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"?by Daniel Johnson / November 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
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…