Diary

Neal Ascherson

Men everywhere supposed (as A.J.P. Taylor tends to begin sentences) that he would join in the general execration of Lord Dacre over the Hitler diaries. A lot of men, indeed, were looking forward to this: historians wrestling in mud is a common spectacle that never loses its power to give pleasure – like dissent between taxi-drivers. They were disappointed. Taylor stayed out of the mud. More accurately, he wrote in these pages that he found the whole affair boring – ‘cold mutton’, as he said about the Anthony Blunt affair. Perhaps he did. Historians are queer. Still, boredom is ruder than execration. I have nearly finished imitating A.J.P. Taylor’s rhythms now. Let me add this. I once wrote a whole book in what I conceived to be his style – short, choppy sentences bouncing the reader rapidly up and down so that he does not fall asleep. The book received a kind notice from Taylor, and sold almost no copies at all. Men thought it too expensive. I only paid the indexing bill years later. This was not because I was cross or indigent, but because I was mean.

This diary salutes a diarist who has often filled this page: it celebrates the publication of A.J.P. Taylor’s memoirs, A Personal History,[*] which would, as he points out in the preface, have been a great deal longer but for the laws of libel, or at least for publishers’ nervousness about the laws of libel.

There is one way out. If the person allegedly libelled is dead, all is well. How eagerly I have gone through the obituaries killing off not only my enemies, not that I have any, but my best friends. If the aggrieved person is still alive, there is only one remedy: strike out the entire passage. Any friend or acquaintance who turns to the index and does not find his name there can console himself that he was originally the subject of a passage which the lawyer condemned.

However, matters have not become as dull as this implies, as references to Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, now Lord Dacre (or Lord Dakar, as the Argentinian papers call him), demonstrate. Taylor is actually quite forgiving about the fact that Trevor-Roper and not he was awarded the Regius Professorship after Suez: he asserts that J.C. Masterman, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford at the time, and Taylor’s own friend Namier were responsible. Taylor writes that he never wanted the Chair anyway and would have refused to accept it ‘from hands still stained with blood’ – a reference to Harold Macmillan, then prime minister. However, it was the end of his lifelong friendship with Namier. ‘I put down the telephone and never spoke to him again... Namier was dead so far as I was concerned.’ All he says about the victorious candidate at this point is that ‘he tried to repeat my success on television, not however successfully, and also made some fruitless attempts to break into popular journalism.’

Later on, however, Taylor is more mordant about Trevor-Roper’s objections to The Origins of the Second World War. The question was, of course, whether Hitler had planned the Second World War years before or whether, as Taylor maintained, he took a gamble which seemed promising at the time. ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper was... claiming that he had deduced Hitler’s every move from the moment he read Mein Kampf. If so, he was cleverer than Hitler himself, who dismissed Mein Kampf as “fantasies from behind bars”.’ He goes on: ‘Trevor-Roper thought he had taken out a patent in Hitler and made a great cry.’

And now another great cry. The patent in Hitler seems to have ended in tears. But the affair of Lord Dacre and the fake Hitler diaries is too awful for gloating, and it should be said that Dacre came out of it all less shamefully than most of the other principals. He committed one dreadful error – whether out of over-excitement, vanity or a combination of both is hard to say – but showed a good deal of courage in then wrecking the party in Hamburg by owning up to doubts and finally by changing his mind. It all shows that historians pushed into snap judgments are as silly as the rest of us, and should never let themselves be so pushed.

Taylor is more of an exception in this respect than he admits, thinking fast on his feet and never letting himself be bounced into rash or half-baked judgments by others. He would probably confess to a fair quota of rash and half-baked judgments of his own, but would claim full paternity. All the same, the Hitler diaries affair will have given comfort to Taylor’s crustier opponents, who – as he records with irritation – insisted over the years that historians who get involved with Fleet Street and decorate television chat-shows run the danger of making fools not only of themselves but of their profession. The diaries fiasco shows how easily this can happen, and Taylor was only the exception who proved the rule when, as he immodestly points out, he became the most extraordinary television performer this country has ever known: ‘I was a one-man University of the Air.’

