Our frightful years?
‘It is one of the joys of editing a magazine that, if it is good enough, great writers occasionally descend from Parnassus to contribute. Bob Conquest was one’
Tools of a literary life: Robert Conquest working at home in Stanford, California (L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service.)
The hitherto unknown wartime poems by Robert Conquest that we publish this month, with an illuminating commentary by his wife and editor Elizabeth, take us back to a time when national survival was in mortal peril and the future of Western civilisation was in doubt. Conquest, who died in 2015 aged 98, would later achieve considerable renown as a poet and a global reputation as the first historian to reveal the full horror of Stalin’s crimes. Half a century ago The Great Terror, his account of Stalin’s purges, was eagerly smuggled into the Soviet Union and played its part, along with such works as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, in undermining the communist regime. But Conquest is not yet recognised as a war poet, and we hope that the selection of poems from his War Notebooks, published here for the first time, will draw attention to this early flowering of a great talent, which has been overshadowed by his later achievements. The young Conquest could already write such a sublime couplet as this: “Translucent timeless pleasure/On the island of continuous love.” Or a line such as this: “The absolute iron of this war, our frightful years.”
It is one of the joys of editing a magazine that, if it is good enough, great writers occasionally descend from Parnassus to contribute. Bob Conquest was one, and readers can enjoy Elizabeth’s account of their epic journey from California to London, for the launch of Standpoint in 2008, when he was already 91. He graced our early issues not only with new poems but also with a magnificent essay on Solzhenitsyn, who died that year. His two historical masterworks, The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, have just been republished, the former with a new foreword by Anne Applebaum. She confirms that Conquest, like the Soviet defectors and dissidents, was right all along and Stalin’s apologists — from E.H. Carr to Eric Hobsbawm — were culpably wrong.
A special debt is owed to historians who reveal the truth to nations that have been kept in the dark about their pasts. At his memorial service last month, the late Hugh Thomas — another Standpoint contributor — was hailed by Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, for his vast oeuvre and especially his first major work, The Spanish Civil War. That book, which first appeared in 1961, gave the Spanish people their first objective and reliable account of the horrors on both sides over which both General Franco and the Soviet Union had drawn a veil. As the Spanish ambassador observed, Hugh Thomas has not merely written about Spanish history — he is part of Spanish history. The same is true of Conquest: he is part of Russian history now. One day, long after Vladimir Putin too is consigned to the dustbin of history, a future Russian leader may pay tribute to the part played by the small minority of Western scholars and intellectuals who ignored the Kremlin’s lies and told Russians the truth about their past. When that time comes, the name of Bob Conquest should be foremost among them.
It is too soon to say who will be the great historian of Brexit. But in this issue two distinguished contributors, Professors Jeremy Black and Guglielmo Verdirame, reflect on how these momentous events will be seen in retrospect. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali calls for a post-Brexit national vision, with a renewed emphasis on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And the great Oxford political philosopher Sir Larry Siedentop gives the government’s present difficulties in negotiating Brexit a wholly new context. In an original essay, he shows how Britain’s unwritten constitution has turned out to be a double-edged sword in relation to Brexit.
One historian who deserves credit, simply because he was ahead of the game, is Paul Johnson. (Full disclosure: he is my father.) Already in 1972, he published The Offshore Islanders: Britain from Roman Occupation to European Entry. It was an unabashed vindication, from a left-of-centre standpoint, of the English people. He was passionately European in politics and culture, having lived in Paris during the 1950s and covered the 1968 evénéments sympathetically. Yet his history of the English people argued that they have always resisted European domination. The referendum in 1975 gave him a prominent role, but thereafter the political relationship between Britain and the Continent ceased to be an issue for a generation. Such intellectual Eurosceptics were until lately a rare breed on either Left or Right. One such is the historian of France and England Robert Tombs, who wrote to The Times last month that Charles James Fox and his Whig followers saw the French Revolution as the will of God: “I suspect that their successors today cling to the belief that the EU is also somehow providential.”
Future generations will need historians to examine the events we are living through dispassionately. One now widely-held view that they will surely expose as a myth is that these are the worst years to be alive for a century or more. Some young people have taken such claims so literally that they are proposing to emigrate or at least cleaving to the far-left politics of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, the real reason for the present lack of business confidence lies not in Brexit but the prospect of a Corbyn government lying beyond it.
We should recall the ordeals through which our parents and grandparents lived. These are not, in Bob Conquest’s line about the Second World War, “our frightful years”. On the contrary, these are inspirational years, years in which the fate of our island nation is being rewritten, years on which historians will look back, in anger at our leaders’ myopia or with sympathy for those now forced to make impossible choices. These are not frightful years; nobody has been killed, either by the EU or by Brexit. We are lucky to be able to forge our future as an independent nation. Let us not fail posterity.