The pop historians

Since 1945 Britain has bred a disproportionate number of readable historians. Following AJP Taylor, the line between historian and journalist has blurred. But has the new post-cold war generation, led by Niall Ferguson, taken too literally the claim that history is good "box office"?
November 20, 1998

We are living through the end of the end of history. Our ageing population may be attached to the most irrational of traditions, but the prime minister has decreed that Britain is a young country, and he has a mandate for modernity. Heritage, the buzzword of the 1980s, is out; modernisation, the buzzword of the 1960s, is in. Does this mean that history is to be downgraded? By the government perhaps-have you noticed how Labour politicians are never photographed beside anything old?-but not necessarily by the nation. Indeed, there may be an appetite for a new past to explain the new present. It is, in any case, a good moment to consider the state of history in Britain.

Despite Britain's new commitment to European integration there remains a wide gulf between Britain and continental Europe in the writing of history. Indeed, those British historians who are most European in their outlook are often those who are most sceptical of the domination of historical thought in Europe by the French Annales school, or more recently by the anti-historical project of deconstructionism. These movements share with Marxist scholarship a tendency to impose patterns on the past and to relativise any inconvenient facts. But whereas the events of 1989-91 delivered the coup de gr?ce to Marxism in every discipline, there has been no corresponding quietus for the postmodernist schools.

Fortunately, the situation of history and historians in the English-speaking world, and in Britain in particular, is different. Historical disputes still interest the public to a remarkable degree. Serious history books sell in large numbers, are serialised in newspapers, televised and debated. Most leading historians are also part-time journalists. That is, they are expected to review the work of their peers and occasionally to justify themselves in newspapers and magazines, as well as in specialist journals. Such openness is still rare in France or Germany. The so-called Historikerstreit, the dispute in 1986-87 among German historians over "the past that will not pass away," was fought out in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit, and was so extraordinary partly for this reason. Hostilities resumed a decade later in the row over Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners. But that debate revealed a wide gulf between the guild of academic historians and the public. In France, Fran?ois Furet's critique of the revolution generated a huge furore. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

By contrast, British historiography is protected from the excesses of scholasticism by being forced to account for every revision of the consensus before a jury of the educated public. This accountability obliges British historians to write in a readable style. For them, history is not the exegesis of an ideologically preordained text, but the reconstruction of the past. Because European nations have a real need for this kind of history, and European history is so often badly served by continental scholarship, the most reliable and readable books on European history are often British. This was less true before 1945, even though the British have always prided themselves on their empiricism and sense of tradition. But the eclipse of continental intellectual life under communism and Nazism left a vacuum which young British historians were able, in part, to fill-aided, like the Americans, by the influx of refugee scholars.

The post-second world war period witnessed a renaissance of British historiography. It was the work of three generational waves: those who had begun their careers before the war; those who fought or just missed the war; and those who were wartime children. What was particularly noticeable were the many British scholars who were (and are) considered leading historians of other European countries: JH Elliott, Richard Carr and Hugh Thomas on Spain; Denis Mack Smith on Italy; Denis Brogan and Richard Cobb on France; Richard Overy and Ian Kershaw on Germany; Robert Conquest on the Soviet Union. Then there were the Marxists (Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill et al), the emigres (Lewis Namier, Geoffrey Elton), and the unclassifiable cosmopolitans such as the Alans, Bullock and Taylor, or the Normans, Davies and Stone. Add to these modernists the European mediaevalists of the calibre of Richard Southern and Karl Leyser, and it is clear that by the 1980s Britain had acquired a certain preeminence in history, though its universities could not compete with the rewards on offer in the US.

there exists a unique portrait of the older generation of British historians, drawn by a young Indian four decades ago. Ved Mehta was enough of an insider to hold his own in their astringently agonistic culture, but also enough of an outsider to take an unsentimental view of these mythical beasts in their cloistered zoo (in his mind's eye: he is blind). Mehta, who made his name with this work, had settled in the US after an English education. The New Yorker suggested that he write a series of articles about British intellectuals. He interviewed many of them, recording every detail with a care that put sighted journalists to shame. Published in book form in 1963 as Fly and the Fly Bottle, it is the best document of the state of British philosophy and history during what with hindsight seems a golden age: the last flowering of European liberal learning before the collectivisation of higher education began in the 1960s.