The guilty men, apart from the forgers themselves, are the press barons and their editors: Henry Nannen, Rupert Murdoch, Frank Giles and Charles Douglas-Home. That Trevor-Roper should have ‘taken the bona fides of the editor’ – of Stern – ‘as a datum’ passes belief. Probably he has never read the magazine. However, journalists, excluding proprietors, generally have a better nose for phonies than historians. The misery of the Sunday Times reporters, pumping away at their investigative talents to keep this leaky fabrication afloat, was wretched to behold. When it finally sank, they cheered and went out for a drink. A few days before, they had given their editor a memorandum recalling the frightful precedent of the false ‘Mussolini diaries’, which he refused even to discuss with them. Now I hear that a sensational document from an anonymous ‘top Chinese source’, purporting to give the full inside story of the Lin Biao affair, has been paid for somewhere in Gray’s Inn Road. Cash first, verification later.

If the British have found the whole Hitler diary business funny, the West Germans have not. It has been taken as a national ‘Blamage’ – a good word, meaning sudden and total public humiliation. The reaction has been to snuff a conspiracy against West German democracy, the ‘freiheitlich-demokratische Verfassung’, by sinister forces beyond the frontiers. The East Germans confected the diaries – or else a network of old and new Nazis based in South America and intent on restoring the Führer’s reputation. This is all scapegoatery. The perfect territory for a fabricator of historical documents is an open society rich in assorted stationery and inks, blessed with good libraries and with press barons at once gullible and magnificently extravagant: in other words, a place like the Federal Republic. Why should the West Germans be so reluctant to admit this? After all, their own state is a kind of forgery, knocked together by Allied typists and then given a spurious attribution to men like Konrad Adenauer and Carlo Schmidt, and it has worked out quite respectably.

I have always liked the old phrase about ‘the forging of a nation’. Most young nations carry false birth certificates, either some teleologically-twisted brand of history which proves that Slobodnian independence was the inevitable outcome of the dialectics of progress, or else – and not infrequently – literal forgeries. Look at the Libuse manuscripts, forged by a 19th-century Prague archivist to prove that a glittering, advanced Czech civilisation existed in the Dark Ages when the Germans were still licking rye porridge off their fingers. (They were denounced by Thomas Masaryk, another example of how journalists and politicians are more sensitive to the smell of fraud than academics. At the time, Czech patriots rewarded Masaryk’s exposures by calling him a Hun-loving traitor – probably Jewish, too. A generation later, he led them to independence, and in 1968 people were selling his portrait on the Prague street-stalls by the thousand.) Look at Ossian. Look at the Welsh, who have a Dark Age epic poetry of their own, but felt it necessary to cook up a little more, the cooking being apparently done by lolo Morganwg in the back room of the King Lud pub at the end of Fleet Street. Look, finally, at the Bible, guarantee and user’s manual for ‘Western Christian Civilisation’. Much of the Old Testament purports to be the table-talk of Jehovah, brought to us by pseudonymous but highly-placed Israelite sources. Much of it could reasonably be termed forgery. Yet the protests would be relatively mild if Nannen and Murdoch acquired some scrolls from a cave and sold world rights to a fresh ‘eye-witness’ account of the Flood, even if it were proved to have been composed five centuries after the event.

The thought of romantic nationalism and its necessary frauds reminds me of the least attractive side of A.J.P. Taylor’s memoirs, which is his ruthlessness about the post-war settlement in Europe. About Hungary, 1956: ‘Better a Communist regime supported by Soviet Russia, I thought, than an anti-Communist regime led by Cardinal Mindszenty. Hence my conscience was not troubled by the Soviet intervention.’ About the ‘coup de Prague’ in 1948: ‘I came to see that those friends of mine had brought it on themselves by trying to achieve a Czech government in which the Communists would have no part.’ Taylor’s approval of the Soviet occupation and then annexation of Poland’s eastern territories in 1939 and 1944 is equally unsentimental: most of the inhabitants were non-Poles, and Stalin needed an extra stretch of glacis between him and Hitler. None of these views is entirely without foundation, of course. It is the boorish reductionism of it all which is so ugly. Taylor wants a disarmed Europe and an end to the Cold War, like everyone else. But he seems to think that this requires of East Europeans that they should pipe down – Poles especially – and make the best of the ‘socialism’ they have been presented with, instead of milling around and imperilling the balance of power.

