An eight-part drama about the Nuremberg Trials has started on Radio 4. BBC commissioning editor Rhian Roberts said it was ‘designed to present phenomenal moments of history in a compelling style so we can all continue to understand how our world was shaped by them’.
What we got was inexplicable: no Hartley Shawcross, Britain’s lead prosecutor, whose opening speech, lasting two days, disputed the idea that the trials were ‘victor’s justice’ or revenge. We got attacks on Britain and Churchill compared unfavourably to Stalin. ‘At least he wasn’t a hypocrite.’ America rather than Germany appeared to be in the dock.
The narrator is a posh young gel, the trope of the sexy female spy, apparently groomed only for marriage, recruited to SOE because she is good at skiing and more importantly, she hates her class. Not a common attitude among toff girls at the time, but this is the New History, termed ‘Presentism’, where the past is judged by our own standards and blame freely apportioned, usually to white middle-class men. This is called ‘Critical Race Theory’ and it challenges previous interpretations of culture and education, pitching the accusation of white racism into every subject. The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, established as a national memorial in 1965 by a combination of public subscription and government contributions, have just removed the ‘Winston’ from their name, claiming he was a racist.
Of course, history has always been a propaganda tool. When Henry Ford said ‘History is bunk’ in 1921, he meant it was often manipulated. His maxim has been cynically espoused by the Left who insist that it is no more than worthless disinformation, written by victors and imperialists. That theory is now overlaid by Marx, who said all history is about class struggle. This blurring of boundaries between teaching subject knowledge and preaching politics has profoundly affected the teaching of history and in some cases almost abolished it. With post-pandemic confusion in schools, the grip of Marxist teaching may get stronger. As education secretary, Michael Gove wanted to bring back traditional, chronological history teaching and his departure was a loss. Oxford’s vice-chancellor Louise Richardson has just greeted the start of the new academic term by declaring she is ‘embarrassed’ that Gove was a student there, while calling for ‘more ideological diversity,’ i.e. more people who think like her.
Now that history teaching is so poor, it’s not always easy for people to articulate their instinctive desire to defend the historical past. Robert Tombs, Professor Emeritus of French History at Cambridge, has started an internet site called History Reclaimed offering unbiased facts about ‘dead white males’, such as Darwin, who are being traduced. He aims to target ‘ideologically-driven distortions’ about our history. ‘You read in the paper that Churchill is a racist and you think could that really be true,’ he says. ‘History has become one of the major battlegrounds in the culture wars that are causing anger and alarm across the democratic world.’ His site will publish ‘short and accessible pieces’ for the public and ministers, civil servants, trustees of museums and galleries and local authorities who may suffer woke bullying. ‘There must be local councillors who think, what is the truth about this?’ says Tombs. ‘Should we pull it down, put up an explanation, or what? We’ll provide what I hope will be solid and historical explanations.’
He and his co-editor, Cambridge history professor David Abulafia, want to arm everyone against the thinking which associates imperialism and slavery exclusively with Europeans. ‘Adherents of Critical Race Theory place Europe at the heart of their arguments,’ says Abulafia, ‘ignoring empire-building and enslavement in Mongol Eurasia, or among the Aztecs and Incas.’ He might add African kingdoms such as Dahomey. ‘What is deeply contentious,’ he says, ‘is the insistence that everything significant in world history flowed out of the slave trade to the Americas.’
Strangely, while everything apparently flowed from the evils of European culture, we are not allowed to believe that anything significant ever happened in Europe; the term ‘Renaissance’ has been replaced by ‘Early Modern’ as it suggested some particularity in the West, deliberately distracting from cultural advances in Africa and the Middle East. What we were once taught to call the ‘Enlightenment’ was apparently a racist enterprise. Abulafia points to the injustice and inaccuracy of the woke view that the cultivation of sugar, tobacco and cotton by slaves provided all the capital and raw materials for the Industrial Revolution, ignoring the massive profits from the earlier wool industry and Agricultural Revolution. Alleging that all UK wealth derives from black slavery ignores centuries of back-breaking labour by British people on the land and in heavy industry.
‘Unless we push back, this will continue to be imposed on the British public,’ says Professor Doug Stokes, who teaches international relations at Exeter, one of 40 academics connected to the site. ‘This country has played a hugely progressive role in history: Magna Carta; the abolition movement; fighting the Nazis. People should feel proud of that.’
Hopefully British history can be reclaimed. We may even take pride again in some of what we once had; Professor Tombs has been invited on to the new government Heritage Advisory Board created to establish guidelines on how to deal with ‘difficult heritage’ and ‘help boards make effective decisions about how to deal with objects that are contested within the government’s policy framework of “retain and explain”.’
Perhaps the professor’s new site should be called The Bunker, a cache where de-bunkers can themselves be debunked, a safe haven for truth and nuance, just in time to save them from extinction.