Engagement with the Past: The Lives and Works of the World War II Generation of Historians

Article excerpt

William Palmer

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001, 372pp, US$32.00, ISBN 0-8131-2206-6

There has been a marked tendency of late in the popular culture to celebrate and occasionally to romanticize the virtues of the Greatest Generation, a group that (among its other accomplishments) strangled fascism in its infancy on the battlefields of Europe and went forth to construct the architecture of a generally prosperous postwar Western order.

William Palmer examines the scope, nature, and occasional limitations of a generation of American and British historians, their respective lives, and the corpus of their collective works. The group (fifteen men and two women) includes such notables as Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Barbara Tuchman, Eric Hosbawn, and Hugh Trevor-Roper, all born in the shadow of World War I, came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, and collectively rose to professional prominence during the long twilight of the cold war.

In the first section, Palmer concentrates on the educational and professional development of his subjects. Here he is at his weakest, in part because of the ephemeral nature of the material (namely, the impact of academic grievances and feuds on various careers) and in part because, with such a large and diverse gallery of characters, the narrative occasionally becomes fragmented and the analysis, particularly in developing and defining a common theme among the works of the individuals under study, isn't as strong as it should be. These deficiencies are largely remedied in the second section, where Palmer examines some of the most influential works of the historians and attempts to locate how that work was influenced and defined by the evolving political-societal milieu.

Palmer astutely observes that undergraduates who trained in American universities were the beneficiaries of a superior education in terms of teaching and resources, but that their more cosmopolitan British counterparts unintentionally benefited from an education in the crucible of a politically polarized prewar climate in which ideologies (capitalism, fascism, and communism) fiercely competed for supremacy. …