Historian Manning Clark spoke vividly — and often — about being in Bonn the day after Kristallnacht. “Witnessing this notorious Nazi pogrom changed his life, said Clark, and made him the historian he was”, writes David Marr in The Sydney Morning Herald. “It became the most famous story of a great storyteller.”

But biographer Mark McKenna reveals in The Monthly that he wasn’t there after all. Instead, it was his future wife Dymphna Lodewyckx, not Manning Clark, “who witnessed the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht.” Clark was in Oxford at the time and joined Dymphna two weeks later.

“I don’t know if there’s really terribly much at stake here”, critic Peter Craven told Crikey today, and it’s unlikely to be “deliberate mendacity”.

“I get a bit bored by these things”, Craven says. People say that “Lawrence of Arabia couldn’t have been raped by Turkish soldiers” in Deraa because his itinerary seems to disprove it. My natural response is that “the date’s wrong rather than the substantial fact.”

So was Manning Clark a fraud? 

Greg Melleuish, professor of history at University of Wollongong, says:

The recollection of Kristallnacht isn’t really a part of Clark’s work as historian — it’s in his autobiography. Clark was a romancer and he wanted to make himself look good. Many people do that with their autobiographies. At one level that’s bad because he distorted the truth but at another, like an Archibald prize winner, you accept that there are going to be faults. You might even say Clark’s work is more like art than social science. In this case he said that he hadn’t gone back and looked back at his own letters. He might have just been relying on his own memory. When people think about a historian they expect somebody who has a deep respect for the facts and somebody who doesn’t allow the emotions to cloud those facts, but that’s not what people turn to Manning Clark for. For Clark, the story was more important than the detail. He was more interested in getting the essence of the story. You might question why are people still buy Manning Clark’s history? Is it because it’s a good story? Whatever the answer, this is not a new criticism of Clark. There’s a general view that his later work contains factual flaws, and it has been suggested that is partly because he was heavily reliant on research assistants. I suspect when people discuss Manning Clark it’s probably been some time since they read him, if they have read him at all. The public debate tends to include a lot myth about him.

Clark’s son Andrew says:

Mark McKenna was given unqualified access to my father’s personal files by our family. As a result of this privileged access, Mr McKenna has discovered what he believes is a discrepancy in the dates of my father’s visit to Bonn after the Nazi regime conducted a violent pogrom against Jews in Germany, called Kristallnacht. He is not contesting that my father visited my mother in Bonn after Kristallnacht, just the precise date of his arrival. This is a slim reed on which to accuse my father of an “inner lie.” Three facts make McKenna’s charge bizarre. First, he draws on references made about this period which were at least 40 years after the event, a period which goes some way in explaining any alleged discrepancy in dates. Second, McKenna has not provided relevant context. There is no real attempt at summarising what actually happened on and after Kristallnacht. If he had done so, readers would have known that at the alleged time of my father’s arrival in Bonn, the Nazis’ murderous acts against Jews were still very much in evidence, with burnt out synagogues, destroyed shops, debris strewn around the streets, and Nazi thugs still on the rampage. Further, and even more puzzling, Mr McKenna did not speak to me before deciding to rush this material into print. This is important not because I am my father’s son, but because I had extensive conversations with my late mother about this period, conversations which vividly confirmed the enormous impact this evil act – some historians mark Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Holocaust — had on my father. What makes this matter bizarre is that the incident, and the recording of it, played no formal part in my father’s six-volume A History of Australia.

Meanwhile, long-time critic and friend of Clark, Peter Ryan, wouldn’t be drawn further on the issue. But the former director of Melbourne University Press who published five volumes of Clark’s History of Australia confirmed to Crikey what he told The Australianthat he’d always known that Clark’s Kristallnacht recollections were not his own:

[Peter Ryan] said he has always known the historian’s vivid recollection of the 1938 pogrom against Jews was that of his wife Dymphna, not his own. Clark told Ryan while they were studying at Melbourne University that he was at Oxford University when news of the German “disorder” broke and he went to rescue Dymphna. “You’ll agree that it is a great deal more dramatic to say ‘I was there, the synagogue was burning’ than ‘I went over to get Dymphna and I read it in the newspaper’,” Mr Ryan said.

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Peter Fray
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