Popular history used to be confident and optimistic. Now it is full of violence and warfare. Is this simply because once-marginalised stories are now being told, or is there a broader cultural turn towards pessimism?by David Herman / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
There is a curious moment in Tony Judt’s new book of essays, Reappraisals (William Heinemann). He is writing about Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel about Stalin’s purges. Koestler’s book, writes Judt, is “remarkably benign… there are no scenes of torture. There is hardly any violence at all.” Judt’s own book, by contrast, is a reflection on what he calls “the forgotten 20th century.” His account of modern Europe, an important work by one of the outstanding historians of his generation, is dark and ends on a note of bleak pessimism. The words evil, violence and terror recur on almost every page.
Reappraisals, however, is a teddy bear’s picnic by comparison with this summer’s other outstanding work of history, Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire (Allen Lane). Mazower’s 768-page book is about Nazi rule in occupied Europe, focusing on Hitler’s attempt to build an empire in the east. The east is what mattered to Hitler. It is also where the bodies are. During the liberation of Paris in 1944, about 1,500 Frenchmen lost their lives in a week; during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, more than 200,000 died. At one battle on the eastern front in the summer of 1944, Bagration, over half a million Germans were killed or wounded. As many Soviet POWs died in German captivity in one day as British and American POWs died in German camps during the whole war. But there were other perpetrators too. The Italians in Ethiopia, the Croats and Romanians, the Hungarians and Ukrainians—and the Allies. After the war, in May 1945, “thousands of Algerians died in massacres” while “bloodiest of all was the repression on Madagascar,” where about 80,000 natives died in 1947-48 as French troops quashed an uprising.
Mazower and Judt, in two very different books, have written bleak accounts of the 20th century. But they are not alone. Something has changed in the way history is being written. The contrast between the postwar generation of historians, writing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and many of today’s equivalents is striking. Whether they are writing about the Reformation or early Victorian England, the French revolution or modern Russian history, there is a new pessimism. Atrocities and massacres that were once marginal are now centre stage. A quiet confidence in stability and progress towards greater prosperity and equality has given way to a new uncertainty, a sense that all you can be sure…