The historians-Hugh Trevor-Roper, AJP Taylor, Arnold Toynbee, EH Carr and Herbert Butterfield among them, with the ghost of Namier hovering over them all-emerge from Mehta's vivid account as incorrigibly argumentative, and on occasion, indeed, vituperative. Trevor-Roper compares "the prophet Toynbee" to Hitler, although when he swaps insults with Taylor it is clear that their rivalry masks a good deal of respect. But they are also men (the only woman is the late Veronica Wedgwood) of wide culture, wit and style-men for whom erudition and publication were only means to elicit the truth from a recalcitrant reality. History was their vocation, fame a useful and lucrative by-product. They wrote history because in the age of totalitarianism it manifestly mattered, and because they were addicted to it.

Mehta warmed to the one historian he met who did not consider journalists a lower caste. At one point Alan Taylor tells him: "I don't know whether I am more of a professional journalist or a historian..." His attitude was refreshingly frank; he was, after all, the first historian to deliver live and unscripted lectures to camera on television. Taylor's relish for the influence and income that the Beaverbrook press and the Observer's excellent books pages vouchsafed him was also prescient-perhaps ominously so.

That symbiotic nexus of press and professors has, in the meantime, revealed a sinister aspect too. The instant gratification offered by journalism has proved irresistible for some of the most promising of the historians in the two waves after Taylor's pre-war generation. If it is bad for scholars to do nothing for the general public, it is also possible to do too much. That ubiquitous uomo universale of our time, the media don, emerged in the 1980s, leaving in his wake a trail of reputations squandered and books unwritten. As one who has played the part of tempter, I know the ease with which all but the most dedicated academics can be lured away from their life's work to produce entertaining ephemera. And the media don was more often than not a historian: Norman Stone, John Vincent, Roy Porter, Linda Colley, Ben Pimlott, Simon Schama, David Cannadine, Jonathan Clark. They were all of the generation born during or soon after the war; few of the older men could make the transition. In the early 1980s, the Hitler Diaries affair signalled the changing of the historical guard. The grand old man, Hugh Trevor-Roper, looked out of place even before the humiliating realisation that he had been duped. Younger men, such as Norman Stone, had a field day. But the novelty of celebrity went to some academic heads.

the newest, post-cold war, generation of historians which is now coming into its prime, has learnt from the preceding generation how to treat their seniors with studied disrespect. Trevor-Roper had shown the way in the 1950s: Lawrence Stone emigrated to Princeton to escape his barbs. Norman Stone's brilliant demolition of EH Carr in the early 1980s set new standards of vitriol; but only last year, the new Regius Professor at Cambridge, Quentin Skinner, dealt with one of his predecessors, the late Geoffrey Elton, in a manner more delicate but no less deadly. Yet the iconoclasm of these middle-aged mavericks seemed tame to the new kids on campus.

Moreover, for the young stars of the 1990s, only just born in the 1960s, "journalistic" was no longer a dirty word. They took to television and tabloids quite naturally, cold-bloodedly advancing their parallel careers while moving seamlessly from scholarship to ephemera and back. In the last year or two, the vanguard of the new generation has stormed the heights of recognition by the public, if not necessarily by their peers. And like the post-1945 waves, the post-1989 cohort has made its biggest impact on the field which has also been the principal political battleground of the past decade: Europe.

Niall Ferguson is perhaps the most talented of the new generation. A Glaswegian, born in 1964, he was fortunate to go to Magdalen, until recently the best history college in Oxford. Unashamedly one of Thatcher's children, he is fascinated by high finance (he wrote a book about the Rothschilds) and scathing on leftist ideology, or indeed any manifestation of what Maurice Cowling, the grey eminence of the Peterhouse school, calls "moral uplift." Ferguson is also a child of his time-and a pupil of Norman Stone-in his media-friendliness: he has written columns for several newspapers (under a pseudonym until he got tenure) and has an even more intimate connection with Grub Street. At lunch a few years ago with Sue Douglas, one of the first women in Britain to edit a national newspaper, I was grilled about the then little-known Ferguson. I painted a complimentary although not uncritical portrait of him. Was she planning to hire him as a columnist? Reader, she married him. Their partnership symbolises the marriage of history and journalism.

