Underrated: Hugh Thomas

The historian of the Hispanic world, and champion of Western civilisation, who died last month

Underrated
ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY

Hugh Thomas gave the Spanish back their history. For as long as Franco ruled — and he ruled for a very long time — the bloody conflict on which the Caudillo’s dictatorship was founded was too dangerous for Spaniards to interpret or even chronicle with any degree of honesty. The Spanish Civil War (first published in 1961, revised in 1965 and republished, greatly expanded, in 1977) was not only immediately recognised as a classic of historiography, but proved to be a major contribution to the restoration of Spanish democracy. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that no history book published since 1945 has had a greater impact on the contemporary world. 

This magnum opus of a thousand pages remains its author’s monument. On Franco’s decision not to enter the Second World War on Hitler’s side, he cited Goethe: genius is knowing where to stop. Thomas himself was a genius who never knew when to stop. In nearly 60 years as “a historian in private practice”, he wrote many major works on many other subjects: Cuba, or The Pursuit of Freedom (1971); An Unfinished History of the World (1979); The Conquest of Mexico (1994); The Slave Trade (1997); and his trilogy on the Spanish Empire: Rivers of Gold, The Golden Age and World Without End (2003-2014). He also wrote shorter books — on Suez, the Cold War, John Strachey and Goya — as well as novels and journalism, including several contributions to Standpoint.

The range and richness of his writing on the Hispanic world is without parallel in any language; his death last month was front-page news wherever Spanish is spoken. This achievement alone entitles him to be ranked among the greatest of British historians. Having been lavished with honours by the Spanish, the Mexicans and the French, this former Labour candidate accepted a peerage from Margaret Thatcher, the only British prime minister for whom he had much respect. Yet he was underrated by the British establishment. There was something splendidly quixotic about his long campaign to stop the British Library abandoning the Round Reading Room at the British Museum, but he never stood a chance against the mandarins. Having denounced state funding of culture, he turned down a lucrative Arts Council award. But he was never offered the chairs and fellowships and prizes with which academics reward one another. True, he was a professor at Reading from 1966 to 1975; it speaks well for the loyalty he inspired from his pupils that the most left-wing of them, Paul Preston, not only devoted his career to the Spanish Civil War, but overcame their political differences to write an admiring obituary for the Guardian. But Thomas was never at home in academic life. His expansive style — in person, in politics and on the page — was anathema to the cult of specialisation that gripped universities during his lifetime. The other historians who became his friends were either dons of the old school, such as Raymond Carr, or polymathic freelances like himself. He even liked Eric Hobsbawm.

It was through friendship and love, above all for his elegant and intelligent wife, Vanessa, and family, that Hugh Thomas transcended the role of a fine scholar and a true gentleman to become what his old friend and flatmate Paul Johnson called “a great dramatic personality”. With his dashing looks and sonorous drawl, he could effortlessly dominate a room. Men and women alike were drawn into his magnetic field, to be entertained, enlightened and enchanted. Guests at his table might include literary grandes dames such as Rebecca West or Nobel laureates such as Mario Vargas Llosa. The celebrated dinner party he gave in 1982 for Mrs Thatcher, recorded for posterity by Philip Larkin’s mordant pen, was only one of many occasions on which he sought to woo or cajole an intellectual elite that tended to disdain the defence of the West.

Like many of his generation, Thomas was a passionate European, but this was only an aspect of his cosmopolitanism. His chairmanship of the Centre for Policy Studies was predicated on Mrs Thatcher’s aspiration to global statesmanship: she wanted advice on foreign affairs that was independent of the diplomatic service. Thomas’s notorious clash with the think tank’s vituperative director, Sir Alfred Sherman, was not primarily about personalities, but about the Prime Minister’s priorities. By the time he left the CPS in 1991, Euroscepticism was gaining ground and his political influence was waning. In truth, Thomas was as much an Atlanticist as a European. In his Unfinished History of the World, he invoked not Europe alone, but Western civilisation: “Half the population of the West itself seems to have lost faith in their own ideals.” He was not religious, but he had faith in that which is eternal in man: “Those who wish to revive the West cannot afford to forget that the freedom which we respect in the form of representative democracy has only flourished successfully as yet in societies which have been inspired at one time or another by the absolute value which Christianity gives to the soul.” Hugh Thomas was one of the greatest souls of our time.