Tag Archives: historiography

Historian admits to negative Amazon reviews

I’ve just read a quite remarkable article on the BBC website, describing how a leading Historian has admitted to writing negative Amazon reviews on his rivals work. Professor Orlando Figes, of London’s Birbeck College, has finally owned up to writing a string of damming comments on his rivals books on Amazon. The admission comes after weeks of intrigue. Figes – who is currently on sick leave – has issued a statement of apology.

The row began after Rachel Polonsky, a Russian expert, discovered a less than complimentary review on Amazon of her recently published book. The comment said that her book was ‘hard to follow’, while another book by Robert Service was apparently ‘awful’. Yet the same username described a book by Figes as ‘fascinating’. Polonsky discovered that the username, ‘orlando-birbeck’ (not exactly imaginative) had the same home address as Figes. When confronted with the allegations Figes initially threatened legal action. Then he claimed that his wife had written the comments.

“It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm… This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse… I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.”

Service, a leading authority on Russian History and one of the authors targeted by Figes, stated in the Guardian that the “secretive rubbishing of my work… [was] disgraceful.”

It really is a unique story, and not the kind of thing that you would expect from Historians. I would be very surprised if it does not go on more than we think, but for someone so prominent to not only do it but get caught out, is quite unheard of. It does sound as if Figes has some mental health issues that need addressing. But even then, it is hard to see him being able to come back from this. How can he go back to being a Professor of History, teaching History students? If I knew that one of my tutors had been exposed for trying to smear their peers, I wouldn’t be able to take them seriously.

Historians are meant to let their books do the talking – ugly spats and hostile reviewing should be left to the TV pundits. Objectivity is crucial, and if a historian stoops to trying to smear his rivals, how can we take his work seriously? One big lie casts doubt on all of his work – if someone can lie like that, what does that say about their integrity? Like David Irving after Richard Evans demolished his arguments, his credibility is shot to pieces.

Its a warning to us all, thats for sure. It shows how tempting it is to lower ones self to petty squabbles, rather than channeling our energies into our work. And even the great and the good are open to the temptation of dirty tricks. And finally, it shows how the internet has affected the history profession, in that wider bookselling has upped the intensity of publishing, and also made it possible for such smearing to take place. How many historians will be casting a suspicious eye on their reviews now?

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The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I must confess to being quite tired of narrative military history. As much as ‘the history of…’ accounts are important, in that they are the building blocks of history, they can be rather dry and predictable. I much prefer to read books that either take a long view and look at trends, changes and continuities, or attempt to drill down and investigate mysteries, explode myths or answer questions.

Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to pick up this book by John Keegan for the princely sum of £2.99. John Keegan is one of the main figures in late twentieth century school of military historiography, alongside other figures such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Terraine and Michael Howard. Among Keegan’s books that I have read and enjoyed are Churchill’s Generals – a study of senior British Army officers in the Second World War – and Six Armies in Normandy – A look at the national contingents that fought in the Battle of Normandy.

I often feel that military histories that look at just one battle, at one particular point in time, are like listening to one particular second in a much longer symphony. What becomes before and after makes all the difference, by isolating it we remove it from its natural habitat. Therefore I much admire this work, which sees Keegan looking at the human experience of war over hundreds of years. To do this in detail is a tall order, so three case studies are used – Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. Each provides an extremely useful yardstick for comparison to what came before and what came after – what changed, and why? What stayed the same?

Keegan does very well to make some very complex events more understandable – such is the essence of well-written history, after all. An approach that I particularly like is breaking each battle down into the different kinds of combat that were experiences – ie at Agincourt various combinations of Archer, footsoldier and knight; at Waterloo infantry, cavalry and artillery; and at the Somme infantry, artilley and to a lesser extent machine gunners. What is noticeable is how the change in combat was motivated by technology – from Agincourt to Waterloo the development of gunpowder, and from Waterloo to the Somme by rifling, more efficient high explosives and machine guns.

Against this framework looks at more human factors – how the social composition of the armies in question evolved, and how the development of weapons changed the type of wounds that a soldier might expect to suffer. Keegan even considers such interesting points as historical trends in looting. A salient point, however, is one that seems obvious to us only after we read it – that over the time in question battles involve more and more people, over a bigger and bigger space, and lasted for longer and longer. Such was the evolution towards total war.

Critics of Keegan might point out that he gives little consideration to political factors, but personally I find his refreshing. Im not sure if any Tommy Atkins was particulary worried about politics when lying wounded in the Mud at Agincourt, Waterloo or the Somme. As important as Clausewitz’s maxim is about war being the pursuit of politics through other means, does politics really have to overshadow every facet of military history? If we are studying strategy, yes. But when it come to the face of battle, no.