Ferguson, though, has no need of his wife's coaching: he has a journalist's prurient fascination for the private lives of great men. His particular b?te noire is Keynes, whose limp-wristed attitude to the Germans in The Economic Consequences of the Peace he once attributed in the Spectator to a homosexual fling with a German delegate at Versailles. (In his new book, The Pity of War, he advances this theory again, but more cautiously.) Such stories were notable by their absence from Paper and Iron, his study of Hamburg business under the Kaiserreich and the Weimar republic. That book established Ferguson, by now a fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, as a serious historian. But he allowed his speculative leanings full rein in the more recent volume of essays he edited under the provocatively populist title Virtual History. Counterfactuals, "what-ifs" and "might-have-beens," are a legitimate tool of historical research-provided they are not confused with reality, as in the fashionable cinematic or fictional genre of "faction." By changing a single variable (the outcome of a battle, the timing of an economic crisis), light is supposedly shed on all the other factors in a given historical situation. Ferguson himself asks: "What if Britain had 'stood aside' in August 1914?" Together with Andrew Roberts (another pupil of Norman Stone), he also asks: "What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?" There is an element of fantasy football about all this, and Ferguson acknowledges the danger of reducing history to a parlour game, the stuff of thrillers such as Robert Harris's Fatherland.

In his latest, highly ambitious and brilliantly successful book on the world crisis of 1914-18, The Pity of War, however, Ferguson applies his counterfactual method fruitfully. Not only does he analyse the fashion for science fiction and apocalyptic prophecies in order to throw light on the psychology of the descent into war; he also uses it to question whether Britain might not have fought alongside Germany, or whether the war might have been won by the Central powers. He attacks the orthodoxy, that Germany deliberately provoked a preventive war in order to establish hegemony over the continent before Russia grew too strong, and argues that Germany acted from weakness. But for Britain's entry, would the annexationist German war aims have amounted to anything more than a German-dominated customs union, not unlike the present European Union?

His counterfactual method leads Ferguson to train his polemical howitzers on many other well-fortified "facts." It is not true, he claims, that the arms race helped to cause the first world war: military spending was modest by historical standards, and Germany-one of the most democratic and decentralised European powers-was also one of the least militaristic. There was no wave of war enthusiasm in 1914; propaganda made little difference to morale. He points to the myth of superior Allied war finance and organisation: they simply succeeded in spending far more than the Central powers, but were much less good at killing their enemies. The Germans lost, not for any of the reasons generally advanced, but because surrender suddenly became a safer option for German troops in August 1918. By asking a series of economic "what-ifs," he demonstrates that there were no easy solutions to war finance, but also that the war need not have debauched the currencies of those who lost. It was the postwar hyperinflation that paved the way for Nazism, not the war itself. And he concludes that the Reich, having "fought the war on the cheap," got away with paying the Allies very little in reparations. He scoffs at the idea fostered by poets such as Wilfred Owen that the men who fought were victims, forced unwillingly to kill. Instead he sides with Freud's pessimistic conclusion that humanity readily reverts to barbarism: "Men fought because they did not mind fighting." Yet he does not underestimate the human and economic price of the war, the end of "the first age of globalisation," the fatally unstable postwar settlement, based on a principle-self-determination-which, if applied fairly, was bound to give the Germans more territory, and if not, to engender a regime such as the Third Reich and a new war. His concluding section argues that British neutrality and German victory would have been preferable to what happened. "By fighting Germany in 1914, Asquith, Grey and their colleagues helped ensure that, when Germany did finally achieve predominance on the continent, Britain was no longer strong enough to provide a check to it." The first world war was not an unavoidable tragedy, but "the greatest error of modern history."

Ferguson's tour de force of virtual history may not become the definitive work on the first world war-John Keegan, for one, has just published a more conventional but utterly magisterial volume on the subject-but it may well achieve its aim of undermining the claims of all its rivals. Indeed, if there is one common denominator among the virtual historians of the 1990s, it is scepticism about the very idea of a definitive work of history-even a provisional one. These fl?neurs of the fin de si?cle prefer to inhabit a Popperian world of conjecture and refutation, in which there are no causes, no proofs, and ultimately no truth. Their subjectivism is sotto voce, but it is audible in their ostentatious self-awareness, and in the final elision of any distinction between history and journalism. The reporter's first draft of history is not, apart from its narrower range of sources, significantly different from the historian's later one. The virtual historian is also the actual journalist.

