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Response to Review of Remembering the Road to World War Two

I am very grateful to Alexander Macfie for taking the time to engage with my book so thoroughly; I am also grateful to Reviews in History for granting me the opportunity to respond. Since Macfie describes my book as ‘a triumph’, I am rather hard-pressed to find grounds for complaint with his review. The bulk of it consists of an extensive and detailed summary of my book’s contents which should certainly give potential readers a sense of its arguments and tone. He describes the main objectives of the book, and his evaluative comments indicate that he feels they are attained. So there is very little in the review to give me cause even for moderate quibbling. My response, therefore, is comprised of one minor point of nitpicking and a few general remarks on broader issues prompted by his comments.

Although it feels slightly churlish to raise any objections when Macfie’s review is so overwhelmingly positive, I do feel bound to mention that his summary of my book contains a great deal of direct quotation which is not acknowledged by either quotation marks or page references. This is perhaps helpful in conveying the texture and flavour of my text, but it is slightly problematic, especially on the occasions when the original words are actually quotations by me of third parties. My work necessarily quotes extensively from the historical writing that constitutes its primary empirical source base. I also employed quotation from other authorities with the strategic purpose of demonstrating how my arguments – which were bound to be regarded as heterodox in some quarters – also had a lineage within the existing scholarship. It would be unfortunate if one of these third parties were to read Macfie’s review and, finding their words reproduced, glean the impression that their work was being used without proper acknowledgement.

Moving to more positive comments, an account of my book’s origins and development might usefully complement Macfie’s review. The book had a long gestation period, not least because its scope and ambitions expanded considerably along the way. As an historian of international relations who had engaged with the historical theory associated with the linguistic turn, I set out to produce a critical historiographical study dealing with the origins of the Second World War which might demonstrate the pertinence of that theory to the practice of international history. Initially, I envisaged a mono-national study dealing solely with the historical writing on the British policy of appeasement. I was then persuaded by my publishers to embark instead on a more expansive and comparative study dealing with historical writing on the roads to war of each of the major combatant powers, in the Far East as well as in Europe.

Given the myriad factors involved in historiographical production – political, cultural, disciplinary, archival, professional and institutional – writing a ‘total history’ of this process was obviously impossible, the more so when attempting a seven-case comparative study. Hence I decided to focus on teasing out the relationships between historical writing on the origins of the war and concurrent political and cultural debates over national identity. This entailed close reading of the historiography to unpick the ways in which national identity was in fact a significant, if almost always unacknowledged, ideological issue at stake within it. Such a goal also fit with the fact that I was primarily interested in applying ‘textual’ forms of ‘postmodern’ theory, especially but not exclusively the narrativism of Hayden White. Over time, however, it became apparent that it would be difficult to tell this story without also taking into account the burgeoning literature on the remembrance of the Second World War, since in the post-war period discourses of national identity and of collective memory were inextricably intertwined. Hence the scope of the book escalated one final time, as I ultimately sought to bring the literatures on historical theory, on the origins of the war, on national identity and on collective memory into unwonted conversation, across the seven national cases. This involved considerable challenges of compression, selectivity and research design. It also required an investment of time and effort slightly in defiance of the myriad contemporary factors prodding us all towards the production of rather more compact tomes.

It follows from the above that I intended the book to appeal to diverse audiences and to make original contributions of several different kinds. First, it is certainly aimed at my fellow international historians, seeking to demonstrate that the historiography of the origins of the war cannot be satisfactorily understood without serious consideration of national identity and collective memory. This in turn suggests that our historiographical debates in international history more broadly might be enriched by systematic incorporation of a range of ideological factors into them and by the cultivation of a more reflexive sensibility. Second, it also hopes to speak to scholars specialising in nationalism and national identity, offering case studies of the fluidity of processes of identity construction across the period, and illustrating the mutual entanglements of national identity, historiography and collective memory. Third, it is also an intervention in the literature on collective memory of the Second World War. On the one hand, it aims to stitch the historiography of the origins of the war into this literature, thus thickening our understandings of the multiple ways in which the war was memorialised and instrumentalised across the post-war decades. On the other hand, by offering a sustained seven-case analysis it contributes to the development of comparative approaches to war memory, highlighting points of similarity and difference between cases and the operation of transnational factors in ways that mono-national studies cannot. This significantly develops and even disrupts our existing understanding of the contours of the unfolding landscape of remembering. (While the very essence of the book lies in this multiplicity and fertility, there is also a certain risk inherent here in terms of ensuring that the text comes to the attention of all these constituencies: I can testify anecdotally that it is not easy to predict where it might be found shelved in bookshops.)

Ultimately, however, as Macfie astutely grasps, the book does also aspire to make a statement about the nature of historical writing per se. A measure of caution is prudent here, since there is an obvious danger of circular argument in using a set of theoretical ideas to ground an exercise in critical historiography and then proclaiming that it ‘proves’ the validity of those ideas. Yet the book does offer a sustained exposition of some of the historiographical-theoretical arguments associated with the linguistic turn, seeking to demonstrate their pertinence in considerable detail in specific bodies of historical writing (and across a range of cases to defuse potential objections that one or the other is somehow unrepresentative). These arguments pertain to a range of issues including the origins of underpinning emplotments, the relative significance of new empirical data and broad ideological shifts in precipitating historiographical change and above all the unavoidably political nature of historical representation. In highlighting them, the intention was to point to deficiencies in many ‘mainstream’ renderings of how historiography works, but also to explicate in concrete detail issues which are often glossed over with airy generalisation in works of critical historical theory.

In response to my arguments, Macfie talks of ‘raising the white flag’; while this talk of surrender is in a sense hugely gratifying, I am not sure that I am comfortable with such martial metaphors. Moreover, I doubt that this will be a pervasive response. Most reviewers to date have averred that while my arguments are thought-provoking, the case is pushed too far, and they have attempted to reincorporate my treatment into a more ‘mainstream’, ‘practical realist’ position. This response of ‘yes, but’ was entirely to be anticipated, given the book’s provocative purpose and the nature of the intellectual terrain in which it is intervening. The reconfiguration of historiographical common sense to which I would like to contribute is only ever going to be a long term process. There are some hopeful portents – for example, the 2008 OCR AS/A Level GCE History B syllabus for UK sixth-form students contains a treatment of the historiography of British appeasement very much in tune with my analysis – but the outcome is necessarily hard to foresee. In any event, I am extremely thankful to Alexander Macfie for his kind words and for joining in the conversation.