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Monday, 7 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 1.

[The blog post I started composing about the riot of dumb articles posted about recent events - above all, the Refugee Crisis and the Paris Attacks - by actual historians and people calling themselves historians grew too long to be one post, so I have broken it up. Here is Part 1, in which I tackle some preliminary issues.  Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.]

"History could hardly be more brutally exploited. No one should doubt the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with."

These words conclude an article in the Daily Mail by self-appointed ‘historian’ Tom Holland.[1]  Holland’s article rounded off a pretty shameful couple of weeks for the historical discipline (if indeed it be one such, because I am beginning to doubt it).  First of all, superannuated Berlin professor Alexander Demandt gave an interview to Die Welt in which he expressed the views that the refugee crisis was pretty much like the Völkerwanderung which (said he) brought down the Roman Empire, that a north-south ‘farbige Front’ (a coloured front: yes, you read that right) was opening up, but that the current immigrants were more dangerous than the Goths because they weren’t armed (and thus, I assume, we can’t justifiably just gun them down on sight).  The next week, after the Paris attacks, Harvard (yes, Harvard) professor of History Niall ‘Fire His Ass’ Ferguson penned a piece for the Murdoch Press arguing that Paris and the West were falling before a new barbarian invasion, just like Rome.[2]   Ferguson’s piece was of course taken up eagerly by UKIP News, with his credentials as an academic used to support the truth of the argument.[3]  Mostly Ferguson drew upon a half-remembered, half-digested version of Gibbon but he also cited, approvingly, the books by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, which (as people have attempted to silence me before for saying) lend themselves to precisely this sort of far right-wing argument.  Not only – to my knowledge – has neither of these two worthies made any sort of statement distancing themselves from this use of their writing (thus increasing my gut-feeling that they are happy enough with these politics); none of the usually posturing self-styled ‘socially committed historians’ has – to my knowledge – made any effort to speak out.[4]  That has been left to the usually self-effacing, unassuming Professor Mark Humphries and Dr John Henry Clay.  As ever, outside the UK, the picture was rosier.[5]  And finally ‘top historian’ Tom Holland wrote a shocking piece that simplified and distorted 1400 years of history into a binary struggle between Christianity (which seems to be lazily interchangeable with ‘The West’) and Islam (which seems to be lazily interchangeable with ‘Arabs’).  All this, in a whole range of ways, sums up the deep, probably terminal, intellectual crisis in which the discipline of History finds itself: one which, alas, the discipline itself is far too complacent, self-satisfied and cocooned to notice.

Let’s go back to the words I quoted at the start: "History could hardly be more brutally exploited. No one should doubt the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with." Let’s leave to one side the idea that Holland himself is no stranger to the ‘exploitation’ of ‘history’, as I am sure his bank- or hedge-fund-manager would agree.  It’s the second phrase that interests me: ‘the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with.’  Let’s think about this for a minute.  How can a ‘memory’ be dangerous?  How can the events of the past (all dead and gone) be dangerous in themselves?  I, for example, had a row with a Jewish bloke once.  Is that a dangerous memory?  Of course not.  If I choose (now) to make that fact the basis for a generalised, antisemitic hatred of all Jewish people, that would be dangerous.  But I might just as easily (and do, or at least try to) make it into the basis of a reflection on what a tit I was perhaps being back then, or as a reflection to bring myself up short when the baser instincts (which I suspect all of us who are honest have) might make me want to generalise from one unfortunate exchange.  In the latter case at least, therefore, that memory could be called the very opposite of dangerous.  France and Germany fought a string of tit-for-tat wars between 1756 and 1945 as a result of which millions of people died.  Is that a ‘dangerous memory’? It would be for Holland (were we to assume he was consistent in what passes for his thought).  But in fact it has been precisely that history and that positive desire to ‘put an end to all this’ that has forged, since 1945, closer ties between the French and German republics.  What could be – in Holland’s terms – a more ‘dangerous memory’ than the Holocaust?  But that has widely been used[6] as the basis for a desire to do all one can to prevent further genocides.  It is not the events of history, the ‘memories’, that are dangerous; it is what one does with them.  And here, of course, is the irony: Holland is playing with the events of the past every bit as much as Daesh/ISIS.  To paraphrase a commenter on my ‘official’ Facebook page, Holland is essentially saying ‘the world has been irreparably divided into us and them, and the problem with them is that they regard the world as irreparably divided into us and them’.

This is perhaps the central point that I am trying to work through in Why History Doesn’t Matter: that the past has no force in and of itself and cannot force anyone to do anything.  It is people who use a view of the past to justify what they are doing in the present that causes the problems.  No knowledge of any actual ‘facts’ of the past will be ‘relevant’ in helping you understand, confront or challenge that in any fundamental fashion.  This seems to me to be an obvious point but it apparently eludes a depressingly large number of the practitioners of history (by which I mean not raconteurs like Holland but actual bona fide historians) and that surely constitutes serious grounds for concern.

