Dreimal 100 Professoren—Vaterland, du bist verloren.
—Satire from the 1849 Frankfurt Parliament
Shoot more professors.
—V. I. Lenin.
British radicals of all sorts—déclassé aristocrats and proletarian revolutionaries, the privileged and the underdog—have made their special and characteristic mark by taking up foreign causes. In Treason of the Heart, I have given an account of this phenomenon as it works its way down the generations, through the classes, and into other nations. Adoption of a foreign cause involves a transfer of natural allegiance. Those with the psychological urge for it are able to dramatize themselves under cover of the noble task of righting wrongs. Activists choose to dedicate themselves to someone else’s national, ethnic, religious, or ideological struggle, and many of them are prepared to go into the battlefield. They consider themselves idealists but the mission to correct some perceived injustice suffered by other people is self-imposed and wilful. To reorder the lives of others is an exercise of power resting on an absolute belief in the superiority of one’s own enlightenment and identity.
The word, spoken or written, comes into its own. Poets in every generation from Wordsworth and Byron to W. H. Auden have celebrated the ideal of revolution abroad. Aspiring by definition to a role in public life, members of both Houses of Parliament are found to be leading members of committees agitating, speechifying, and pamphleteering, for whatever happens to be the cause of the hour. Out of assumed religious obligation, clergymen preach on behalf of some minority or defend whatever enemy Britain may be engaged in fighting.
Historians, however, are supposed to work in the realm of facts. The great German Leopold von Ranke established that the objective for every historian is to describe how things in the past really were. But exactly like poets, clergymen, or politicians, historians have habitually transferred allegiance to some foreign cause, compromising their reputation and even trading upon it by placing themselves at the service of something fanciful and unrelated to their scholarship. To each professor his cause, from each professor his bias. “Violent prejudices,” Walter Laqueur observes in Historians in Politics, a collection of essays he and George Mosse edited, “are nursed and maintained more easily in sheltered academic surroundings than on the political stage.”
At one point, I wondered if I should devote a chapter in Treason of the Heart to the politicization of historiography. The range of individual commitments proved too diffuse, and emotional incontinence the sole common denominator. What follows is an assembly of some of the more notable historians who, over the course of the past two centuries, have submitted their researches to the promotion of personal beliefs.
Edward Augustus Freeman was born in 1823 into a well-off family and had no need for a university post. Like Macaulay or J. A. Froude, he saw British history as evidence of national continuity and supremacy. Originally a Tory, he grew into all the Liberal causes, passionately supporting the Greek and Italian national movements. He knew Gladstone and shared his root-and-branch condemnation of the Ottoman Empire. After meeting the explorer Richard Burton, he commented, “He has killed more men than most people, but they were mainly Turks.” When the editor of the prestigious Saturday Review took up the Turkish cause, Freeman resigned his position there, a gesture which cost him the huge sum of £600 a year. He also hated the French so much that he supported the Germans in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and on a visit could write off-hand to his biographer, “Paris, of course, is as beastly as ever.”
A rare Conservative where Liberal conformity was already the rule, J. R. Seeley, the son of a publisher, was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History in Cambridge in 1869. Published in 1883, The Expansion of England was his best known book and very often reprinted. It is a classic justification of Britain and its empire, which he said in a much-quoted throwaway sentence was “acquired in a fit of absence of mind.” History, he held, was there to serve the state, “and while it should be scientific in its methods, should pursue a practical object.” That object was political, in simple terms the understanding and protection of British power and influence. Seeley advocated a federal union of Britain and its colonies, a forerunner of the idea of the Anglosphere.
Born in 1893, G. P. Gooch was an influential public figure. Studies in Germany put him in the tradition of British intellectuals who admired that country, preferring it to France. In 1903, Noel Buxton launched the Balkan Committee. Lord Bryce was president and Gooch a member. Such an assembly of cause-mongers was bound to take up the plight of minorities everywhere, for instance, the Armenians under the Ottomans or the Slavs under the Habsburgs. Gooch’s major work, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century, is impressively open and informed. He couldn’t quite bring himself to side with the Boers in the South African war, and his sympathy with pacifism went only so far. Between 1906 and 1910, Gooch was a Liberal Member of Parliament. The First War, and then Hitler, tested his pro-German sympathy to destruction.
