Finest Hour 135, Summer 2007
Editor’s Essay – History on the Cheap
Generational Chauvinism? Major croutons in the Churchill soup.
An outbreak of pernicious pronouncements on Churchill and his times by a number of authors raises the question: will history join the lost arts? We are not at “the end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama famously suggested, before 9/11 proved him wrong. But could we be approaching the end of good history?
Examples abound in this issue: a pronouncement that Churchill didn’t read serious books and borrowed his ideas from H.G. Wells (page 10); an assertion that Churchill was a closet anti-Semite (page 40); and three new books making further fallacious pronouncements unleavened by rival facts and opinions (page 54).
Tom Hickman’s Churchill’s Bodyguard (FH 133) was so packed with errors as to cast doubt on his basic Churchill knowledge. Charles Higham’s book, Dark Lady, suffers from similar errors, while adding “a soup bowl of scandals” and a “forest of family trees.” From Churchill’s War Rooms is a book that has virtually nothing to do with Churchill; adding him to the title was done to boost sales. Gordon Corrigan’s Blood, Sweat and Arrogance, like some books before it, sets out with preconceived notions and considers only the facts that support them. With perfect hind-sight, Corrigan assures us that sinking the French fleet at Oran in 1940 was unnecessary, and that Churchill himself lacked intellectual curiosity—so ridiculous a theory that one wonders if he read any serious biography.
Such writers share a penchant for selective research and “Generational Chauvinism”: a phrase coined by William Manchester to describe the judging of past events by modern standards or hind-sight. Faith in the French Army of 1940 was “idiocy,” Corrigan writes, forgetting that everyone at the time (except the Germans) thought the French unbeatable. Higham dwells on the social inequities of the Edwardian era as if he has just discovered them. Richard Toye dubs Churchill an anti-Semite on the basis of a draft someone else wrote, ignoring WSC’s massive pro-Semitic record. Higham doesn’t like Lord Randolph, so he assures us that Queen Victoria “detested” him, which may be true but does not define Lord Randolph. Churchill didn’t readily warm to strangers, so Corrigan concludes that he was an introvert. Withal they are irritatingly smug, constantly asserting their superiority over predecessors who navigated the same waters with perhaps more judgment and balance.
Cheap history is encouraged by the Internet, our electronic Hyde Park Corner: a double-edged sword of opinion from sublime to preposterous; and by the expansion of news outlets to a 24/7 cacophony. In such a soup, it is much easier to become a Major Crouton by proclaiming Churchill an anti-Semite than by acknowledging his lifelong Zionism.
A new book by Geoffrey Roberts claims that in 1948, Stalin told somebody in the U.S. State Department that he hoped to “do business” with America—that if he had been born American he would have been a businessman. Could this be another isolated fact that some may seize upon to argue that Stalin was really a benign, misunderstood uncle? I have not read the book and do not presume to judge it. A scholar friend assures me that Roberts’ writing is not the same breed of silliness as these others: “Were we wrong about Uncle Joe? Wrong (or not wrong) when? There is absolutely no doubt that FDR and WSC were frequently wrong about Uncle Joe. But is that a universal? That they were wrong about the degree of his power over his advisers is, I think, not irrelevant. Or were they correct?”
In those few lines a professional historian offers the alternative to cheap history. There are always practical possibilities, new avenues of thought or inquiry, which might change our view of What Really Happened. But these are not explored with out-of-context quotations or pre-fab conclusions designed to fit a mind-set.
“No one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history,” Churchill said in 1940. “But at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review…. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting…. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”
I hope history will continue to flicker on the trail of the past, and not become a discipline practiced by Politically Correct closed minds who have already decided (or have been told) what they must believe. —RML
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