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History and National Life
Peter Mandler
London: Profile Books, 2002.
£12.99, 184 pages, ISBN 1-86197-469-8 (hardcover).

Detlev Mares
Technische Universität Darmstadt


When visiting Wallington Hall, the Northumberland family home of the Trevelyans, the historian Stefan Collini started pondering the possibilities of writing "the national history". While one distinguished member of this family, the historian G. M. Trevelyan, had no difficulties in establishing "the national history" and its relevance for national life, Collini mused that in today's Britain the past only rarely seems to assume urgent political significance; the very notion of "national past" does not seem to be as clear-cut now as it was for Trevelyan's generation. In short, Collini realised "just how problematic the whole enterprise of writing 'the national history' has now become". [1] Convinced of the lack of political urgency of history, it was with some surprise that Collini registered the 'public fuss' [2] about history, especially on the occasion of historical anniversaries, since the interest created by the media seems to disappear rapidly after the commemoration of the great event.

Like Collini in the essay quoted above, Mandler offers reflections on the relationship between "history" and "national life". He differs from Collini, however, in the way he treats public interest in history with somewhat greater respect; he tries to understand what kind of needs history can satisfy in our time and in what sense the multiple popular ways of presenting history express these needs. Thus, Mandler's short book—rather a long, insightful essay—approaches Collini's question on the changed role of the past in national life with a different attitude.

What are the uses of history for national life in the first place? In an introductory first chapter, Mandler rejects common answers to this question, which may be heard in university seminars or on the political stage, as far too simplistic—answers such as: History may teach us lessons; history provides guidance for political action; history makes people support desirable aims, e. g. social justice or racial tolerance. None of these answers guarantees a particular role for history in national life; you may be convinced of the importance of these aims without any historical knowledge at your disposal. Moreover, these answers seem to fit neither the highly specialised pursuits of the professional historian nor the interests of "lay" history consumers who visit exhibitions, play history-based computer games or spend their week-ends re-enacting medieval knights. A more convincing answer has yet to be found.

Being a historian, Mandler approaches the question by way of historical analysis. He argues that the relationship between history and "national life" is inevitably shaped by the professional identities of historians and the conceptions of "national life" that emerged ever since history became established as an academic subject in the era of nationalism from the late eighteenth century onwards. Consequently, the main part of this short book is devoted to a historiographical exploration of ideas about the uses of history as suggested by (mainly British) historians past and present. These pages, full of stimulating and entertaining detail about the history of British history (with occasional forays into further European countries), are divided into three chapters, each presenting a clearly identifiable stage in the relationship of history and "national life". This stark separation of phases has a slight 'Cannadinesque' quality about it [3], showing history moving from great national importance via deep neglect to the renewed boom of our time.

The first main chapter describes an era (about 1800-1880) when history was recognized as a cornerstone in the building of national identity. Novelists—Sir Walter Scott being only the best-known among them—produced a vision of an old English past that offered patterns of identification to the English public. Historians such as T. B. Macaulay or John Richard Green delivered narratives of national development that placed "the 'imagined community' of the people" (20) at the centre of their stories. Mandler singles out Green's "Short History of the English People" (1874) as the first example of a truly popular national history which turned from the high-born heroes of much history writing to the achievements of the common people. Writers and historians became "great public figures" (45). Their voice was heard on all kinds of national issues because history was seen as crucial for an understanding of national character and for providing social cohesion.

This situation was not to last. Mandler's next chapter (covering the period between 1880 and 1960) presents history's fall from grace. Many factors contributed to a reduction in history's role in public life. Self-professed "modernists" rejected the uses of tradition straight away, a position culminating in Henry Ford's famous dictum "history is bunk" (61). The social sciences rather than history provided the inspiration for attempts to understand or shape national life, even permeating the practice of academic history. In any case, the historians themselves, in the process of professionalisation of their discipline, had helped to break the link between academic history and the wider public. They substituted "the minute and critical study" (H. A. L. Fisher) of the past for the broad general accounts of national life produced by the preceding generation of historians (49). This increased scientific accountability, but it also surrendered the claim to have anything worthwhile to say to the nation at large. Mandler presents George Macaulay Trevelyan as a unique exception (71). Trevelyan popularised history for wide audiences, shaping a vision of England as a land of rural and gentlemanly values. With much sympathy, Mandler traces Trevelyan's fight against all attempts to claim for history the status as a predominantly academic science, knowing this would ring the "death knell for history" (p. 74). In one respect, though, Trevelyan was in accordance with his fellow academics: if asked about the contribution history might make to national life, they tended to come up with the outdated "nation-based" reply that history explained where the nation came from and helped to understand where it was going—not a very persuasive answer in an age of social sciences and diversification of national life.

