Friday, 31 July 2009

Criticising Right-Wing Historians

As anyone who watches BBC Television’s Newsnight Review will know, the journalist Johann Hari has a tendency towards the excitable. This appears to be especially true when it comes to right-wing historians. Today, in his column in the Independent, Hari launches an attack on Andrew Roberts, whose new study of the Second World War, Storm of War, has garnered considerable acclaim (and a trite profile of the author in last week’s Observer). Roberts is capable of defending himself against the allegations made by Hari of consorting with apologists for apartheid and neo-fascists. But his assertion that Roberts, the author of some of the outstanding historical studies of recent years – Eminent Churchillians and Masters and Commanders will suffice - ‘would be shunned in a culture that takes human rights seriously’ is absurdly juvenile.

It reminds one of the spat that Hari had with another distinguished right-wing scholar, Niall Ferguson. Empire, Ferguson’s critical (often highly critical) defence of British imperialism broadcast by Channel 4 in 2003 was described by Hari as ‘a startlingly obscene TV series’ which means, presumably, that he would have liked it to be banned. Ludicrously, in his critique of Ferguson, Hari described the British Empire as a ‘psychopathic form of totalitarianism’ equal to that of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Quite where one goes when historical debate has descended to that level is hard to fathom. Ferguson proposed that Hari read some Solzhenitsyn.

I often disagree with both Roberts and Ferguson, as with almost all historians, regardless of their political views. But both are extraordinarily good scholars who make compelling arguments that demand to be taken seriously. To call Ferguson ‘an apologist for mass death’, as Hari did, is to reduce serious historical debate to that of the playground.

Andrew Roberts will be writing about the first use of Blitzkrieg in the September edition of History Today.

Meet Roberts and more of our most distinguished contributors on our Authors page.


Unknown said...

I think the proof of the pudding is that Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson have featured in History Today. The only Hari to have appeared is Mata!

Derry Nairn said...

It would be very interesting to hear Hari and Roberts and/or Ferguson debate one of these points in History Today.

How about it?

Hugh Costello said...

I read the Observer profile and it wasn't trite at all. In fact, it was decidedly sympathetic. Yes, the journalist itemised some of the usual accusations (social climbing, self-aggrandisement etc) levelled against Roberts and downplayed them, stressing instead his achievements and quoting numerous admirers. Methinks in an effort to defend Roberts from the left-liberal press you have done the Observer writer a disservice.

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