Review: “The English and their History” by Robert Tombs

englishThe English and their History by Robert Tombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Over the course of 900 pages, Cambridge historian Robert Tombs lays out the stunning history of a people, the English, who have had an outsize effect on the world. From pre-history to 2014 A.D., Tombs tells a succession of gripping stories that will entrap experts and amateurs alike.

If Tombs’ sprawling book has a theme, it is the upending of revisionist theories of English history. Neo-revisionism, I suppose you could call it. A typical passage might state that, on the whole, England bore no more responsibility than other nations (particularly Spain, Portugal, and later the United States) for the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and did more than any of those nations to end it — contra the revisionist narrative proffered by historians of the left.

Tombs holds up various previous historical ideas up to the light, and in his modest, incredibly well-researched way, finds them wanting. The “Whig version of history” fares particularly poorly. In this enduringly popular genre of historiography, as popular among American progressives today as it was for 18th-century English whigs, history is a story of rampant progress from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from ludditism to technological nirvana. This paradigm necessarily makes the past look pretty black, to make the gray present look good by comparison–and Tombs methodically dismantles this by showing how the past and present (or the past and the more recent past) were not as different as the Whig narrative maintains, and that it is damaging to believe otherwise.

The opposite of Whig historiography, at least in Britain, is “declinism,” the largely post-1945 phenomenon of British journalists and historians writing off Britain as a world power, or even as a major force in Europe, due to much-publicized failures like the Suez crisis, deindustrialization, and (more recently) the fairly disastrous British contribution to the Iraq war. Tombs dismantles this narrative with equal quiet fervor, pointing out pesky facts that industrial decline (which no one can deny), happened just as quickly under the woman who is supposed to have doomed British industry (Margaret Thatcher, 1.9% yearly) as it later did under a man who by party affiliation at least was diametrically opposed to her policies (Tony Blair, 1.8% yearly).

The British Empire, subject at various times to both Whig and declinist narratives, gets a fairer, middle-ground treatment here. In fact, that is the enduring value of Tombs’ book. Unlike most academic historians (notably, in my limited reading, Piers Brendon), it is impossible to pigeonhole him as a man of the Left or the Right — he skewers them both with quiet gusto when they need it, and praises them in turn. He does this without suspending moral judgment — some things are certainly right, and others are certainly wrong, and some people belong in one camp or another for advocating such and such.

Tombs covers the English wars of religion evenhandedly and even gives Cromwell a fair hearing. However, at one point, he says something to the effect that the motivations of some English politicians of the early 19th century were difficult for us to understand because they harbored a fervent evangelical faith “nowhere in the modern world, except perhaps in the deepest reaches of the American Bible belt.” Tombs’ own book, much later, gives the lie to this statement by briefly mentioning the vibrant revival of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in London itself due to (largely black) devout Christian immigrants from the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

If you would learn about English history, I can’t think of a better place to start. Tombs’ book is more than the sum of its parts. It is the history of a people that is written with such evenhanded clarity that even its method, to say nothing of its well-researched conclusions, has implications for the study of history.


Blood for Seed: The Great War and the Deflowering of Europe

A British Tommy at Passchendaele.

“At seven o’clock in St. Petersburg, at the same hour when the Germans entered Luxembourg, Ambassador Pourtales, his watery blue eyes red-rimmed, his white goatee quivering, presented Germany’s declaration of war with shaking hands to Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister.

‘The curses of the nations will be upon you!” Sazonov exclaimed.

‘We are defending our honor,’ the German ambassador replied.

‘Your honor was not involved. But there is a divine justice.’

‘That’s true,’ and muttering, ‘a divine justice, a divine justice,’ Pourtales staggered to the window, leaned against it, and burst into tears. ‘So this is the end of my mission,’ he said when he could speak. Sazonov patted him on the shoulder, they embraced, and Pourtales stumbled to the door, which he could hardly open with a trembling hand, and went out murmuring, ‘Goodbye, goodbye.'” -Tuchman, The Guns of August


I just finished Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about the climactic events of August 1914. The Great War was horribly different from anything that came before it. In the wars of the 19th century, a few thousand soldiers in bright colors (le pantalon rouge) would march to the field of battle shoulder to shoulder and fire at the enemy from a hundred paces. It was all very horrible, but civilized and ultimately human. It was one man against another.

Then came the artillery. Artillery guns were so massive and lethal by the dawn of World War I that the German siege guns had to be transported by special trains and took days to unload and set up. Nightmarish beasts they were, and their exploding shells rained down on the enemy seemingly without a human hand, like the judgment of one of the old gods. The only safety was to dig, to entrench in the muddy squalor of rubble-strewn Flanders and the Ardennes, and wait for the inevitable, suicidal command to go “over the top,” to make a mad, bloody dash for the opposing lines.

It had been 99 years since the last full-scale European land war ended (Waterloo, 1815), and weaponry had advanced faster than anything else. Men created killing machines so efficient that the first day of the Somme offensive was more deadly to the British Army than the entire Vietnam War to American forces. Europe was a mess of old hatreds and new alliances, young men and new ideas and shiny guns–but human nature had not changed. The war of 1914 was supposed to end by Christmas; it was supposed to be an outlet for fraternal aggression that would soon be stoppered. Four years and thirty million casualties later, exhausted Europe was on its knees. France and Britain, bankrolled by Wilson’s government and supplied by American trade, burst through the Hindenburg line and into Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last Prussian king, fled to Holland to die in ignominy.

It was, in Wilfred Owen’s words, “the deflowering of Europe.” The young ideas of socialism (fraternite!) and representative democracy could not save the world from war. The Russian empire collapsed into the bloody chaos of the Bolshevik state. Britain and France were culled deeply, and left deep in debt to the United States. Germany was crippled and the Treaty of Versailles (1919) became, as French commander Marshal Foch feared it would, a twenty year truce instead of a lasting peace.

Wilfred Owen was an English poet who wrote about the Great War and died only a week before the Armistice was signed. His words captured his own loss of innocence and disillusionment. He was the first of the “Lost Generation.”

People have forgotten the Great War, especially in America. World War II was our triumphal moment on the world stage, when we deigned to enter Europe on our terms, and when Patton beat Montgomery across the Rhine. World War I is a sordid, forgotten prologue to the glory of American victory in 1945. That is not as it should be. The Great War should be the Eiffel Tower of human depravity, standing tall in gray iron to remind us that we are only brothers with our fellow men if Christ stands between us and salves our hatred. Here are the words of Wilfred Owen, in his poem 1914.

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love’s wine’s thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.

For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.