In the following chapter, Mandler argues that from the 1960s onwards history started bouncing back from its trough. Again the reasons were manifold. Local and family history started to take off, underlining people's interest in their personal history; television, museums and theatre productions created images of the past that reached wide audiences. The expansion of education is one of Mandler's particular favourites in accounting for the overall surge of interest in history. In a process moving from "ironic affection" to "wholehearted enjoyment" (93-94), history entered the current boom phase, with serious historical books entering bestseller lists and historical TV programmes enjoying large numbers of viewers.

At first glance, history may seem to have been re-established at the heart of national life. But as Mandler points out, the claims on history in our time are driven by needs and questions different from the ones in the nineteenth century. The "nation" has become so diversified and fragmented that no vision of a national past would be able to give cohesion to society any longer. Rather, the history boom seems driven by people's search for their personal history and the need to find adequate ways of self-expression. Last but not least, history serves as a sort of intellectual entertainment for the well-educated section of the population in the generation after university expansion.

If there can be no moving back to the nineteenth century, the question remains: which contribution can be expected of history to national life, long after national life has ceased to be organised around the concept of the nation? Any answer requires the historian to leave his academic ivory tower and to enter public discussion. Yet many university-based historians continue to fear for the academic integrity of their subject if exposed to the contagion of popularity. Mandler does not share this position, although he does not seem to be a wholehearted supporter of "telly dons" such as Simon Schama or David Starkey either. His ideas on the role of history in national life move at some distance from flashy television performances and bestseller lists. Still, when Mandler closes his book with an account of how he managed to correct mistaken historical data in an article in the Guardian, this comes as a bit of an anti-climax to this excellent essay, although surely there is nothing dishonourable in modestly claiming for history "quality-control functions in the information-rich society" of our times (162). However, Mandler directs the main thrust of his argument elsewhere. Apart from the ethical and intellectual capabilities of history suggested by academic historians, Mandler's sympathy belongs to the "imaginative capabilities" it offers: "It exposes the student to the full range of human possibilities" (146), allowing him to participate in a world of human experiences not usually available in everyday life. So it is "human enrichment", not "abstract" lessons that flow out of history (5-6). In many ways, this position harks back to the uses of history as defined by G. M. Trevelyan, "but they now have relevance to many more people" (143). Thus, Trevelyan makes a return as an inspiration to historians for combining academic research with popular (if not overly flashy) ways of presenting history. But from Mandler's exposition of historiography—as from Collini's musings—it is obvious that one element of Trevelyan's approach has been irretrievably lost in the past; old certainties that allowed for a unifying vision of the "national past" have been eroded, and the national history does not seem possible anymore. Today, there are many more different versions of history than in Trevelyan's age. It is one of Mandler's central contentions that this is not a thing to be deplored, but the starting point on history's avenue into the future.

With such thoughts, Mandler aims to answer the question about the uses of history in our society. Are his answers convincing? May the "full range of human possibilities" not be explored equally well by immersion into fictional literature? Should the historian give in to the fragmentation of experiences and identities, or should he/she be the one to try and overcome the fissures in society? Whatever the reader may feel about it, Mandler's answers are deeply humanistic ones and as such differ wholesomely from today's emphasis on the functional utility of knowledge for "practical life", conceptions in which goals like "human enrichment" tend to get short shrift. Since this trend is common to many countries, Mandler's essay will make thought-provoking reading for continental readers as well as anyone interested in British history. As is often the case with excellent essays, Mandler's is much more pleasurable to read than to summarize. The stylistic elegance of the essay-writer combines several threads of argument that can only be disrupted by the necessarily short presentation in a review. Fortunately, Mandler manages to discuss a set of wide-ranging issues in only about 160 pages—so his book offers much "human enrichment" to the reader at the least possible expense of time.

[1] Stefan Collini, English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 11.
[2] Ibid., p. 9.
[3] For David Cannadine's most recent book, In Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain (2002), see the review by Antoine Capet in Cercles.


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