Blood and Rage By Michael Burleigh HARPERPRESS Pounds 25 (545pp) Pounds 22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Historians who start life as serious, measured writers run a serious risk of falling, at the first hint of fame or notoriety, into a professional trap of pomposity, repetition and banality. This may be termed "the curse of Clio", or perhaps "Starkey's syndrome": a latterday episode in what Cyril Connolly termed Enemies of Promise. But, whatever the causes, it is a striking and depressing phenomenon.
The forefathers of such post-professional self-aggrandisement certainly set a bad example. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hugh Trevor- Roper and AJP Taylor exhibited serious symptoms of this affliction; as later, from the high left moralism that was his trademark, did EP Thompson. Among my more engaging interlocutors of recent years, I can certainly count Norman Stone and my erstwhile colleague at LSE, David Starkey. Starkey it was who, over lunch one day, and on being told by me that I was about to give a lecture on the French Revolution, replied: "My dear boy, don't you know there wasn't one?".
There are some who, by dint of intellectual focus and strength of character, resist such a degeneration. Eric Hobsbawm, Paul Preston and Paul Kennedy are among those who have, for all their public engagement, kept their balance. But the malaise continues to spread. Among recent patients we can note Niall Ferguson, an aspirant economic historian fallen foul of superficial comment on contemporary events and of colonialist revisionism. Now, to my surprise and personal distress, I find that the same has happened to another former colleague at LSE, a fine historian of the Third Reich and modern Europe, and, when last encountered, a person of modest and attentive mode: Michael Burleigh.
Blood and Rage proclaims itself to be a "cultural history of terrorism". In eight far-ranging and fluently written chapters, it covers the Fenians in 19th-century Ireland, Russian nihilists, American anarchists, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany and Red Brigades in Italy, as well as the ANC, Black September and - in a long concluding chapter - more recent Islamist groups. All are, for Burleigh, examples of one phenomonon, a cult of death and destruction that has little anchorage in politics and is more the product of "a pre-existing chemical mix" that is set to explode.
The first thing that strikes the reader of this book is its mediocrity. All is based on secondary material, and the main stories, events and characters are well known. Despite the fact that most episodes involve people who are still alive, or who lived through them, Burleigh never sees fit to interview anyone. The overall analytic framework is weak, and unoriginal. We never learn what a "cultural history" means, as if there could be such a thing. Compared to some major works on terrorism, by authors such as Walter Laqueur, Conor Gearty or Gerard Chaliand - who, without any shred of indulgence, do seek political causes, and recognise political context - Burleigh's account is lacking. Equally, in his discussion of Islamist guerrilla groups, he has nothing to add to the works of such writers as Jason Burke, Fawaz Gerges, Olivier Roy, Malise Ruthven or Steven Simon.
More surprising is the careless use of history and facts. …