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History wars

Enda O’Doherty writes: “David Lean’s Dr Zhivago does for snow what his Lawrence of Arabia did for sand” was the verdict of one reviewer of the enormously successful 1965 romantic drama based rather loosely on Boris Pasternak’s novel (1957). One doesn’t know what he or she thought of either film referred to – or even indeed who he or she is - as all that seems to have survived of the review is this quote. File under smart remarks, I suppose.

I was reminded of the witticism, however, on seeing a new title (new in paperback, that is) in a bookshop the other day: Milk, by the prolific popular historian Mark Kurlansky, who has previously given us Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), Salt: A World History (2002), and, moving briefly out of the food aisles, Paper: Paging through History (2016). And, as the Algorithm Kings might say, if you enjoyed those you might also like Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert or Sidney Wilfred Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Publishers are quite attracted to this kind of idea-packaging, thinking, perhaps with good reason, that such books are likely to sell better than those whose titles suggest a more traditional approach to history, like The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe or English Society in the 18th Century.

Another growth area seems to be titles with a numeral in them. Neil MacGregor may have started this off in 2011 with A History of the World in 100 Objects. And of course we have since had Fintan O’Toole’s A History of Ireland in 100 Objects (2013) as well as A History of Sailing in 100 Objects (2016), A History of Australia in 100 Objects (2017), A History of Women in 100 Objects (2018) and A History of Video Games in 64 Objects (2018) ‑ thank God they couldn’t stretch to the hundred.

A related genre is the “world history” – not a HG Wells-like opus which tries to explain in a few hundred pages “the march of history” from the beginnings of human civilisation to the present but a history of bits, or if you like in bits, an anthology of shortish, sharpish pieces covering a wide time span and bringing together the work of a large number of historians, the whole work offering an account of a country’s history through a series of vignettes, but from a perspective wider than the national. Probably the biggest success in this area in recent years has been the Histoire mondiale de la France (2017), directed by Patrick Boucheron, which has sold well over 100,000 copies. It has also spawned imitations (or emulations), in Italy for example, with Andrea Giardina’s Storia Mondiale dell’Italia (also 2017) and Giuseppe Barone’s Storia Mondiale della Sicilia (2018).

Not everyone is wildly enthusiastic about this kind of thing. The distinguished, if sometimes controversial, historian Pierre Nora (he blocked a French translation of Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes back in the 1990s) wrote that Boucheron was “the intellectual that a left in trouble needed”, accusing him of putting political engagement before science and positing alternative dates (as opposed, that is, to dates whose significance in history as it is taught is sanctified, like 1789 or 1870 or 1940) in much the same way “as others advance alternative facts in the age of post-truth”. Boucheron and his collaborators replied by suggesting that Pierre Nora (whose field of study is French identity and collective memory) wished to have what he calls the “common[ly accepted] truth” about French history taken as an absolute truth, underwriting an orthodoxy, an objective, they said, which is “foreign to the work of the historian and to the field of comparative history in particular”; research only progresses, they insisted,”through the formulation of new questions and the discovery of new sources”.

Boucheron and his colleagues were also roundly abused by the right-wing controversialists Alain Finkielkraut and Éric Zemmour, the former accusing the authors of the Histoire mondiale of being “gravediggers of the great French tradition” while the latter described the project as having no less an aim than “dissolving France”. This is probably not so surprising coming from the ubiquitous Zemmour, who has written a number of popular books on what he sees as French decline and the French malaise and who sees French history as a simple but stirring story of grands hommes, forging greatness through the ages (through military might) in spite of the efforts of those who tried to undermine them or replace them – Muslims, Protestants, Enlightenment philosophers, secularists, pacifists and socialists, and, again, and almost certainly fatally this time, unassimilated African Muslims and their media and university defenders the “Islamo-gauchistes”.

Of course we are familiar enough with this kind of thing – though perhaps in less virulent form – across the water with the recent popularity among conservative (and Conservative) commentators of the idea of teaching history in school as nation-building propaganda: “our island story”. A notable recent contribution to the genre came from Jacob Rees Mogg, who it seems took a few weeks off from more vital work to give us The Victorians (2019). More about Éric Zemmour and French history wars soon.

21/11/2019