This is the ‘Little Englander’ in Taylor coming out, a superannuated cast of mind he shares with his close friend Michael Foot. It is English history that one writes, the Scots, Irish and Welsh constituting ‘the lesser breeds [who] were allowed in when they made a difference in English affairs, as they often did.’ It is also a lingering sense that Britain is still a world power, heir even now to the status of a ‘Victor Power’ of the Second World War. At one point, Taylor admits this. Discussing his long commitment to CND, he confesses: ‘We made one great mistake, which ultimately doomed CND to futility. We thought that Great Britain was still a great power whose example would affect the rest of the world. Ironically, we were the last Imperialists.’ All that is left of that sort of Imperialism today in the Labour movement is a grumpy isolationism: if England cannot guide the lesser breeds, Slav or Celtic, then she will retreat indoors, switch off the lights and turn the key. If there is one prospect in our politics that frightens me more than another spell with Mrs Thatcher, it is the idea of being locked in a dark nursery cupboard playing sardines with aged Tribunites: out of the European Community, out of our alliances, out of touch with the world economy, out of our collective minds.

Unfortunately, this isolationism is the ink in which the Labour Manifesto seems to be written. As a boy, I received instruction in political principles from an old Forestry Commission gamekeeper in Argyll. ‘At election time,’ he used to say, ‘a man should take himself alone to the hills and seek to listen to the voice of his own heart.’ If he were alive today – and if he could hack his way up through the Forestry’s prickly Christmas trees now covering the hills – the voice of his heart would tell him to come straight down again and book a Mediterranean holiday over the week of 9 June. Nothing good seems likely to come out of this campaign or its results. Everybody is fighting to impose his or her own vision of the past, dolled up as the future. Once it looked as if Labour might go into the fight genuinely committed to a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of working people and their families’ (FISHBOPWIFWAF), something worth fighting for, which in its way recognised the basic truth about British failure. The old English dogma – that there is nothing essentially wrong with British political institutions, which function badly only because the economy is decayed – is precisely wrong. Our political institutions are in terminal decay, and until they are knocked down and modernised neither capitalism, socialism nor any mixture of the two can flourish. However, FISHBOPWIFWAF has declined with the sinking star of Tony Benn, and Labour is left with an uninspiring programme deriving from Keynes, Churchill and Pitt the Younger. The Alliance proclaim the need for institutional reform, which is to their credit, but their motives still seem conservative – restoring assumptions smashed by Mrs Thatcher. This wish to get back to a comfortable, Jenkinsite way of running things cannot square with revolutionary proposals like a new electoral system and devolution all round. If you set out to break the mould of British politics, you have to realise that it is only mould that holds British politics together.

So, at the moment of writing, it does not seem that there is much to stop Mrs Thatcher proceeding with her mission of turning Britain into a version of West Germany, a society nervous, expensive, insecure and docile. She has made certain discoveries about British political behaviour today which cannot be covered over again, and there is no way back from them. Monetarism is not such a discovery but a fraud which we will hear little about in this campaign: any fool knows that inflation can be reduced by strangling productive forces and creating mass unemployment. What nobody knew, but nobody can now forget, is that the British will tolerate four million unemployed without a revolution. It is not simply that those in work have lost almost all sense of solidarity with those who are out of work, but that a substantial number of those unemployed seem to feel guilty about it. They sit gloomily at home, having run out of decorating jobs to do about the house, contemplating the idea that this is their punishment for producing commodities that nobody really wanted to buy, or for having clung too long to closed shops and excessive manning levels. This self-lacerating mood contributes to Mrs Thatcher’s other discovery, which is that in hard times the Trade Union movement knuckles under. No wonder that a poll the other day disclosed that public anxiety about militancy or radicalism in union leaderships was rapidly declining. There is bluster from the leaders, but not much action.

Hamish Hamilton, 278 pp., £9.95, 26 May, 0 241 10972 8.

[*] Hamish Hamilton, 278 pp., £9.95, 26 May, 0 241 10972 8.