David Cesarani: history is too serious a matter to be left to comedians and politicians

Historians in the News

[David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London.]

We are going through another of those odd periods when corners of our daily newspapers look as if they are reporting things that happened over 65 years ago. There are rows over what the Latvians did or did not do in the second world war, arguments about why the German Luftwaffe bombed Coventry and, most recently, Stephen Fry has upset the Poles with a careless remark about Auschwitz. What all of these spats show is that history matters.

Versions of the past remain central to a country's national identity and how its citizens think about themselves. The way that history, especially national history, is told and taught is a matter of public policy, and hence inevitably a political issue. It can even intrude into international relations, as demonstrated by the response of much of the international community to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's proclivity for denying that millions of Jews were systematically murdered by the Germans and their allies between 1939 and 1945. The saga of the Bloody Sunday inquiry cannot be disentangled from the resolution of the conflict in northern Ireland and the long-term future of the province.

Fry's remarks, however, reveal something more specific. They exemplify the time lag between scholarship that demolishes historical myths and the more slowly shifting public understanding of the past. Fry, who admits to knowing "a little history", seems to think that Auschwitz was in wartime Poland and was, in some way, connected to "rightwing Catholicism". The camp was, in fact, in a part of Poland annexed to Germany and was a German creation. Before it was expanded and adapted to include a death camps devoted to the mass murder of Europe's Jews, tens of thousands of Catholic Poles died there. The camp's initial function was to terrorise the Polish population.

Fry also seems blissfully unaware of the research into Polish-Jewish history that has transformed our knowledge of that conflicted and tragic relationship. Over the last 20 years, beginning roughly with the debate over Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah in 1985-86, Poles have confronted the history of Polish antisemitism and the stance of the population towards the persecution of Polish Jewish citizens during the German occupation. There are now flourishing centres for the study of Polish Jewish history at several Polish universities, and a major Jewish museum is under construction in Warsaw.

Many Jewish historians, meanwhile, have shown the closeness between the two communities and challenged the stereotype that Jews and Christians on Polish soil lived in separate worlds. Relations between them, especially in small towns and villages, were more cordial and intimate than was once thought to be the case. The knowledge of the slaughter of the Jews in Poland and the bitter aftermath, including the attacks on survivors by rightwing Poles in 1945-7, created a distorting lens through which the past was viewed for decades. Fry is, evidently, still squinting backwards through these blood-coloured spectacles...

... Conversely, the myth of countries that were "good to the Jews", such as Denmark and Italy, has taken a battering. Historians who have looked carefully at the number of Jews in Italy in 1939 and compared it to the number deported to the death camps have worked out that fully one quarter of Jews on Italian territory perished. This was a "kill rate" on a par with that of France, which has always had a less benign image. Large numbers were rounded up by Italian fascists with little or no prodding from the Germans. Denmark was able to evacuate its Jews from danger in 1943 partly because they were few in number and well assimilated, characteristics that had been ensured by closing Denmark's borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1939.

Of course, if these facts are not well known beyond academic circles the historians have no one to blame but themselves. There is an element of good sense in the UK government's current efforts to ensure that scholarly research is assessed in terms of its social impact before it gets funding from the taxpayer. On the other hand, it doesn't help when politicians and celebrities make careless remarks in such way that ethno-nationalists feel compelled to defend the honour of their nation, reiterating versions of the past that have been disputed or even discounted in their own countries. History may be too serious a business to be left to comedians and politicians, but the historians have got to try harder too.

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