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History Joys
December 2012

Anne Applebaum: Her book on the crushing of Eastern Europe by the USSR is an example of a rarefied brand of history

This is a golden age of history-the written sort, that is. I have just read two of the finest history books I have ever encountered. The first was Professor Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers, about the circumstances that brought about the Great War in 1914; the second Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain, which describes the crushing of Eastern Europe by the USSR in the decade or so after the end of the Second World War, and which was reviewed in October's Standpoint.

An awful lot of books are published, and an awful lot of them are not even third-rate. In the field of history, the incidence of rubbish is as high as anywhere else; and it is made worse by the cult of the celebrity historian. These are men (and they are usually men) whose names sell a book irrespective of its merit-and the merit of what they do is not inevitably high. They employ small armies of research assistants, often because the money-making projects are international and require a command of languages that the writers do not have. To these researchers falls the lot of deciding what is or is not, in the first instance, a good story, as they plough through archives in foreign tongues. Sometimes the celebrity historians do not even go very far to have people find original stuff for them, but reheat what they have read in other people's works and tell the story in their own "inimitable" style. A specialist at this was the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who although posing as an intellectual, rarely, in later life, soiled his hands on original documents or set foot in an archive. It is as well the old boy did not have to submit himself to a viva voce on any of his later works, because it would have been an uncomfortable time.

Thanks, for example, to the years of toil of Sir Martin Gilbert, Lord Jenkins could write a lapidary volume on Churchill, simply by constructing a précis of Sir Martin's eight-volume work (the first two of which carry the name of Randolph Churchill, but which Sir Martin researched) and putting in some jokes. Thanks to the astonishing scholarship of the late Colin Matthew, Lord Jenkins could write a book on Gladstone, its facts culled from Matthew's years of work in editing 14 volumes of the Gladstone diaries (a project begun by M.R.D. Foot) and writing superb introductions to each pair of volumes. So it is that the celebrity historians, as they trundle their wheelbarrows to the bank, often depend on the scholarly exertions of others. The half-educated sycophants who review such books can't ignore the fact that they contain little original research, but blather on about the interesting "judgments" the writers express. Founded on hearsay, such judgments are nearly worthless.

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