Historiography in Action

The Storm of War reminds us that Roberts is a first-rate writer’

What are readers to make of it? A prominent popular historian writes a major work on the Second World War which is widely praised, only for it to receive a highly critical review from a leading academic historian. That is the fate of Andrew Roberts’s The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War at the hands of Richard Evans in the Times Literary Supplement.

The entire episode is a case study of historiography in action. Most historiography relates to long-dead historians or to theorists, such as the post-modernists. It is far less common to see discussion of contemporary works in such terms, but Evans’s review sets up an apparent contrast of popular history with academic scholarship. That certainly is the tone of the review: “Roberts approaches his topics in a kind of Boy’s Own spirit, filling his pages with acts of derring-do by heroic, almost invariably British troops…” Professor Evans, who holds the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge, derides the book as an example of Roberts’s “hastily written potboilers, widely criticised by reviewers for their inadequacies and inaccuracies”, refers to “many other inaccuracies and errors”, and so on.

So far, apparently so clear. Academic standard versus popular mendacity and to be set accordingly as an historiographical exercise. Well, that deserves a poor mark. First, most academic reviewers have been far less harsh. In the Observer, for example, Robert Service praised “a sparkling addition”. The complaint, instead, from academic reviewers has been about a lack of originality, which is of course a problem with writing on the subject, but not one that prevents academics from tackling the familiar, as Evans has notably shown with his own, deservedly praised work on the Third Reich. Second, not all the non-academic writing about Roberts, a scholar with whom I enjoy friendly relations, has been positive. Instead, there has been a degree of political critique, notably with a harsh assault in the Independent by Johann Hari. 

In his review of Roberts, Evans devotes a certain amount of attention to his subject’s political resonances — “Roberts is an unabashed apologist for the British Empire…an unapologetically Conservative historian” — but he has failed to explain how this relates to the review unless in terms of his criticism that too much space is given to the British. 

Doubtlessly true. I myself would have preferred far more attention to the Sino-Japanese War, which I argued, in my military history of the Second World War, had already by 1939 provided a clear indication of why Germany would lose. But what Evans faults Roberts for is true of most scholarship, both British and foreign. Evans, for example, criticises Roberts for failing to consult the Germany and the Second World War series produced by the Military History Research Office in Germany, volumes of which he made good use in his own The Third Reich at War. Yet this series is heavily focused on the German war and underplays that involving Japan. In criticising Roberts, Evans cites Karl-Heinz Frieser on the battle of Kursk, but Frieser is all too typical of much German scholarship in presenting defeat as a result of being beaten in “the production battle in the factories” and as minimising or ignoring the extent to which the Germans were eventually outfought. The last is a key point, and one about which academics are divided in their emphasis, with German historians tending to underplay the battlefield in favour of the home front. Thus, again, the academic versus popular approach will not work.

Academics have a varied commitment to methods. Evans draws attention to Roberts’s weak footnotes. But there are prominent works that deliberately break with footnoting, not least one by Evans’s colleague, Christopher Bayly, in The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. Another Cambridge professor, John Hatcher, in The Black Death: An Intimate History, chose, in proceeding from the known to the unknown, to invent situations, characters and dialogue (pp. xii-xiii, 9). Similarly, Chris Wickham, Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford, offered an English case study that was “frankly speculative, indeed partially invented” in Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800, pp. 386, 428-33. Rather like historical geographers modelling settlement patterns, Wickham constructs an ideal picture of reality, seeking to crystallise the characteristics of many places. He does not go counter to the facts. Just so, but one wonders whether Roberts would be allowed this by an academic reviewer. At times, indeed, there is a sense that standards are being applied in a different fashion, although that is also the pattern within the academy: “I write a synoptic work of brilliance. You write mere textbooks.”

To turn to The Storm of War is to be reminded that Roberts is a first-rate writer and one who has an ability to link his account of the grand strategic level to the details of individual cases. There is proper attention to what Roberts terms “the everlasting shame of mankind”, the Holocaust. Much of the book is devoted to fighting, which is a reasonable choice given the subject. The balance of coverage is lopsided, but among the non-British topics ably covered are the Eastern Front and Midway. There is also an interesting discussion of Hitler’s personal responsibility for Germany’s defeat, one that is worthy of debate.

Throughout, Roberts writes with an impassioned commitment that does him credit as an historian: “Even two-thirds of a century later, it is still impossible not to feel fury against Hitler and the Nazis for forcing baby Rita Gains to grow up without her father.” In his Oxford Companion to World War Two, M. R. D. Foot, one of the critical reviewers of Roberts’s book, compared the Anglo-American bombing offensive on Germany with the Holocaust in a passage that totally failed to capture the point of intentionality:

“To days — day after day, regularly as clockwork — on which Himmler killed ten thousand Jews, nights followed, night after night, on which Harris killed a thousand Germans: both of them killing indirectly, as is the fashion with modern commanders. Sometimes Harris’s body-count outreached Himmler’s. What differences Saint Michael will see on the day of judgement between burning a baby to death in Dresden, and gassing a baby to death at Birkenau, is a question rather for the theologian than for the historian…” 

Historians abdicate their civic and moral responsibilities if they shelve such issues by handing them over to theologians. Roberts does not do so. I salute his commitment and worry about the moral emptiness of so much of the work produced by great scholars. The last, incidentally, is not a charge that can be made against Evans. Paradoxically, alongside their obvious differences, in approach and politics, there is much in common between these two powerful writers. So much for the simplicities of all too much historiography.

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