The best known and the best-loved historian of England in the first half of the twentieth century” was George Macaulay Trevelyan, so writes his daughter and biographer Mary Moorman, herself a Cambridge professor. The filial devotion is probably justified. Trevelyan was the son of the Liberal Member of Parliament George Otto Trevelyan and the great-nephew of Macaulay. He was accustomed from birth to giving everyone the benefit of their progressive opinions. In the Boer war, England was showing itself to be “an oppressive imperialist power,” as bad as the Austrians who had occupied Italy. His trilogy about Garibaldi, published in the early 1900s, may claim to be the most extreme rhapsody to any foreign nationalism in the English language. A conscientious objector in the First World War, he joined a Quaker ambulance unit (but as a Commandant, naturally). The fall of the Czar in 1917 was the “greatest event since the French Revolution.” Mary Moorman records that he wrote to his children in celebration, “Russia is free! I can think of nothing else, feel nothing else.” In 1940, he became Master of Trinity College, the most prestigious position at Cambridge. Appearing towards the end of the Second War, his English Social History was one of the most popular history books ever published, perhaps because its confident elitist and statist approach matched the spirit of the times.
Some People is a collection of satirical sketches that Harold Nicolson published in 1927. All of them, he said, were composites drawn from several originals but still true to life. One of his sparkling caricatures conjures up Professor Eugen Malone, the archetype of the political professor. “The Chancelleries of Europe used to tremble at his name.” Nicolson went on to amplify, “His scholarship was incontestable; his knowledge of foreign politics sincere and unequalled; he was intimate with everybody of even incidental importance from Archangel to Algeciras; and he was always right . . . . He knew all about the Ladins and the Seklers and the Lusatian Slavs, and the Gheg colonies in Attica, and the Baranya and the Kutzo-Vlachs.” Nicolson invents Palur, an island improbably near Sicily with an Ethiopian population but under occupation by Uruguay. A master of just such tangled issues, Professor Malone makes it his business to attend the Versailles Peace Conference and to have his recommendation for the future of Palur known by the politicians of the Great Powers. He does not reveal his own interest, which is that he is trying to safeguard a house he owns on the island. Whether on purpose or through misunderstanding, the politicians decide against Professor Malone, and Nicolson gives him his deserved comeuppance.
The imaginary Professor Malone might well have been modeled on R. W. Seton-Watson. His career is a cautionary tale. Born in 1869, he inherited enough money to be independent. A good linguist, he went in the early years of the twentieth century to Austria, Transylvania, and Hungary. The Habsburg Empire never managed to accommodate its Slav minorities, and the notion of creating independent nations out of its peoples seems to have hit Seton-Watson with the force of revelation. At the outbreak of the First World War, he could write to a friend that Great Serbia was now inevitable, and “we must create it.” In December 1914, he and G. M. Trevelyan traveled to Serbia where fanatical nationalists had recently shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and precipitated the hostilities. Returning, they lobbied the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, on Serbia’s behalf. An independent Czech state was also in prospect. Tomáš Masaryk, its leader and future president, made sure to brief Seton-Watson, recording how “our trusty friend drew up a Memorandum on what I had told him and caused it to be laid before the Allied governments.”
At his own expense, Seton-Watson published a magazine called The New Europe and gathered a pressure group of like-minded Slavophiles including Henry Wickham Steed. As the Foreign Editor of The Times, Steed was in a position to propagate Seton-Watson’s deep and irrational hatred of Habsburg Austria. After the collapse of the empire at the end of the war, its formerly constituent Slav populations duly declared their independence, and Seton-Watson could claim to be a founding father of the new nation-states. His ideal of a Greater Serbia took shape on the ground as Yugoslavia. His correspondence, edited by his two sons, records how between the wars he concentrated on Yugoslavia’s increasing political degradation with the forlorn hope of resolving the “conflicts between its constituent nations.” Its territorial integrity, of course, was completely artificial, held together after 1945 solely by the totalitarian brutality of Tito and the Communists. At the end of his life, disillusioned, Seton-Watson told another foreign affairs specialist, Professor James Joll (who passed it on to me), that he feared his life’s work had been mistaken. Having dabbled in the fate of other people for whom he had no responsibility and who were unable to call him into account, he died before he could witness the horrific end of the Yugoslavia he had done so much to bring about.
