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Niall Ferguson: Flashy and amoral?

"What has that [truth] got to do with it?" Irwin, a cynical teacher, asks a pupil in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys. "What has that got to do with anything?"

Irwin believes that historians must cut a dash and make a splash with the shock of a new idea. If his pupils want to win an Oxbridge place, they should say something — anything — that will make dons prefer them to the dull applicants who repeat accepted truths. If the examiners tell them to discuss 1914, they should say, "Nothing in it for us. Better to stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings."  

Niall Ferguson admitted to experiencing a shock himself when he heard these lines at what he had assumed would be a pleasant evening's entertainment at the National Theatre. Irwin was repeating his published views on why Britain should have stayed out of the First World War. Alan Bennett had based the flashy, amoral Irwin, the historian with no concern for truth, on . . . well, on him.

The BBC's thoughtful programmes to mark the centenary of the war included as comprehensive an attack on the Irwin/Ferguson school of history as I have seen. Max Hastings, looking more like an Edwardian headmaster as each year passes, boomed for an hour on how Britain had to defend the balance of power in Europe and stop control of the Channel ports falling under German control. Every argument he made was good and every fact he gave us was true. 

Niall Ferguson replied in an extended programme, but I wonder if he was grateful for the schedulers' generosity. His fellow historians then questioned him. Or rather, they committed the academic equivalent of assault and battery. They pummelled Ferguson's belief that a German-dominated Europe in 1914 would not have been so different from today's EU — that Kaiser Wilhelm was little more than Angela Merkel with an imperial moustache. They laughed at his notion that Asquith could take Britain to war only because Lloyd George abandoned his opposition to militarism for no better reason than to stop the Conservatives regaining power.

Ninety-nine times out of 100 I am on their side, and the side of all those who struggle to get the facts right. I prefer journalists to artists and well-informed bores to electrifying poseurs. Yet when confronted with a catastrophe as great as a world war, whose resolution was such a failure we had to fight it all over again, ordinary narratives fail. Conventional thinking is hopeless at dealing with catastrophic events because, by definition, they are beyond everyday explanations. No one can reasonably compare the First World War to the War of Jenkins' Ear. The barbarism was too great, the failure of the peace too disastrous, to treat it as a standard struggle to protect or alter the European balance of power.

Ferguson at least recognised a catastrophe for what it was and tried to imagine how the British might have avoided it. His critics' complaints sounded as strange as A.J.P. Taylor's belief that Hitler exploited opportunities when they came like an ordinary statesman from an ordinary great power-an argument which was also true as far as it went, but did not begin to explain Nazism.

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hegel`s advocate
April 3rd, 2014
12:04 AM
A gap"too great for reason to bridge" ? Why would reason want a bridge into unreason and unreality? A psychologically/sexually primitive Islam enjoys being `beyond reason`.Especially feminist reason. Islam justifies (with unreason) all the psychotic impulses of the prehistoric `back-brain`. As does the unreason and unreality of cocaine-bankers capitalism and alchoholic drugged market Leninism. The anthropologist Lloyd de Mause (from what little I`ve read) could be very pertinent to reasons understanding of the present horrors . Instinct and reason does not advocate concessions. I read that even in Moscow no more mosques are allowed to be built.

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