My only criticism is that the Somme was coming up for 100 years ago, and thus Keegan’s arguments are somewhat adrift, bearing in mind we are now in the nuclear age. Perhaps a new edition including an example from the Second World War might be pertinent, and put the Somme in greater context than leaving it as a bookend?

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Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, World War One

Revisionism and Military History

Regular readers will not be surprised that I’m of the opinion that military history lags a long way behind other historical disciplines. Whilst other themes and eras in history see heated but formative debate, military history is perhaps subject to more assumptions, more orthodoxies, and more restrictive influences than any other area of study. The study of subjects such as class, economics, politics, crime, race and empire are at the cutting edge of the historical profession. They attract the most active minds, and the most scrutiny. Arguments are hotly debated in books, journal articles and at conferences. Various schools of thought spring up.

Revisionism is term used to describe any efforts to challenge an assumption. And as Military History is full of assumptions, it is pretty much ripe for being ‘revised’. Assumptions are most dangerous things in history – nothing should be assumed, everything should be researched, challenged and debated. Challenge is healthy, and results in strong arguments gaining credence, and weak ones fading away. An unchallenged argument is like an impressive looking Regiment that hasn’t seen action. Revisionism is not denialism, but it is certainly about busting myths.

Yet military history is still, by and large, the preserve of the military itself. There is a kind of subliminal, unwritten rule that only former officers can really ‘do’ military history. Civvie Historians are shrugged off, no matter their qualities. But it is a very dangerous world when we ignore somebody’s views just because they aren’t in our club or of our class. This is also a convenient way to protect heritage, regimental history and the reputations of former officers. History should be about causes, factors, themes, patterns, sources – not regimental ties.

Military History all too often tends to be overwhelmingly narrative, a stale story of events rather than a critical look at a subject or an event. Military campaigns are far more dynamic than a simple a-z history of a battle – they deserve far better debate and analysis. Too often military history books are poorly researched, poorly laid out, and poorly referenced. No wonder people get bored with it. Maybe the lack of debate is down to the military principle of not questioning orders, and always obeying your superiors – do these caveats permeate into military history? I think so.

I can think of perhaps two prominent examples of Revisionism in Military History. The popular belief is that Tommy marched off to France singing Tiperrary, sat for four years in a muddy hole in France eating bully beef, was led by buffons and either died going over the top or went home horribly scarred. Gordon Corrigan has done much to challenge this view in Mud, Blood and Poppycock. In terms of the oft-quoted but rarely debated ‘lions led by donkeys’ cliche, John Terraine, Richard Holmes and Gary Sheffield have done much writing on this subject. And whilst no one argues that Haig, French et al were masters of the battlefield, perhaps there were good reasons why they struggled, and maybe they did better than we seem to think? My mind is still undecided, but at least the debate is there.

Another big myth is that of the Blitz. According to popular legend everyone had a good old east end style knees up, singing roll about the barrel while the Luftwaffe tried to break our spirits. Everyone was remarkably well behaved and we won in the end. Of course, this takes no account of the widespread looting, the fragile morale or the fears of panic and civil unrest. Angus Calder has done much to challenge these assumptions, as well as one of my old tutors, Brad Beaven.

Another military historian who did much to challenge assumptions was Robin Neillands. In a series of books on the war in North West Europe Neillands challenged the perceived view that Monty wasn’t really that good a general, and shows us that, perhaps, he was much better than the assumed orthodoxy allows us to think. Not only that, but Neillands does much to dismantle and expose the smearing of Montgomery by historians.

Another military historian who might be labelled a revisionist is William Buckingham. Writing on the battle of Arnhem, he exposes the traditional views of the battle as folly. The men of Arnhem were fine men indeed, but they were not quite the elite force we are led to believe. And it is hard to not find Boy Browning at fault for much of what went wrong at Arnhem, although his reputation has been fiercely protected by his family, friends and former regiment in the years afterwards. It might be uncomfortable, but there are little things called objectivity and the truth.

War is perhaps one of the most shocking yet pivotal experiences that humankind undergoes. The study of it should be fresh, and challenging, and should closely inform the present and the future. In no other profession can the repetition of past mistakes be so costly. War affects everyone, especially the ordinary men and women who are caught up in its whirlwind. The history of warfare is far too important to be left to the military alone. Military History should not be owned just by a small part of society: we are all trustees of our military heritage, through our ancestors experiences, and the consequences of warfare that we all live with to this day.

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the truth is out there?

the truth is out there... or is it?

the truth is out there... or is it?

Recent events in the news have made me think back to one of my first lectures at University, many moons ago. In the Historical Methods unit, we were being encouraged to think more critically about what we were studying. A good theory. In practice it did far more to fry our brains.

