History Joys

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.

Both Professor Clark and Ms Applebaum speak, read and write several European languages. When they go into archives-and as the bibliography of each work shows, their research over many years has taken them all over the continent-their familiarity with the languages in which the key sources are composed allows them not merely to comprehend material without, in most instances, the filter of a translator, but to make more precisely the essentially journalistic judgment required in deciding which parts of their material should or should not be included in their books.

I know I am praising these authors for writing a rarefied brand of history, and that there will always be a market for books that simply tell a ripping yarn without a couple of hundred pages of scholarly apparatus at the end. But the rarefied brand has uses other than establishing the impeccable scholarly credentials of the author, and helping him or her to a higher doctorate or an even more exalted chair. It also, because of the depths of the research such works contain, challenges existing views of the subjects, and challenges them by offering a more complete selection of facts than was hitherto available.

In Applebaum’s book, for example, her chapter on the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe, mainly to remove Germans from lands other than Germany, but also to get Poles out of Ukraine, provides evidence (were any needed) that the persecution of Europe’s Jews did not end with the defeat of the Nazis, or indeed start on any direct order from the region’s new master, Stalin. The locals, without help or direction from any extra-territorial authority, were quite capable of doing it too. 

Her reconstruction of the protests in Berlin in June 1953 also remind us that, more than three years before the Hungarian uprising, the oppressed people of the Soviet bloc were determined to try to shake off their shackles. Such research is not always considered sexy by publishers, but it makes the most vital contribution to our knowledge of the period and the region.

More controversial is Professor Clark’s subtle but clear determination to force us to reconsider the blame for the beginning of the conflagration after Gavrilo Princip killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in June 1914. Clark’s research into the diplomatic and domestic archives of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Serbia and, of course, Britain has been breathtaking in its detail. As one nears the climax of the book-the mobilisation of armies, and the moment when Sir Edward Grey, watching the lamps being lit in St James’s Park, sees them going out for decades in Europe-one realises that one is being presented with evidence that the Germans were not actually so belligerent, and therefore so culpable for what happened over the following four years as the established record has it. This contention has provoked violent disagreements with the author, but his placing the blame on a Russia that was incompetent and vainglorious, and had learned nothing from its humiliation in the war against Japan a decade earlier, has merit and deserves serious consideration.

When people question the value of the humanities, they should be pointed towards these two books. Historians do not make great scientific discoveries, cause technological advances or cure cancer. But they do, in their work, remind us that we are no sort of civilised society without the pursuit of truth, and that the truth is rarely satisfactorily pursued by the enthusiastic and breathless rehashing of secondary sources.

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