Thursday, January 5, 2012

Past, Present and Propaganda

By Simon Heffer | Published in History Today Volume: 62 Issue: 1 2012

Simon Heffer argues that until relatively recently most historians have been biased in their efforts to harness the past to contemporary concerns.

I was moved to write my extended essay, A Short History of Power, when I realised, after a lifetime spent reading (and, occasionally, writing) history books, that much of what I had read was simply propaganda. The real reasons why great powers undertook wars or other aggressive policies were often rather unedifying and best dressed up as matters of high principle. Also, many historians have used the struggles of the past to amplify their views about the present.

This is less true with the modern, highly footnoted works of history than with those from the first half of the last century or the centuries before that. By no means is the propagandistic school of history absent from the modern genre – though I should probably attract a writ, if I were to suggest some of the eminent writers who I suspect are guilty of it – but it is harder to get away with blatant skew than once it was. However, from the late 18th to the mid-20th century British historians lived in a golden age of special pleading and downright bias.

I was first alerted to this about 15 years ago when I read, belatedly, James Anthony Froude’s history of the Tudors in the 10-volume Everyman edition. It was published almost a century ago in that format and became enormously popular with Everyman’s target audience of the self-educating lower-middle and working classes. Froude’s facts were as accurate as his researches at the time allowed them to be; but it is his tone that many would find unacceptable today. Through his accounts of the reigns of Henry VIII and his three children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, Froude is determined at all times to support the Reformation and to uphold its consequences. He writes of Elizabeth as though she were almost saintly, expressing again and again his detestation of those Catholic (and largely Spanish) plotters who sought to knock her off the throne.

That detestation is nothing compared with what he reserves for Mary Tudor. Not only are her deeds outlined in bloodcurdling detail: Froude frequently makes disobliging remarks about her personality and even her looks. In the far more sectarian world of the mid-19th century, not long after John Henry Newman had gone over to Rome and sought to take numerous other bright younger men over with him, such anti-Catholicism was deemed absolutely acceptable.

History as religious propaganda was nothing new when Froude was writing. Edward Gibbon had put an undercurrent of the support of atheism into the Decline and Fall (1776-89). Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England (1848), as well as being propaganda for the Whig interpretation of history – for the notion that history is all about progress – also puts the boot into Catholicism. In an age of imperial expansion there was an insatiable demand for accounts of the English – more than the British – past that described the individualism of the nation and its independence of any foreign power. This is as true of J.R. Green as it is of Froude and Macaulay.

But perhaps the historian I had most in mind when I wrote the essay was Thomas Carlyle, to whom the notion of using history simply to tell a story was, with one exception, utter anathema. The exception is his first attempt at the genre, The French Revolution (1837), in which the author is content just to tell a very dramatic story with such power and colour that it is sometimes as if one is reading a screenplay. After that all Carlyle’s histories have a hidden agenda. Past and Present (1843) is a defence of feudalism and an attack on the modern capitalist England of the Industrial Revolution. Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845) is used to further Carlyle’s belief in the hero or the strong man and the notion that might is right; as is Frederick the Great (1858-65).

The trait continued into the 20th century, though more among popular than among academic historians. What is Arthur Bryant if he is not propaganda? What point does the school of Marxist historians serve if it is not to propagandise for their shared political view? The Peterhouse school of historians at Cambridge that took its lead from Herbert Butterfield and, like him, took a caustic Tory approach to the Whig interpretation of history, existed (and in some places still exists) to advance a conservative view of the past. Whenever I talk to academic historians they speak keenly of the factions they perceive themselves to be in. History too often is propaganda: all that matters is that we see it for what, at times, it is.

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