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Monday, 10 January 2011

News from 'the siege' (or On 'Being Brought up to Speed')

Last week I made the inaugural ‘Historian on the Edge Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week Award’. Not, you'll agree, something that was meant (or indeed deserved) to be taken very seriously.  I went on to express a view that this bit of egregious nonsense presumably entered the programme courtesy of the director/researcher/script-writers rather than the person upon whose book it was based, one William Hastings Burke (aet. 27).

However, although on the TV he seemed nice enough, a sensible sort and certainly someone whom you couldn't fault for involving himself with a just cause, I then read this in Burke's on-line biography:
Fed up with the stuffy academic approach to history, he is part of a new generation bringing history up to speed.

I expressed the view that, if he agreed that blurb or (worse) actually wrote it, then it smacked of more than a little arrogance. I went on to describe what sort of arrogance it was in some fairly 'up-to-speed' language rather than in the 'stuffy' discourse of actually qualified historians, as it seemed more appropriate.

None of this was meant massively seriously; I certainly never expected the outcome.  Today I heard from his publishers, demanding that I modify this ‘defamatory’ comment, which I have done, cheerfully enough. It was probably inappropriate, though I don't agree that it was actually defamatory. They make the very good points that Burke spent five years on his book, working in near poverty, devoting himself to promoting the rehabilitation of Albert Goering.

Well if that's true, (seriously and honestly) hats off to Burke for all that. But none of that is what I was talking about. The point I was discussing was his on-line biography and its claims. You might wonder why I get so angry with this sort of blurb from pop publishers; why I seem to be getting my Calvins in a bunch over one stupid twenty-one-word sentence. Here’s why (and remember that here I am entirely dealing with the claims made in his blurb, not with his espousal of the cause of Albert Goering, whom he rightly regards as a hero – good luck to him on that front and all congratulations on raising A. Goering’s profile are deserved):

Burke claims (or his 'literary and talent agent' claims on his behalf) to be part of new generation ‘bringing history up to speed’. For someone with no qualifications beyond a BA (and not even a BA in History!) to claim to be able to do this is – let’s face it – monstrously arrogant. Such is the lack of funding for post-graduate degrees that ‘stuffy academics’, in order even to get on the path possibly to being ‘stuffy academics’ in the first place, have to pass exams at a level that puts them in top few percentile of people who read history at university, making them well within the top 1% of people interested in history. They then have to work hard (and hardly rolling in wealth as they do it, even if ‘near poverty’ might be going a bit far) while they carry out their research, research which must then be judged by their elders to be of a sufficient quality to earn them their MA and then their doctorate. Then, to get a job in academia, of which there are few, they must additionally prove themselves better than significant numbers of their contemporaries in a tough competition. To get published they must again prove their right to enter the field of historical debate through acceptance by more established scholars (‘peer-review’ is in effect something you only get later on in your career). And their first book (and subsequent ones) usually take a sight more than five years. More to the point, I don’t think it unfair to suggest that ‘stuffy’ academic historians see what they are doing as a real cause for the betterment of humanity. Many stuffy academic historians (not least those who work on the Nazis) have worked hard for real causes every bit as serious as the rehabilitation of Albert Goering.

But after all this, they have to endure the likes of William Hastings Burke, and/or his publishers/agents, telling them they are stuffy and need bringing up to speed, while publishers refuse academic historians’ work because it does not tell simple enough stories. Of course I get angry, and so should all professional historians and indeed anyone who gives a damn about the place and value of proper history in modern society. If my selection of William Hastings Burke as an example happens to be fortuitous or even contingent (there are - sure as hell - more deserving targets and, unlike some I could mention, he has at least done his own research), the case is entirely symptomatic of the threat that proper historians face from pop/TV history and its perpetrators. Evidently, historical training and qualification are irrelevant.  Real historians aren't needed.  Anyone who can read or write can do history.  I refer to the situation as ‘the siege’, but I will have to come back to that anon.

