Great Moments in Selective Quotation

Winston Churchill: we don't need another book about him.
Winston Churchill: we don't need another book about him.

Not too many years ago, Andrew Roberts was a respected historian. He specialized in a very old fashioned sort of history, writing sympathetic biographies of conservative British bigwigs like Lord Halifax and Lord Salisbury. However conventional they might be, these volumes were based on original archival research and graced by a fluid prose style. The Salisbury biography won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.

 

But in the last decade Roberts has degenerated into something much worse, a glib tabloid historian who writes vapid books celebrating the British Empire and its American successor. In this incarnation, Roberts has won some worldly success even as his scholarly reputation has been tarnished. Both George Bush and Dick Cheney are said to admire his pop histories, finding in them consoling lessons about how Anglo-American civilization has a duty to bring order to those ungrateful natives who live in faraway lands.

 

In the August 21 & 28, 2009 number of the Times Literary Supplement, the historian Richard J. Evans has a devastating review of Roberts’ latest book, The Storm of War: A New History of Second World War. As Evans notes, the new book and some of Roberts’ other recent works can be categorized as a “hastily written potboilers, widely criticized by reviewers for their inadequacies and inaccuracies.”

 

More specifically, Evans notes that Roberts relied heavily on book reviews, rather than actual scholarly studies; that the books Roberts did use were often general reference tomes, such as the Collins Encylopedia of Military History, rather than monographs; that these books in any case tend to be dated; that all of the sources Roberts relied  on are in English (thus ignoring the massive and important historical literatures of Germany, France, Italy, and Russia, among other countries); that Roberts is overwhelmingly focused on the British role in the war, and downplays both the Eastern front and the Pacific War. Furthermore, the general tone of the book is juvenile (“Roberts approaches his topic in a kind of Boy’s Own spirit, filling his pages with acts of derring-do by heroic, almost invariably British troops, who win medals for exemplary bravery and are mourned by grieving relatives if they are killed in action.”). And of course, Evans has no trouble finding numerous inaccuracies, both large and small, in The Storm of War.

 

In sum, Evans concludes that “this is not a new history of the Second World War in any meaningful sense of the word; it is not even an adequate history of the Second World War. It is certainly not a reliable one. It does both author and publisher a disservice, as well as the reading public.”

 

Perhaps out of kindness and some fond regard for Roberts’ earlier work, Evans does temper his criticism with a few salving sentence of half-praise. Near the end he writes, “Running all the way through The Storm of War is a glowing, though far from blindly uncritical, admiration for Winston Churchill.” (Evans even suggests that Roberts write a Churchill biography, although I have to say another bloviating Churchill volume is the last thing we need on our bookshelves).

 

Although written in the temperate language of academic politeness, the Evans review was absolutely annihilating. If Roberts had any sense of decency and shame, he would have immediately recognized that he had been thoroughly exposed as a hack and fraud.

 

But far been being abashed, Roberts actually turned this review to his advantage. On Roberts’ website you can find a list of blurbs for his recent books, one of which is from the Evans review. What Roberts did was to quote that mildly positive sentence about Churchill, making it seem like he had gotten a rave from “Prof Richard Evans, The Times Literary Supplement”.

 

It’s hard to blame Roberts. Gall and dishonesty have gotten him far in life. Why stop now?

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