At Hillbrow my main interest was in the history of the industrial revolution, for the obvious reason that I was fascinated by railways. Mind you, I got things rather wrong at times. I remember seeing a picture of the Rocket, and thinking this must be the most modern form of locomotion! In the third form (for dunces) at Shrewsbury, our ever patient master, Blomfield, taught us Roman history by getting us to crayon appropriate pictures, like the testudo (tortoise) formation or a Roman villa. I have no recollection at present of the history I learnt, or was supposed to learn, in the fourth and fifth forms.
But I continued to be most interested in industrial, and particularly railway history. When was such and such a railway built, when and why did it close, which company built it, what was their livery, were there plans for extension of lines, such as from Alston to Wearhead? At Shrewsbury a great deal of my leisure reading was about railway history. I remember particularly Hamilton Ellis’s The Trains We Loved.
At the South West Hertfordshire College of Further Education I spent a year studying Economic History ‘O’ Level, and somehow managed to fail it. My father was convinced that this was an aberration, and persuaded the college to allow me to go on to do ‘A’ level in the same subject, which I then passed, though only with a ‘D’ grade. The focus of both of these courses was on history from the eighteenth century on, that is the agricultural and industrial revolutions and subsequent history. As one would expect, however, little attention was paid to political history. This was equally the case with the Economic and Social History element in Part 1 of my degree course in Sociology.
My interest in music, that is largely German classical music, confronted me with a conundrum. How could it be that a country which could commit such terrible atrocities could also have produced the most sublime music. (I had, of course, no way of evaluating those atrocities, or of considering whether our own country might also have committed unspeakable acts.) It was with this in mind that I decided to learn German and to spend some time living in Germany.
There was something eerie about Karlsruhe. At the time I held it against the Germans that the city lacked the hallmarks of age. I knew, of course, that it had been rebuilt since the war; what I had no idea about was the scale of its destruction by the Americans, nor that this pattern was repeated all over Southern Germany. I also judged too harshly the survivors of the defeat of Germany who would cautiously indicate that what had happened to them at the end of the war was unnecessary and unjust. Lahr im Schwarzwald, where I moved after two months in Karlsruhe, was a quite different story. This little town, and the countryside around, spoke to me of the old Germany. In those days much of the ploughing was still done by horse, and I can remember walled villages with impressive old gates. And, of course, there were fascinating little railways, and an old abandoned tramway to explore!
In 1972, I think it was, I applied unsuccessfully to Oriel College, Oxford, to study History. Why? The truth is I can’t remember my reasoning, but I can imagine what it probably was. My degree course in Sociology had left me with the feeling that psychology, philosophy and history gave us more insight into society than the supposedly scientific Sociology. At that time, as a convinced conservative, I believed that tradition was everything, and if you wanted to understand tradition you had to know where it came from, that is history.
I had done some exploring of philosophy, and psychology had comprised a part of my degree course, and of my training as a Samaritan volunteer. History, which at that time I assumed to be relatively objective, was the area where my knowledge was most lacking. I had abortively enrolled to study externally for a joint Philosophy & History degree at London a couple of years earlier, but had been advised that this general degree was unlikely to add much to my qualifications. So I now made the choice to go for history. Except that it didn’t happen!
As I prepared to walk the route of the first crusade, I bought Runciman’s three-volume A History of the Crusades and read the first thoroughly. I was struck by the contrast between the generally perceived view of the crusades as ‘a good thing’ and the reality of what actually happened in Antioch, Acre and Jerusalem. This was a stepping stone towards the realisation that history is a political subject, and what becomes common knowledge historically is the view which most suits those with power. Michael Portillo’s recent radio series indicated this rather well. Even our view of the Magna Carta is quite distorted.
Psychologically there was something quite fascinating about the way ordinary people gave up their ordinary lives to go on a crusade. Albert of Aix’s expression of admiration in the early twelfth century caught my imagination as well.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the events which I so much admired. I now tell how the crusaders of every class abandoned their country, their relations, their wives, their sons and their daughters, their towns and their castles, their fields, their kingdoms and all the pleasures of this world, leaving the certain for the uncertain and seeking exile in the name of Jesus Christ.
I suppose it was this human element which convinced me to continue with my plan. But as I crossed into the Muslim world I felt increasingly uncomfortable about what I was doing. There the crusades are seen in a very negative light indeed, though with its own distortions to suit the present Muslim view of the West.
While living in Saudi Arabia I started to put together the notes I made on my walk to the Middle East in 1975-77. It was then that I stumbled on Amin Maalouf’s excellent The Crusades through Arab Eyes. This was more of a revelation than Runciman’s book had been, or perhaps it just built on the scepticism the latter book had sown.
I lived in the Middle East for most of the time from 1976 through to 1989, the majority of it in Saudi Arabia, but with shorter periods in Israel/Palestine and Egypt. In all of these, I experienced two quite contradictory versions of recent history in Israel-Palestine.
On the Israeli side there was a range of more or less chauvinistic presentations. At one end of the spectrum there was an argument that conquest justifies possession, at the other end there was much hand-wringing about the fate of the Palestinians, often coupled with the argument that they were their own worst enemies. If only they would negotiate in good faith, a settlement could easily be achieved.
On the Palestinian side those who could be described as ‘moderate’ tended to attribute all their problems to the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948. It was common to hear from them that before that year they had lived with the Jews in perfect harmony. My reading about the British Mandate indicated that this was an illusion. On the militant side, the Jews were seen as robbers of their land, and would only be dislodged by armed action. Both wings of Palestinian opinion had a faith, which I now consider misplaced, that the United Nations would come to their rescue. Under international law the acquisition of territory by force was prohibited, and so it was only a matter of time before justice would be done.
That phrase about history being written by the victors should give us more pause for thought than it does. It’s trotted out as a truism, for example, by people who wouldn’t dream of questioning Western orthodoxy about WWII.
Pat Buchanan’s book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, in which he views the two world wars as essentially one continuing conflict, demonstrated to me the delusion involved in such a point of view.
Churchill was a warmonger before WWI as well as before WWII at a time when the Kaisers in the first, and Hitler in the second were struggling to keep the peace. This is not to say that the German and Austrian Kaisers, and later Hitler, were pacifists. But, according to Buchanan, they were not ready for war when it broke out, and therefore both in 1914 and in 1939 there was a window of opportunity to achieve peace.
It seems that Churchill positively exulted in the outbreak of war in 1914 at a time when others in the government were walking around with long faces. And in 1939 the British government was largely in favour of the German demands, and only issued the disastrous and un-enforcible guarantee to Poland under pressure from Churchill and elements of the press.
Once war had been declared it seems it was the British who first bombed civilian targets, and who as the war progressed approved with our American allies a near-genocidal policy of carpet bombing. Dresden is often referred to as if it were a single example of excessive zeal. In truth in terms of tonnage of bombs dropped it comes way down the list of German cities destroyed.
My father-in-law by my Austrian first wife was only a few miles away from my father as the British Expeditionary Force retreated to Dunkirk. He must have been part of German Army Group A, and ended up at the English Channel a few miles west of Dunkirk. Talking to him about his wartime experiences inevitably affected my view of WWII. For most it is sufficient to see Hitler’s Germany as the epitome of evil, and our own country as a paragon of virtue. Though there is no denying the ruthlessness of the National Socialist regime, I came to see it from a new perspective. Doing so has had its hazards.