Wednesday, January 12, 2011

History: the underdogs can be wrong sometimes, too

History Today launches a new 'Contrarian' column with an article by Royal Holloway academic Tim Stanley arguing against 'romanticising the powerless' in history to the extent of excusing atrocities committed by perceived underdogs. He writes:

whenever someone at the bottom of a power structure does or says something objectively evil, many historians legitimise it by calling it ‘resistance’. No one denies that tyrants and conquerors are oppressive, or that those who seek liberation have just cause. But that doesn’t mean inverse prejudice or terrorism should get a free pass.

This struck a particular chord with me as I have been reading Hemingway's classic novel of the Spanish Civil War For whom the bell tolls. Both the novel and the war itself raise questions of how far a noble cause may be compromised by the moral failings of its protagonists. Hemingway can hardly be accused of ignoring the barbarities committed by the Republican side that he supported. One of the novel's most powerful scenes is an account of the massacre at Ronda, where Republicans killed Nationalist prisoners by forcing them over a cliff. Yet Hemingway fell out with his friend and fellow novelist John Dos Passos over the former's apparent indifference to the killing by Republicans of the left-wing intelletual José Robles, allegedly for spying for the fascists. Even now the moral failings of both sides in the Spanish Civil War, and any number of other topics, provokes fierce debate.

Plainly, anyone studying or writing about historical topics will bring their own values and political sympathies to issues they are studying and their historical judgements will be influenced accordingly. But Dr Stanley's point is important and right. Good and honest historical writing should confront rather than gloss over or glibly excuse the moral failings of those with whom the author's sympathies lie.

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