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Der britische Historikerstreit

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The German word Historikerstreit, meaning a quarrel between historians, gained popularity in the 1980s, to describe arguments over whether Nazism represented a continuity or rupture in the German story, or over the comparative evils of Fascism and Stalinism. Historical debates over questions bearing on political decision-taking – such as Greece’s debt to Germany (or vice versa), or whether Turkey is a European country – have kept the practice going in the 21st century.

The British historical guild has been slow to emulate the European model, but the self-styled ‘Historians for Britain’ in October last year launched a manifesto using a selective reading of the past to argue for British uniqueness and superiority vis-à-vis the EU.

Hosted by the Westminster-based ‘Business for Britain’ forum, and led by David Abulafia of Cambridge University, the group trumpeted its tenets in three hundred words of fully justified, white-on-black, sans serif text, all in bold, all in italics, all capitalised; formatting features generally met with on the remoter shores of the internet. An authority-conferring black-and-white photograph of old books, including Hume’s History of England, served as background.

Among the manifesto’s claims were that the EU’s ‘new taxes’ ‘penalise Britain’s historic financial and mercantile trade’; that it has a ‘disregard for the decisions of voters’; and that it nurtures a general hatred of democracy. The ‘brutal’ EU threatens the traditions ‘peculiar to our shores’ which ‘form the rich fabric of our history and inform our lives today’. It has ‘wrecked lives’ in the Mediterranean and is ‘fanning the flames of aggressive extremism’ there. The manifesto quickly disappeared; apparently some of the distinguished signatories whose names appeared below the thesis had never seen, let alone endorsed it.

Relaunched earlier this year, with a somewhat different set of signatures, ‘Historians for Britain’ made waves after the election with a piece by Abulafia in History Today. He pointed to history to argue the case for Britain’s ‘milder political temper’, including an alleged absence of anti-Semitism, innovativeness in such questions as women’s suffrage, tolerance of immigrants, and parliamentary and democratic traditions. All of which means that Britain must renegotiate its EU membership.

The tendentiousness of his claims, and the problematic leaps from past to present, were comprehensively criticised a week later in a counterblast in History Today, written by six historians and endorsed by nearly three hundred.

They didn’t mention, though, quite how European Abulafia and his comrades’ démarche is. Manifestos of national-historical distinctness have been a trend all over Europe for decades: each with its peculiar claims for exceptionalism, its attendant political counsels, its outlandish formatting. By putting out such a text, the ‘Historians for Britain’, far from making a case for leaving Europe, have shown how far, advertently or otherwise, they belong to it.


  1. Geoff Roberts says:

    The original conflict arose when a historian, Nolte, claimed that the crimes of the Nazi regime were not a singularity in history. Jürgen Habermas, a philosopher, wrote a piece in which he pointed out the weaknesses in Nolte’s argument and the ensuing debate focused on Nolte’s selection of evidence and stated that he was trying to play down the enormity of the Nazi crimes. But most of the discussion took place on an objective level and it was seen by most participants as a useful exercise in the ways that historical research could be interpreted.
    The British “Historikerstreit’ seems to be about perceptions of the way that the EU works, similar to the sorts of claims made by UKIP – uniqueness of British (English?) culture, superiority of the democratic system, contributions to civilisation and so on. It probably gets the approval of the conservatives but has nothing to do with history, historical research, use of evidence, evaluation of contributory factors to political and social developments and doesn’t add anything to the debate on whether the UK should get out or not.

    • Alex Drace-Francis says:

      Thanks, that’s helpful context. I should stress that many of those who responded to Abulafia do actually address the issue you raise, of what does or doesn’t constitute a responsible historical intervention into a current political debate. Commentary (and indeed a first outing of the ‘Historikerstreit’ analogy) has been collected here: https://matthewparishistory.wordpress.com/

  2. Timothy Rogers says:

    A good place to see all the major arguments on both sides of the German Historikerstreit can be found in book a by John Lukacs (a Hungarian-American historian. The book is “The Hitler of History” (meaning, simply, Hitler as perceived and evaluated by historian). And, dear me, it’s actually a well- documented and well-argued book rather than a blog. Take a look. It may not help readers who are interested in the current British counterpart (if that’s what the British debate is), but it will explain the Historikerstreit, including the motives and goals of conflicting German historians, to the English reader.

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      And, my apologies for the fractured sentences and typos, the product of haste. Another good window into the substance of the Historikerstreit debate is anything about the Third Reich written by Sebastian Haffner, a journalist-historian whose work illustrates the fact that a “popular history” can be just as scholarly as an academic one.

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