Sunday, May 04, 2008

Rewriting History

If we might paraphrase W.S. Gilbert for a moment, ‘An Historian’s Lot is Not an ‘Appy One.’ Not, at least, if you want to have a best-seller on your hands.
History is defined as the study of past events and, as every schoolboy or schoolgirl knows, was usually a pretty good period to catch up on one’s beauty sleep.
So history books tend to be for historians, amateur and professional, and as Peter Cook would have said, ‘There’s not a lot about.’
Novelists such as Jean Plaidy and Phillipa Gregory among others have mined a vein of gold by combining fact with fiction and, to their eternal credit, managed it without doing too much damage to the historical environment.
But the plain old historian wanting to boost his sales can sometimes be led into the devious path of deception. As in novels, where sex sells, the historian is sometimes tempted to include uncorroborated scandal and myth to spice up his work.
The classic example is undoubtedly that of the Hitler Diaries, an episode that brought much grief to the eminent historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper. Unwisely, he testified to their authenticity without bothering to do much forensic work. Perhaps it was understandable that his enthusiasm led him astray in this case.
World leaders invariably kept diaries or penned memoirs if only to preserve their place in history and he reasoned that Hitler must have done the same. But Hitler hadn’t. And those of us who have read the transcripts of his table talk must feel relieved that Mein Kampf was his first and last effort.
But now serious doubts have been cast upon the authenticity of some documents lodged with that invaluable, and thought to be incorruptible, source, The National Archives. At least 29 documents from 12 separate files have been identified as forgeries inserted into its records.
The forged documents all relate to alleged British perfidy in the Second World War. The archive says the papers had supported sensational allegations by Martin Allen, a self-styled “eminent” historian, in three recent books. These include claims that the Duke of Windsor was a traitor and that British agents had murdered Hitler’s SS boss, Heinrich Himmler, on Winston Churchill’s orders as well as accusing the Queen’s uncle of helping the Germans to conquer France and defeat the British army in the early stages of the Second World War.
Such claims ensured that sales of his ‘histories’ were highly successful in the popular market, one being nominated for ‘Book of the Year.’
Yet every one was based almost entirely on forged documents that had been inserted surreptitiously into the archives.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Allen denies having had anything to do with it. But it seems strange that no other ‘historian’ has used any of this undoubtedly titillating material.
An authority on the Second World War, Sir Max Hastings said: “It is hard to imagine actions more damaging to the cause of preserving the nation’s heritage than wilfully forging documents designed to alter our historical record.”


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