In 1961, the German historian Fritz Fischer caused controversy with his thesis that challenged the accepted notion that the Great Powers ‘slid’ into war in 1914. Fischer stated, using documentary evidence, that Imperial Germany had an expansionist set of war aims that were developed in part before the fighting started which informed its foreign and military policy. Germany’s aims were not just to support its ally. Fischer did this after careful study of Germany’s official archives. These had been confiscated by the Allies in 1945, but had been returned.
It was a major feat. Since the start of the fighting in 1914 to the present day, it has been the official policy of successive German governments to deflect blame for starting the Great War. To do this, they have produced forged documents, removed incriminating material from their archives, as well as suborning overseas historians to perform favourable research. This ‘patriotic self-censorship’ has been documented by historian Holger Herwig in his article ‘Clio Deceived’ for the Autumn 1987 edition of the journal International Security.
If Germany’s expansionism started in 1914, and not 1939, then the Bohemian Corporal alone could not be held responsible for the tragedies of the 20th Century. The entire political system of Germany in the first half of the 20th century would be to blame. The road to Auschwitz would start in the Kaiser’s palace in Potsdam, and not in the villa at 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee.
Fischer’s thesis stood up because of his sources. Good history depends on good sources. Of course it is possible to dial up favourable facts to prove a point and dial down others that don’t, which is why good historical research need multiple reputable sources. Making a statement based on a single source, or with no source whatsoever is bad history and bad scholarship. Holocaust deniers use bad scholarship, dubious sources, and rhetorical tactics to further their anti-Semitism.
Fischer’s work was revisionary history, which is why it was controversial. It challenged an orthodoxy. But it was based on high academic standards.
Which all brings me to Afua Hirsch.
Hirsch is in the news this week because of her call to re-examine Lord Nelson in the context of white supremacism. Her article in the Guardian, where else, entitled Toppling statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next’ was accompanied by a sickening depiction of his statue in Trafalgar Square being pulled down. Hirsch has a book that will shortly be published. Quelle concidence!
Her work is yet another example of muddled socialist thinking, trying to find an equivalence between the Confederate States of America and the British Empire, when none actually exists.
In the article, Hirsch states “Britain’s best known naval hero – so idealised that after his death in 1805 he was compared to no less than “the God who made him” – used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.”
And that’s it. It is on this single sentence that Hirsch hangs the rest of her article. It is these words that will further her career and bring her more than thirty pieces of silver in wealth. She also tacitly implies that there was no ‘tyranny, serial rape and exploitation’ at all in those parts of eighteenth century Africa not dominated by Europe.
Although reporting on Parliamentary debates was illegal in the eighteenth century, the legal restrictions were breaking down by the early nineteenth century. Parliament’s official Hansard website covers debates going back to 1804 at present, although the archive project is not complete. In an email, Parliament’s webmaster tells me that the archive project will be completed by the end of the year. So at present, some debates are not online, certainly none featuring Nelson as a speaker using his seat for his friends.
Nelson is also an easy target. By dying in 1805, he did not live to see the abolition of the slave trade, in which the Royal Navy would have played a great part. We do not know how he would react to that. Nelson also cannot be vilified for having friends who owned slaves. It is not unreasonable to represent interests in a debate. New ideas have to be tested. But Hirsch does not tell us what Nelson said from the red benches. What did he say, Afua?
Hirsch is a journalist, and competent journalists are meant to perform research. Bound volumes of the debates Lord Nelson was involved in do exist in libraries, at the very least in the Palace of Westminster itself. If Hirsch cannot access them, at least she could quote whose research she used to make her assertion, like I did about Germany’s historical suppression over the true events of 1914 above. So where did Hirsch’s assertion come from? She does not say. And, therefore, it cannot be challenged or debated. Holocaust deniers back their arguments up better than Hirsch does. Hirsch would make a bad Nazi.
That Hirsch passed the editorial bar of the Guardian‘s opinion pages is an indication of how low that bar has become, but then there is already evidence of this from the Guardian itself. Its slavish support of disgraced lawyer Phil Shiner continued even after his striking-off for dishonesty, with a mealy-mouthed editorial that contained no mea culpas over the hundreds of brave British service personnel who have been put through the mill by Shiner’s work.
Hirsch’s words are a continuation of a new trend in the Guardian articles as it haemorrhages money, which is to come up with an absurd proposition and portray it as normal and acceptable. Last month, it promoted Abi Wilkinson’s proposal that there should be a 100 per cent tax on all inheritances. The idea seems to be to publish highly controversial articles written by ‘shock chicks’, to shore up the readership in the hope that this will improve the Guardian‘s finances. Certainly, Hisch’s article has generated more heat and light than a dozen dull articles by Owen Jones. Organisations aware of their slow demise are less inclined to caution. Expect more outrageous nonsense to come from the Guardian as it struggles to stay afloat with socialist stones in its pockets.