As a historian of psychoanalysis who constantly uses oral history and archival material, I often come across the products of flawed memories. Wish and emotion so often guide historical recollection, especially concerning one’s own role.
Mark McKenna’s discovery of Manning Clark’s incorrect statement about being present after Kristallnacht deserves to be taken as a legitimate piece of the puzzle that was Clark, rather than people immediately jumping to conclusions defensively, or, for that matter, offensively.
It’s a valuable discovery that should not be discounted but should encourage open reflection. My experience shows that often such discoveries of what might seem a relatively trivial detail in the scheme of things can lead to a change in the way we can view the whole in terms of perspectives we are trapped in. In my own historical work, I have found that psychoanalysts, for all their empathy, often misremember past events, condensing and/or displacing them as in a dream. However, this often correlated with their own polarised perspectives and how political and personal allegiances shaped reality ex post facto to fit their wishes for what reality should have looked like.
McKenna’s discovery is a revelation about a quintessential historian who owed it to his craft to be truthful, even – especially – in an autobiography. We owe it to the future to respect the facts as primary because future generations will rely on such reports.
This finding in itself in no way destroys what Clark wrote in the rest of his work, but it’s a reminder that it needs to be taken with caution together with several grains of salt.