The Past Is a Foreign Country

By Pryce-Jones, David | New Criterion, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Past Is a Foreign Country


Pryce-Jones, David, New Criterion


Dreimal 100 Professoren--Vaterland, du bist verloren.

--Satire from the 1849 Frankfurt Parliament

Shoot more professors.

--V. I. Lenin.

British radicals of all sorts--declasse aristocrats and proletarian revolutionaries, the privileged and the underdog--have made their special and characteristic mark by taking up foreign causes. In Treason of the Heart, I have given an account of this phenomenon as it works its way down the generations, through the classes, and into other nations. Adoption of a foreign cause involves a transfer of natural allegiance. Those with the psychological urge for it are able to dramatize themselves under cover of the noble task of righting wrongs. Activists choose to dedicate themselves to someone else's national, ethnic, religious, or ideological struggle, and many of them are prepared to go into the battlefield. They consider themselves idealists but the mission to correct some perceived injustice suffered by other people is self-imposed and wilful. To reorder the lives of others is an exercise of power resting on an absolute belief in the superiority of one's own enlightenment and identity.

The word, spoken or written, comes into its own. Poets in every generation from Wordsworth and Byron to W. H. Auden have celebrated the ideal of revolution abroad. Aspiring by definition to a role in public life, members of both Houses of Parliament are found to be leading members of committees agitating, speechifying, and pamphleteering, for whatever happens to be the cause of the hour. Out of assumed religious obligation, clergymen preach on behalf of some minority or defend whatever enemy Britain may be engaged in fighting.

Historians, however, are supposed to work in the realm of facts. The great German Leopold von Ranke established that the objective for every historian is to describe how things in the past really were. But exactly like poets, clergymen, or politicians, historians have habitually transferred allegiance to some foreign cause, compromising their reputation and even trading upon it by placing themselves at the service of something fanciful and unrelated to their scholarship. To each professor his cause, from each professor his bias. "Violent prejudices," Walter Laqueur observes in Historians in Politics, a collection of essays he and George Mosse edited, "are nursed and maintained more easily in sheltered academic surroundings than on the political stage."

At one point, I wondered if I should devote a chapter in Treason of the Heart to the politicization of historiography. The range of individual commitments proved too diffuse, and emotional incontinence the sole common denominator. What follows is an assembly of some of the more notable historians who, over the course of the past two centuries, have submitted their researches to the promotion of personal beliefs.

Edward Augustus Freeman was born in 1823 into a well-off family and had no need for a university post. Like Macaulay or J. A. Froude, he saw British history as evidence of national continuity and supremacy. Originally a Tory, he grew into all the Liberal causes, passionately supporting the Greek and Italian national movements. He knew Gladstone and shared his root-and-branch condemnation of the Ottoman Empire. After meeting the explorer Richard Burton, he commented, "He has killed more men than most people, but they were mainly Turks." When the editor of the prestigious Saturday Review took up the Turkish cause, Freeman resigned his position there, a gesture which cost him the huge sum of 600 [pounds sterling] a year. He also hated the French so much that he supported the Germans in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and on a visit could write off-hand to his biographer, "Paris, of course, is as beastly as ever."

A rare Conservative where Liberal conformity was already the rule, J. R. Seeley, the son of a publisher, was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History in Cambridge in 1869. …

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