But I digress. This particular lecture introduced the idea of the ‘historical truth’. The idea of truth, the lecturer argued, was absurd. Instead of there being something called ‘the truth’, there are only various different interpretations, which are naturally different based on a persons experiences and perspective.

No such thing as the truth? He must be mad, we all though. But its only by looking back, and having watched Nick Griffins absurd abuse of history, that I see the idea of the truth in a new perspective. Sure, there are some things that are beyond doubt. Water boils at 37 degrees, a normal human being has two eyeballs and sooner or later we all die. But that is all very scientific. Also, every crime must have been committed by someone, and it is the work of the detective to find out who.

Some things cannot be proved. Something more fluid things simply cannot be proved or disproved. Religion, for example. How can you prove a higher being? That is more belief than truth. As Richard Dawkins would say, no-one can offer any proof of this, apart from ‘god works in mysterious ways’. Which is not proof.

Nick Griffin comes from the David Irving school of history. Namely, that they have already decided what they want to see, and select sources and evidence that supports their argument, and ignore everything else. This is not history, it is lying and abusing your position to hoodwink people. It should be a matter of honour to historians that they look at the evidence in an as impartial way as possible, then come to a conclusion. This process if further enhanced by publishing your work, giving talks, and debating with other historians. In this process, something close to the truth usually appears.

A propensity to knowingly lie is not something that you can trust in a Historian. As Professor Richard Evans commented on Irving, his work is completely worthless and he cannot be trusted, due to his track record with evidence. The ironic thing is, the fact that Irving is a denier of the holocaust is one of the most concrete things any Historian could ever come across.

So, the truth is out there. Or is it? Its one of those arguments that will never be solved, and will run and run all the time historians are paid to pick over technicalities. Personally I find historiography rather tedious, and prefer to spend my time actually researching things. But all the same, some idea of objectivity and use of evidence is important to bear in mind, in life as well as in history.

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The problem of the military biography

It has long been a tradition that when somebody proves their worth in battle, particularly in high command, sooner or later someone will write a book about them. Beyond books, absolutely anything to do with them becomes hot property. Nelson, Wellington and – to a lesser extent – Montgomery are good examples.

Often when someone is elevated to a status of virtual saint, it then becomes almost sacrilege to say anything negative about them. For years no one would have dared utter the fact that Nelson had a mistress, or that Wellington was a cold character who had more than one mistress. Montgomery hasn’t got away with it quite so much, thanks to the attention of mainly American historians keen to drag his reputation down.

Even with less senior officers, the tradition of the military biography pervades. The usual routine is that when somebody dies, their family allow somebody to write the official biography, and gives them full access to all papers and documents. As a result, they are very unlikely to be impartial or objective. In fact, the family are surely likely to pick a writer who they trust to be favourable to their relatives reputation in the first place.

the Pursuit of Exactitude - Roy Fullick

the Pursuit of Exactitude - Roy Fullick

A great example is the biography of General Sir John Hackett, ‘the Pursuit of Exactitude’ by Roy Fullick. A keenly awaited book, it promised much and delivered little. Given that Hackett was one of the most interesting characters to serve in the British Army in the second world war, and was absolutely pivotal to one of the most famous battles in history, it really disappoints. While it is no doubt interesting to read about the social conventions of pre-war Egypt, or what Hackett got up to when Chancellor of Kings College London, that does not jusity the minimal chapter on Arnhem. The title really is ironic, given Hackett’s well known academic nature and quest for the truth, his biography does nothing of the sort. This really was an opportunity missed. One cannot help but wonder if there is a reason that the Arnhem chapter was so weak.

Horrocks - the general who led from the front

Horrocks - the general who led from the front

Slightly more useful is the biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, by Phillip Warner. It gives fair emphasis to each part of Horrocks’ life, not seeking to cover up anything unpleasant. Uncomfortable questions are asked too, such as those regarding Horrocks performance in the Market Garden campaign, and his ongoing ill-health. But Horrocks was an interesting character, and his life needs no embellishments or cover-ups.

Not long ago I became interested in researching the life and career of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning, ‘Boy’ Browning of Bridge too far infamy. I came across some very interesting sources, regarding Browning’s background, first world war and inter-war careers, and later life. Seen in these contexts, his performance over the Arnhem debacle makes much more sense. Unfortunately, part way through the research I was informed by the Grenadier Guards Archivist that somebody else is already well advanced on a biography. The message, a clear ‘leave off’. I would hope for a balanced, objective, scholarly study, but I won’t hold my breath. Sadly families and regiments are all too often concerned with reputations than truth.

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Filed under Arnhem, Book of the Week, debate