems to pale in comparison to ignoring our climate problems, but then again, as the saying goes, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

And we have a whole lot of history most of us would just as soon not repeat.