Sunday, 7 May 2017

Historians, like women, are attracted to power

Namier once said something to the effect that there is a narrative that people respect an original thinker, but nothing could be further from the truth. They only wish to hear familiar thoughts. How right he was.
John Charmley

When I was reading history at university I looked down my nose at by no means all but the majority of historians I read. Since going down I forgot this and had a lot of respect for them as a breed. Only now, reading the nonsense so many of them write, especially about Donald Trump, do I see my arrogant 19 year old self was too soft on them. They are much more closed minded, dangerous and stupid than I had realised.

I don't mind in the least their not liking Mr. Trump - I fully respect that and they might be right. It's their reasons for not liking him that are silly, ridiculous or in some cases malign.

You see this most recently with the plethora of articles ridiculing or denouncing him for his perfectly reasonable remark that had Andrew Jackson been a major politician in 1860 he might have prevented the Civil War.

Historians instead respect Lincoln who waged an unnecessary war in which 700,000 died for a noble cause.

What historians respect, of course, is power. Lincoln won. Had he lost he would be regarded very differently.

Had the Germans won the war, instead of being Marxists the historians would be teaching racial hygiene.

Karl Marx is still held in respect, because the Soviet Union won the war and his ideas took root in many parts of the world. It's true that the USSR lost the cold war but Communists achieved so many of their goals. Colonialism had come to an end. Racial and sexual equality were accepted. Tradition was regarded by opinion formers, at least, as oppressive. Hierarchy was bad and equality was good.

By contrast the fascists lost the battle of ideas completely when fascism was defeated in 1945. 

The ideas of Gobineau, H.S. Chamberlain, Lothrop Stoddard and the rest, who saw race rather than class as the driving force in history, were as wrong and crackpot as Marx and as interesting. They are regarded as diabolical. This is because Germany lost the war.

Historians are always writing about their own times when they write about the past. I have said that historians don't have interesting insights when they are commenting on present day events. In addition to the liberals and socialists there are plenty of conservative historians, like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, of whom this is true but I know of one great exception. 

Robert Tombs, a professor of French history at Cambridge, who taught me, has written an essay that is the best thing you'll ever read about why England voted for Brexit. It represents the coda to his recent very well received and bestselling history of England,“The English and Their History.”


  1. This person seems to have missed out on the history-from-below movement not just with history books, but with TV-series and movie scriptwriting as well.

  2. Trump's comment on Jackson was perfectly reasonable (though arguable certainly), and could easily have been an interesting topic for this board (probably already done, I suppose). Critics just showing unreasonable bias.