What Makes a Good Historian? Richard Wilkinson Shows That Good History Is Never Dull

By Wilkinson, Richard | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Good Historian? Richard Wilkinson Shows That Good History Is Never Dull


Wilkinson, Richard, History Review


'Your problem, Hugh, is that you ignore the documents.'

'Your problem, Taylor, is that you ignore the facts.'

As Oxford's two finest historians locked horns in the full glare of the TV spotlights, their compare Robert Kee nervously tried to prevent a physical punch-up. While, however, Taylor and Trevor-Roper disagreed about the merits of the recently published The Origins of the Second World War ('Why has Mr. Taylor written such a bad book?', Trevor-Roper had wondered in his Encounter review), they implicitly agreed that the truth matters above all, that indeed truth is the only real priority for the good historian.

One can go further and argue that Taylor and Trevor-Roper together identified the two methods of establishing truth. A.J.R Taylor's method when writing his marvellously provocative and wrong-headed book was to ferret out the documents and follow them where they led - or so he claimed. So far as Trevor-Roper was concerned, when Taylor argued that Chamberlain and not Hitler caused the Second World War, he was perversely ignoring the relevant, clearly established and blindingly obvious facts. So perhaps the good historian's job is to establish the relationship between documents and facts, and thus arrive at the truth.

The Documents

The better the historian, the greater the reliance on the best available evidence. I once challenged C.V. Wedgwood on her claim that Bolton was sacked 'in steady, drenching rain' (The King's War, p 322) as I could find no contemporary reference to the weather. Had she assumed that it always rains in Bolton? After some delay she replied that 'to her intense relief' she had tracked down an obscure Royalist diary which noted that 'the raine was soe immoderate'.

That is how a good historian works. Immersed in the voluminous correspondence of administrators of seventeenth-century France, Roger Mettam and others have demolished the old-fashioned picture of Louis XIV's absolutism. Again, ask whither the contemporary evidence leads.

Or again, to revert to Taylor, on p 274 of his Origins of the Second World War, he dismisses the allegation that von Ribbentrop deliberately gabbled the terms of Hitler's spurious peace offer so that Henderson, the British ambassador, could not grasp them. As Henderson died of cancer in 1943 and Ribbentrop was hanged in 1946, I was intrigued as to how Taylor, writing in 1961, could be so sure. So I wrote to Taylor about this puzzle, also inviting him to address my history society in Newcastle. I received the following masterpiece of Taylorian prose: 'Henderson only put the story of Ribbentrop gabbling in his book. He did not mention it at the time. So do myths grow. Shan't come to Newcastle. Too far.' Whether you are convinced by Taylor or not, note the historian's use and evaluation of the evidence. Of course the most impressive evidence of all is gleaned while history is actually happening -for example, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's indictment of American mismanagement in Iraq which he personally witnessed (Imperial Life in the Emerald City.)

What Is Truth?

The problem is the nature of truth. Even for today's Christians who claim to be supremely devoted to the Truth Made Man, there is now a fifth Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been joined by Jeffrey Archer, inspired by Judas. David Irving, who is no frivolous dabbler but a supremely well-informed student of Nazism, has gone to prison for his version of the truth. And right-wing nationalist Japanese educationalists are now celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Rape of Nanking by denying that anything of the sort occurred. While their version of the truth is that the Rape was invented by Chinese communists, the American scholar Iris Chang found the truth about what really befell Nanking so distressing that she has recently taken her own life. Truth, it seems, is not only elusive but at times unbearably hurtful. It can also be in bad taste. …

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