The second, closely-related point about Holland’s phrase is the idea that these historical events (and – intriguingly – the particular reading that Holland places on them) somehow constitute ‘memories’, inherent within entire groups of people.  Apparently, Muslims carry around, hard-wired into them, a set of ‘dangerous memories’ that can simply be ‘played with’ by Daesh.  Ponder that as a piece of imagery to be peddling to the readership of the Daily Mail.  Note also that Holland makes no attempt, at any point, to argue that what he calls these ‘memories’ are in any way false; on the contrary, his story presents them (albeit dubiously, as we’ll see) as historical fact.  The implication is that Muslims simply can’t cope with their history.  They have somehow to have their supposed ‘memories’ suppressed, rather than being awoken by Daesh ideologues.  By contrast, the white middle-class readership of the Mail evidently either has no historical ‘memory’ at all, which is why Holland has to spell it out, or at least it can safely deal with its historical knowledge.  There is no reflection by this ‘top historian’ on the relationship between the (dead) past and the (living) practice of history but then nor is there on the part of most genuine historians either.  This is why history is fast disappearing as any sort of intellectually respectable discipline.

One could go on but let’s draw a veil of charity over it, leaving only the point that it is a pretty damning indictment of putatively élite British education and its supposedly starry products that they can swill out language and arguments as light-weight and illogical as this.  Leaving aside all of the problems with ‘top historian’ Holland’s historical reconstruction, his characteristically florid, bombastic, overwrought prose (diagnostic of the schlock-horror-novelist that he essentially is) lacks the slightest sign of any intellectual reflection. It is thoughtless, careless and at best logically loose – and loose talk costs lives.

Part 2 of this essay can be found here.


[1] Unsurprisingly, like most of his ‘historical raconteur’ ilk, Holland comes from a ‘private school and Oxbridge’ background. His qualifications, a first-class BA, are no greater than those of many thousands of other people, who nevertheless do not claim the title of ‘historian’, let alone ‘top historian’.

[3]  For other reactionary political use of the trope, see http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/659694fe-9440-11e5-b190-291e94b77c8f.html#axzz3slVEkDY5

[4] If any of the rogues’ gallery of poseurs in attendance at this conference, in remembrance of the greatest faux-radical poseur of them all, has made any sort of public intervention about any of this I am not aware of it.

[6] Outside Israel, where, with tragic irony, the commemorative lesson appears to be not so much ‘lest this happen again’ as ‘lest this happen to us again’. I can understand that easily enough, but I can hardly condone its use to justify Israel’s genocidal policies in Gaza and the occupied territories.  This, by the way, makes me no more opposed to the existence of the state of Israel than my disapproval of Putin's policies makes me opposed to the existence of the state of Russia.


  1. Interesting piece.

    I'll admit to not being the brightest, but it seems to me that what you are saying is that, instead of "No one should doubt the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with", if Holland had written that "No one should doubt the dangerous nature of the people manipulating the memories of Islam" he would have been nearer the point?

  2. What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed. An impeccably targeted sharp response to 'celebrity scholarship'. Almost all of the 'background' pieces I've read have implied that they provide an accepted historicization of the unfolding disaster in the Mid-East rather than scanty, often inaccurate regional historical outlines, buffed-up to look erudite but which are basically bad Wikipedia; thanks to western ignorance, they tend to get away with it.

  3. To the point and the point well made. I am reminded of Alister Cooke's observation that "history does not judge, historians do". There are no objective facts and lessons, no direct parallels, no obvious way in which history directly repeats itself until the similarities are highlighted. I suppose it says something that the right wing press feel the need to find historians to draw these parallels for them, but depressing that qualified historians have been willing to do so.

  4. I am no historian and this article has voiced my disquiet at the current narrative peddled by all and sundry, so much so that at times I have felt I was in a twilight world where lessons from history were simple a matter for my school book with no relation ship for the society in which we live. This article reassures that I am not alone!

  5. Thanks for your piece. On the same day as the Paris attacks, I was feeding my id by looking through the outrageous and hateful commentary on the bottom of every article I came across. It was there, in the muck and slime of the comments threads, that I saw the pseudo-informed making mystical connections between Paris and the sack of Rome in 410. So I started plugging in the terms "dark ages" and "Paris" and "Rome" into Google every day, and lo, on the third day, Fergusson's article appeared... first not in Business Insider but in the Boston Globe.

    I was drafting my own rage-piece but some other people on Reuters beat me too it, and in a better fashion. So:

    At the same time, I wonder whether this typological reading of history, which I think is part of the reason why a lot of the Middle Ages was full of such fearful and vengeful shit, is a basic part of human reasoning.

  6. Comparing the wars between France and Germany with the wars between 2 ideologies like Christianity and Islam is like comparing apples with shoes. Therefore, when you start with bad understanding of how things are, it's very hard to come with a valid conclusion.
    You are extraordinary naïve MR. Halsall and I doubt you've really got what Tom was saying.

    1. That's excellent. Extraordinary funny. Tell me, do you write all your own material?

    2. Funny or not, you completely ignored(or choose to ignore) the religion factor, which is completely missing from the French-German wars that you brought up as an argument. So your analogy is for the most part useless.

    3. Well, no. Read Part 2. You might find it difficult but at least try to follow. You ignore the religious and ideological element of Franco-German conflict - have a read of any decent book on 1870 - and you ignore the fact that there has never been an ideological war between Islam and Christianity, but wars between different polities. It's complicated. History is complicated. But if you just like simple stories, and your English suggests that that might be more your level, stick to Tom Holland and his ilk. It will reinforce your prejudices, but history is about challenging them.


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