Michael Burleigh: The reluctant guru

Historians in the News

Just over five years ago, Michael Burleigh did the unthinkable. He walked away from academia. No jumping, no pushing - just walking. With his career on a high after winning the Samuel Johnson prize for The Third Reich: A New History, and after more than two decades teaching at Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cardiff - not forgetting visiting posts at Rutgers and Stanford in the US - he decided to jack it all in.
"The crap had begun to take over," he laughs bleakly. "I had always promised myself I would never become the kind of academic who surrounded himself with cronies. Yet the more prominent you become, the more people tend to gravitate towards you, and you can become a guru-like figure to them, whether you want to or not. You take on postgraduates and PhD students, and then you try to help find them academic posts and you end up with clones in the institutional apparatus. And I just didn't want that.

"To be honest, I also didn't always find the company that congenial. There's a lot of bitchiness and envy among academics, and I had just had enough of the internal politics."

It wasn't easy giving up the financial security - "my wife still hasn't entirely forgiven me" - but he has no lingering regrets. He now has the freedom to go to Borough market every Friday morning, to go fishing and, most of all, to write and say what he likes.

His latest book, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, is a case in point. Where other scholars tend to be somewhat guarded in their writings, trading mainly in qualifications and footnotes, Burleigh is refreshingly willing to let rip. And his main target is the wishy-washy relativism of many people on the left in their attitudes to terrorism.

For Burleigh, there are no fine lines to be drawn. One man's terrorist is not another man's freedom fighter; one man's terrorist is another man's terrorist.

"It's nonsense to talk about the war on Islamic terrorism as a clash of civilisations," he says. "The distinction is between civilisation and chaos. Whatever people may claim - and the desire to cut through the political processes can be very powerful - there is never any justification for violence."

It sounds uncompromisingly hardline, and his critics have been queuing up to portray him as "Mad Mike", blood brother to his fellow Daily Mail columnist "Mad Mel". But while he may resemble historians such as Niall Ferguson and David Starkey in his political affiliations, it's a mistake to pigeonhole him as a gobby, rightwing apologist.

If you bother to read what he has actually written, you find a liberal beating heart. Three of his recent Mail columns - in which he argues strongly against the west's use of torture, the Saudi monarchy, and threats to bomb Iran - wouldn't have been out of place in these pages. And alongside the polemic of Blood & Rage runs a finely nuanced argument that gets underneath the skin of accepted opinion....

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