‘Public history’ is something of a misnomer. The degree to which history which can influence policy is ‘public’ is a difficult question. E. H. Carr writes in his What Is History? that, when he was working in a junior capacity at the Paris peace conference in 1919, all the diplomats and their staffs took extra care to empty their wastepaper baskets. They were thinking of the discussions surrounding the peace treaty after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the history they used to inform their actions was a titbit of information about that time: that nefarious negotiators spied on their opposite numbers’ plans by going through their waste paper. Carr uses this to illustrate the fallacy of thinking one can ultimately ‘learn from history’ in a way which is total and all-encompassing. Each moment in time presents new and unique challenges. One cannot rely simply on knowing the past to know the present, or indeed to predict the future. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Niall Ferguson
Henry Kissinger: The Idealist?
Review – Kissinger 1923–1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson
Henry Kissinger remains one of the world’s most controversial statesmen. He is a man who is, as Niall Ferguson states at the beginning of this new biography, covering the first 45 years of his subject’s life, both revered and reviled in equal measure. Kissinger is held up by some as a kind of seer, an intellectual without parallel in recent times; others declare – just as fiercely – that he has exercised an entirely corrosive influence on world affairs, that he is a war criminal – and, perhaps most oddly, that he is an agent of the shadowy forces which operate behind supposedly democratic nations to control the way the world really works. (The latter position is obviously ridiculous, but it is worth mentioning – not least because the risible imaginings of David Icke and his ilk can sometimes reflect the more vigorous denunciations of Kissinger which exist in significantly more acceptable circles.) There is one thing, however, on which both sides of this particular debate – which seeks to decide whether Kissinger is a hero or villain, a saint or sinner – appear to agree: that Kissinger was a realist, and a realist par excellence. Ferguson, however, takes a dramatically divergent view, one which is contained within his provocative subtitle. For him, Kissinger is (or at least was) an idealist, which represents the exact opposite of much of the popular and scholarly perception of Kissinger’s life and his work. It appears that everyone else has got the man entirely wrong. Continue reading
History Is Literature
‘It is important for the historian not only to write, but to write well.’ Thus ran a particularly controversial essay title which was recently put to history students sitting their Finals at one of our most ancient universities. This question provoked what might at first glance seem a surprising level of controversy. Continue reading
What Are a Historian’s Most Important Skills?
The purpose of history (at least according to Leopold von Ranke) is ‘to show how things actually were’. There is much debate about the exact meaning of this phrase – does it provide a warrant only for literalism and the stating of fact, or does it give license, for example, for historians to write about how the past was in essence? – but much of the central tenets of Ranke’s own empirical history have been broadly accepted. What is not so concrete, however, is the question of what skills and traits a historian ought to exhibit. After all, it takes a certain skill to write empirically, and it takes a certain knack to assemble facts into the form of historical writing, but true skill in the writing of history is something less easy to define; it contains something higher, something nobler – and something infinitely more subjective. But the best historians – in short, those who master both substance and style – can achieve something greater than the result of Ranke’s rather prosaic observation; their works can contain and aspire to the literary – and they can attract the permanence of true art in the process. Continue reading
Europe Before the First World War: What Were They Thinking?
Review – The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan
Amid a rash of volumes attempting to detail and explain the origins of the First World War, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace stand out. Both represent holistic, almost global attempts to analyse the various causes of the war; and both contain very thorough and very acute investigations into the character of the time before the continental conflagration broke out. MacMillan assessed European society before the war which nearly brought about its collapse, whereas Clark focuses on an analysis which takes in nation-states, alliances, diplomacy and the ever-present prospect of force (but these forces were not impersonal; as will be elucidated, much of European diplomacy in those days was built and conducted on the basis of personality and thoroughly personal reactions). Continue reading
When Historians Write About the Past, Are They Nearly Always Writing About the Present?
On one level, one must agree with the statement entirely: every historian, in the act of writing, is implicitly chronicling his or her own times. In a basic sense, this can be seen in the language or dialect they use, even in the vernacular of their work. Each is connected with history, but each is still of the present, directed by the exigencies of the present day. The words themselves might also have political connotations from which they cannot be entirely dissociated. E. H. Carr, in his seminal work of historiography What is History?, provides a pertinent example:
The names by which successive French historians have described the Parisian crowds which played so prominent a role in the French Revolution – le sans-cullottes, le peuple, la canaille, le bras-nus – are all, for those that know the rules of the game, manifestos of a political affiliation and of a particular interpretation.
The Historian as a Public Intellectual
Recently I had the great pleasure of reading Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. My review of that book – which takes a rather holistic approach – can be read on this blog. It has given me cause to think about the nature both of historical writing and how historians are perceived in the public sphere: whether, in other words, they can be ‘public intellectuals’ – that much overused phrase which somewhat lazy journalists use to denote academics who, in this view of the world, have apparently descended from the ivory tower to commune to the masses. Continue reading
All’s Fair in Love and War? Review – The Pity of War (1998) by Niall Ferguson
One aspect of this book which has attracted a great deal of attention is its apparent novelty. Much has been made by reviewers of its gleeful rejection of received wisdom, as well as the confidence and vigour with which the historian who wrote it, Niall Ferguson, puts forward his controversial case. Ferguson, though now a respected and well-known figure within the academic community with several tenured professorships to his name, was only in his early thirties when the book was first published. His energy both in composition and argument was startling to many at that time. The arguments contained within this book are still hardly accepted by the mainstream; and they do not constitute a widely adopted interpretation – even now – of the course of the First World War and its causes. With the centenary of the First World War beginning last year, and a tranche of new work on the subject finding publication, it is perhaps pertinent to review this particularly fascinating book about how, more than one hundred years ago, the civilised world went to war and promptly set about tearing itself apart. Continue reading