To expand: Burke has not had to put himself or his work, or his scholarly abilities, through any of the process above (which is certainly not to say he has none - for all I know he might (potentially) be the world's greatest living historian - just that he hasn't exposed those abilities to rigorous scrutiny) and has not had to do any teaching of history and so hasn’t had to face up to the problems of making serious history less ‘stuffy’ to undergraduates like Burke himself. That’s all fair enough; it’s not something one can be criticised or blamed for, in itself, so I don't regard any of the above as defamatory or intend it to be read as such.  What is (to me) objectionable is that he then claims to be (or his agents claim he is) in a position to "bring the discipline up-to-speed". In my book, whether on his part or his publishers’, that is arrogant, pure and simple. The claims made in his on-line biography won't win William Hastings Burke any friends among proper historians.  He may not care, and that's fair enough - there's no reason why he should - but, if he does and he didn’t write it himself, his agents aren't doing him any favours by writing and publishing it.

Here is some more from the blurb on his 'literary and talent agents'' page (try not to laugh; I assure you I am not making this up; read it for yourself here: http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/william-hastings-burke/thirty-four/):

Enter William, a twentysomething from Sydney, Australia, who stumbles upon the tattered pieces of Albert’s history. Shelving plans for a Ph.D., William sets off on a three year odyssey across eight countries and three continents to piece together the puzzling life of Albert Göring.

Forget staid biography. Think seat of your pants travelogue mixed with a Spielberg eye for storytelling and you start to get a taste for the energy William brings to the page. Delivering the kind of must-read story that turns history on its head, Thirty Four gives us a new hero. Standing alongside Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg is the Göring history forgot.

No one should necessarily be blamed for the idiocies of publishers' marketing departments (when my first book came out, the CUP marketing department produced a flyer which mangled my blurb from saying that this was 'the first study in English of a part of the Merovingian world for nearly twenty years', to saying that it was 'the first study of the Merovingian world for twenty years': oh, the embarassment).  If it were true that Hastings Burke were indeed ‘stumbl[ing] upon the tattered pieces of Albert’s history’ for the first time, to ‘piece together the puzzling life of Albert Göring’, whom ‘history forgot’, to ‘turn history on its head’, then one would have to doff one’s hat to him and forgive a certain amount of misplaced chutzpah.  Likewise even if it were only the case that the claim made by his publishers in their letter me were true: that 'his book and dedication to Albert's legacy have meant that this story has been able to reach a far broader audience.  Until recently Albert was almost unheard of'.

Here are three points.  You can draw your own conclusions:
1. The documentary (at least in the part I saw – I missed the beginning) did not note that much of the story was already easily available on line, having been posted by Louis Bülow:
Bülow’s website also draws attention to the suspicious resemblance between Albert Goering and his godfather, though it at least does not explain the differences between the brothers on the basis of alleged illegitimacy.

2. As Bülow points out, the German Journalist/TV-Historian Guido Knopp had, in a book published in German in 2000, already drawn attention to Albert Goering’s work in rescuing people from the Nazis. Knopp’s book appeared in English in 2001 and is, I believe, a best-seller translated into many languages.

3. Nor (again, as far as I could see) was any mention made of James Wyllie’s book, The Warlord and the Renegade: The Story of Hermann and Albert Göring (2005) which, five years ago remember, had also drawn attention to the fact that:
“Albert deferred to Hermann as head of the family, but spent nearly a decade working against his brother's regime, intervening wherever possible to rescue the victims of Nazi tyranny, from humble shopkeepers to heads of state.”

Neither Knopp nor Wyllie are professional academic historians (though Wyllie at least has a history degree) but neither, to their credit, has made silly claims about how they are bringing ‘stuffy’ history ‘up-to-speed’.

Now, all that having been said, you’d have to be mad not to wish William Hastings Burke the very best of luck in getting Albert Goering recognised more generally or formally, but it is, to say the least, more than a little ‘naughty’ of his publishers and producers to claim that all this is ground-breaking news or fresh research. For all I know, Burke may have brought some new insights and information to all this (rest assured I will find out and let you know one way or the other) and Albert Goering's story probably does indeed need to be better known, but for historians, ‘stuffy’ as well as ‘up-to-speed’, Third-Reich-specialists or (like me) not, or for the many (hundreds of) thousands of people who have read Wyllie and Knopp's books or visited Bülow's web-site, Albert Goering’s courage and good works were not news.

Last week I suggested that being young and good-looking probably makes up for a lack of qualifications or originality in the world of Popular/TV history. Good luck to them that’s got the looks and the youth, but – please – don’t set yourself up as something you ain’t. You’ll just look silly, arrogant or w … orse.

Thanks all the same, but academic history doesn’t need 'bringing up to speed.'