Professors are, of course, not alone in wishing to join the good and the great, or in supposing that they possess special knowledge that those who take decisions about affairs of state should feel obliged to call on. Gilbert Murray is an outstanding example of the way an academic with a taste for it can exploit his position to become a public figure. His wife was an earl’s daughter and he became Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford in 1908. A Liberal, he was unsuccessful five times in elections for the parliamentary seat then reserved for the university. Undeterred, Murray instead made to carve out a career between the wars through the League of Nations.
The moving spirit of Chatham House, a think tank priding itself on influence with the Foreign Office, Arnold Toynbee had a particularly inflated opinion of himself, telling a friend, “I want to be a great giant historian.” According to his biographer William H. McNeill, he “delighted in associating with the great and powerful” and saw himself as one of them, a seer who had uncovered the secret of the historical process.
In yet another field, Sir Bernard Pares founded the School of Slavonic Studies at the University of London and was the foremost Russian scholar at the beginning of the twentieth century. His son, Richard Pares, also a historian, suggests that he was “a Russian patriot rather than a British patriot.” Temporarily the Bolshevik Revolution disconcerted him. But when he returned to Russia in 1935, his son writes, “he had not left the Moscow railway station before his mind was flooded with the realization that the Bolsheviks were, after all, Russian.” Bernard Pares was the “oracle of a cause in which nearly everybody wanted to believe. . . . I think he would have accepted almost any extension of Russian power.”
Sir Lewis Namier was born in 1888 in the eastern European territory that changed hands between Russia and Poland. During the turmoil, his family property was confiscated, and he seems never quite to have overcome the loss. Naturalized a Briton, he entered public life as a member of the delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference. As an academic, he delved into the minute details of the lives of long-dead politicians with a remorselessness that led to the conclusion that he would have wished to be one himself. His learning was as imposing as his force of character. Politics, and even history itself, was a matter of agreeing with him. I once thoughtlessly let drop to him the idea that Communism had at least led to the industrialization of Russia. He had ready the statistics to prove that, on the contrary, Communism impeded what would otherwise have been a far more rapid and successful industrialization under Czarism.
Zionism was his cause. For most of the critical interwar years, he ran the London office of the Jewish Agency. His polemics against Foreign Office Arabists were deadly. Aiming at a particularly narrow anti-Zionist official, he finished one critique with a satirical, “Well done, Mr. Beeley!” Devotion to the ideal of the Jewish national home took up the time and energy that he might otherwise have spent writing the great books of which he was capable. The enemies of scholarship, he well understood, were amateurism, journalistic prostitution, and obsession with doctrine. In the Oxford of my day, Hugh Trevor-Roper and A. J. P. Taylor became national celebrities through sustained displays of these characteristics. The former passed as conservative, the latter as socialist, but such ascriptions were hardly more than nominal. Both leveraged their university positions into financial reward and fame in the media. In their wake, a host of academics have come to believe that writing reviews or articles in the national press is the higher purpose of their career.
Soviet apologists and assorted Marxists have also exemplified the dead-end into which obsession with doctrine leads. In 1966, after a lifetime of consistent mendacious denial of Communist reality, E. H. Carr could write about the Soviet Union, “I suppose I’ve rather by-passed the horrors and brutalities and persecution,” going on to add, “but then I’m a historian, not a politician.” He and Communists such as Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and E. J. Hobsbawn are not historians in any real sense—they merely issue certificates to approve whatever part of Marx’s pre-ordained schema concerns them. Their imitators and successors, the likes of Noam Chomsky or Edward Said, select facts only to dramatize uncontrollable psychological compulsions. The politicization of historiography has come to be treason to truth itself.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 1, on page 90
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