Der britische Historikerstreit

Alex Drace-Francis

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.


  • 22 May 2015 at 8:16am
    cufflink says:
    A timely comment from Amsterdam, but is it Historica-straight? Most of the cried contention in the EU Zone is economic/financial and not essentially political even with Federalism still running about out of bed. This blogger is an authority on Balkans culture and travel that is admirably built upon the interest of area National diversity; does he say anything toward this? A'boolaughia may be up the maypole and jangling a jingle-belled Morris leg but in Sophia this goes down big.
    What we want is a bloc against homogeneity and against uniformed compliance.
    Of course the British Banks do very well from the outgoing support loans. Has anyone done the balance sheet on this?

    • 22 May 2015 at 8:29am
      Alfalfa says: @ cufflink
      I'm sorry, but what language was that google-translated from?

    • 22 May 2015 at 10:23am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alfalfa
      I think cufflink just failed the Turing test.

  • 22 May 2015 at 10:05am
    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.

    • 22 May 2015 at 7:02pm
      Alex Drace-Francis says: @ Geoff Roberts
      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:

    • 23 May 2015 at 8:29am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Alex Drace-Francis
      Many thanks for that very useful link.

  • 22 May 2015 at 11:11am
    cufflink says:
    Answer to Alfalfa and another - the language is Postmodern Gut-reaction, a sort of Rap-Chic. It was directed at the proposition that historians should not be prescriptive but descriptive. David Abulafia, it goes without saying, is a distinguished historian of Mediterranean Culture of long ago but that doesn't make his gut more assimilable of the politics of a lucid 'alfalfa' culture any more than he would be better capable of passing the Turing test than me. The position in this also bears on the new European standing in Amsterdam of Alex Drace-Francis that may have mutated now into a vested academic interest in belonging out there. There is so much to say that runs deeper than mere exegesis, it resides in pushing for oneself at the level of livelihood. Those of us who do not have a tertiary education must nevertheless be heard. I don't want to hear what Machiavelli said to his Princes nor do I believe there is any one alive who can say with certainty whether he was a chancer or sychophant. Yes this is all over the place - just like Zizek.
    But do read the preceding blog (on the LRB) on the wall in East Jerusalem it is clear cut there. I am not accepted on the letters page of the LRB, damn you all.

    • 22 May 2015 at 2:27pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ cufflink
      Ah, "Postmodern Gut-reaction, a sort of Rap-Chic".

      That's what the unreconstructed among us would refer to as "bollocks", then?

      Your second post is no more lucid than the first, I am afraid.

    • 22 May 2015 at 3:27pm
      outofdate says: @ cufflink
      It's not that that, love. It's that you're illiterate. Desist.

    • 26 May 2015 at 9:05am
      Alan Benfield says: @ outofdate
      Are cufflinks out of date, then?

    • 27 May 2015 at 8:49pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Alan Benfield
      I haven't seen (or worn) them in years, though I may have fallen through so many status levels that my chances of encountering a pair are low. This particular cufflink (who may have lost his sleeve-mate) has, however, managed to fail the Turing test twice on the same blog page.

    • 1 June 2015 at 12:21am
      Gabriel says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I wear cufflinks, and I vote.

    • 1 June 2015 at 10:44am
      outofdate says: @ Alan Benfield
      The layout is not ideal. I was replying to Cufflink, trying to make the point that it's not so much that his Postmodern Gut Reaction fell on stony ground but that it never even...

      Oh fuck it. Say what you like, the irritating manner rubs off.

    • 1 June 2015 at 1:18pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ outofdate
      Ah, now your reply suddenly makes sense: you were replying to cufflink, not me. I misunderstood and thought you were perhaps cufflink back under a new pseudonym (hence my remark).

      Hint: in future, click on the 'Reply' link just below the post to which you wish to reply directly before you write your post, otherwise it will default to the last post in the thread.

      Btw: he's at it again. See:

    • 1 June 2015 at 1:33pm
      outofdate says: @ Alan Benfield
      Haha, I noticed, but I thought what's the point. What Is The Point.

    • 1 June 2015 at 3:19pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ outofdate

  • 22 May 2015 at 9:36pm
    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.

    • 25 May 2015 at 2:37pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Timothy Rogers
      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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