Friday, 12 February 2010

Where are the Political Roots?

Mark Mazower, the British-born professor of history at Columbia University in New York, writes an interesting review of Richard Evans’s recent book Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent (Cambridge University Press). In the New Republic piece, Mazower makes the point that many British historians have been moved to study other countries’ past because they ‘find the stability of modern political life in Britain less noteworthy than the radical instability of the world of fascism and totalitarianism. Why bother with Oswald Mosley—a study in failure—when the Nazis give you the real thing?’

That may not be the case for much longer. The forthcoming general election may herald a period of instability in British politics, the consequences of which may be troubling. In part, the current uncertainty surrounding British politics and public dissatisfaction with the major political parties stems – as the historian Jeremy Black claimed last night at the launch of his 98th (98th!!!) book The Politics of World War Two (SAU) – from their abandonment of a historical context, the desperate desire to seem modern and not to call upon their ideological roots. For this and other reasons, Mazower claims that Evans’ study will be read as ‘a paean to a time when history’s public role could be taken for granted. This is no longer true, at least in Britain. And perhaps this is another, sadder, reason why so many British historians find their warmest reception abroad, not least in the United States, where history still seems to matter’.

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