Ferguson's credibility as a journalist will be subjected to even tougher tests by his next two books-for which, together with The Pity of War-he will be paid the unprecedented sum for a historian of ?600,000 by Penguin. In the first he will enter the minefield of the British monarchy; in the second, Ethnicity and Sexuality, he will tackle sex and the Holocaust. The book will apparently use new accounts by survivors to describe sexual exploitation of victims inside the death camps, setting their sufferings in the context of the German-Jewish relationship and the sadistic nature of Nazi anti-Semitism. The book risks the accusation of reducing history to pornography. But in the Sunday Times Ferguson defended his choice of subject with typical robustness: "It's good news that history is box office... I try to write a new but true version of events. If it is sensational, that is not what I try to do." No doubt Ferguson believes that the Holocaust industry has tiptoed around sex. The phrase "box office" is revealing: what is good enough for Hollywood is good enough for him. During the five years until the book is published, however, he will need to come up with a more convincing reply to the accusation that he is flouting not merely obscurantism, but also common decency. History may be box office, but it is not yet a snuff movie.

To what extent, though, is Ferguson typical of his generation? In his politics, he is a loner: pro-German Euroscepticism is not a popular cause. Most Germanophile historians, tend to be less sceptical about the EU. Nor was it ever true that the new wave of historians were mainly right-wing: even before Blair's victory they shared the general tendency of academics to visceral antipathy to the Tories. But it is also true that even the most prominent young historians of the left share much of Ferguson's outlook. Consider two: Mark Mazower and Orlando Figes.

Mazower, reader in history at the University of Sussex, made his name in the wider world only this year with his bold history of Europe in the 20th century: Dark Continent. Before that he was known to scholars for a fine study on the Nazi occupation of Greece, and for his knowledge of the Balkans in general. This expertise is a clue to the insight of Dark Continent: that postwar Europe has tried, all too successfully, to bury its fascist and Nazi past, and is now trying to do the same with its communist legacy. For Mazower, these ideologies were not mere transient episodes, but have a powerful subliminal afterlife in our present institutions and conflicts. Like Ferguson, Mazower does not flinch from asking awkward questions about the continuities from Hitler's Europe to that of Schuman. The Nazi New Order evoked a rival vision of Europe from the Allies which was in some respects its mirror image. Far from being an unmitigated failure, the communist parties of eastern Europe were highly successful-far more so than the Nazis had been in the same countries-in refashioning their peasant peoples into votaries of modernity. Central planning could not, however, deliver the promised prosperity.

Lurking in the background of Mazower's project are two nightmares. One is past; the other represents a possible future. They are the Holocaust, the still uncancelled warrant for genocide, and the withering-away of the nation-state in the name of European unity. For Mazower, himself Jewish, the Holocaust is still a warning for Europe: race was the Nazis' organising principle, but any other might be almost as pernicious. The "diversity and dissension" that have distinguished the continent this century cannot be abolished by fiat, or even democracy.

Orlando Figes is the most admired historian of his generation. A People's Tragedy, his history of the Russian revolution, has won many prizes and is appearing in translation in Germany and elsewhere, continuing that British tradition of historical internationalism. Born into a Jewish family in Hampstead in 1959, his mother is the novelist Eva Figes. Another Norman Stone pupil at Cambridge, where he now teaches, Figes began with an interest in German intellectual history (I supervised his thesis on Jewish anti-Semitism), but under Stone's influence specialised in the Russian peasantry. His doctoral thesis, published as Peasant Russia, Civil War, laid the groundwork for the precocious originality of A People's Tragedy. The leading authority, Richard Pipes, could not acknowledge Figes's contribution; yet there is little doubt that it represents an advance on Pipes's great work, rooted as it inevitably was in the cold war.

But A People's Tragedy sets out to do more than posit revisionist challenges to received wisdom. It is remarkable also for its literary ambitions. Figes sets out, almost in the manner of Tolstoy, to pick out individual destinies amid the sweep of his narrative. And a narrative is just what this 900-page volume is: not a series of counterfactual queries, like Ferguson's book, but a return to storytelling as the true craft of the historian. If Ferguson sees history as a philosophical inquiry, Figes sees history as a branch of literature. Ferguson has restored the rigour of self-scrutiny to history; Figes has resurrected grand narrative. Like Mazower, Figes and Ferguson are embarked on an intrepid endeavour: to fire the historical imagination of their contemporaries-both in Britain and abroad-to seize the Zeit by its Geist. In the face of the indifference of the state to its own past, and that of Europe, such an endeavour is also an imperative.