Archive for the ‘tropes’ Tag

Dr (Ken) Livingstone, I presume: A further exploration into Zionism and anti-Semitism   1 comment



The Problem with Ken Livingstone: Facts v Tropes

Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone was interviewed on Sky TV on the day of the local council election results in England, despite having been suspended for his inflammatory remarks, made in a radio interview last week, that ‘Hitler supported Zionism’. In his Sky TV interview, he reiterated that his original statement was ‘historical fact’ and that all we need to do is consult the internet. I have done so, and I have also consulted reference books and textbooks used by teachers of this period in Germany’s history and can find no reference to Hitler or the NSDAP supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in the two 1932 elections to the Reichstag, or the Presidential election. Neither of these elections brought them to power, we need to remember. That only began to happen in January 1933 when President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor, but even then the German government was a coalition, and it was not until the summer of 1933 that the Nazis gained full control over the German state. What Livingstone is trying to do is to conflate Hitler’s coming to power with the NSDAP ‘policy’ in 1932, which was by no means clear on its ‘solution’ to ‘the Jewish Question’, and the later actions of the SS up to 1941. He is trying to suggest that Zionism and Nazism were, and are, common ideological bed-fellows. In doing so, he conveniently ignores the broader context of the development of both Zionism and anti-Semitism throughout Europe and the Middle East, both before and after the Nazis came to power. He is applying a politically motivated ‘trope’ to a complex set of historical events.

Doing Business with the Nazis? The Ha’avara Agreement

Part of Ken Livingstone’s argument no doubt relates to The Ha’avara Agreement, which allowed some German Jews fleeing to Palestine to recover some of their property by buying German goods for export to Israel, was made with the German government in March 1933, before the Nazis had full control over German society. These were Jews who had already emigrated or were in the process of doing so. It was not part of a government deportation scheme, though it was thought among some Nazi circles to be a possible way to rid the country of its supposed ‘Jewish problem’.  The head of the Middle Eastern division of the foreign ministry, the anti-Nazi Werner Otto von Hentig, supported the policy of concentrating Jews in Palestine. Hentig believed that if the Jewish population was concentrated in a single foreign entity, then foreign diplomatic policy and containment of the Jews would become easier. Hitler’s own support of the Havard Agreement was unclear and varied throughout the 1930s. Initially, Hitler criticized the agreement, but reversed his opinion and supported it in the period 1937-1939, as a legal means of ethnic cleansing before going to war. However, the programme was ended after the German invasion of Poland. It’s also worth noting that the agreement was heavily criticised by leading Zionists at the time, including Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader.


Most historians are very clear that, whilst a tiny minority of the Revisionists may have had some sympathy with Nazi ideology, especially its anti-Marxist elements, the vast majority of both the Revisionists and the German Zionist movement as a whole was totally opposed to it in all its elements. Only anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists believe otherwise because they want people to believe that the movement for the creation of the state of Israel collaborated with the Nazis to set up the conditions for the massacre of those Jews choosing to remain in Europe. The further implication, of course, is that Zionists, having aided and abetted the Nazis in the genocide against their own people, would have no compunction in conducting ethnic cleansing against Palestine’s post-war Arab population.

Reading Forward: The origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Anyone looking for documentary evidence on this period should consult Walter Lacqueur’s superb compendium, ‘The Arab-Israeli Reader’, first published in 1969, which I used as a reference book when teaching ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict’ in schools in England in the 1980s.

Of course, the Labour Party has had a long history, and not always a proud one, in its dealings with Palestine. Following the Arab riots of 1929, the Labour government published a new statement of policy, the Passfield White Paper,  which urged the restriction of immigration and land sales to Jews. It was bitterly denounced by Zionist leaders as a violation of the letter and spirit of the mandate over Palestine given to Britain by the League of Nations in 1920. PM Ramsay MacDonald sent a letter in February 1931, which became known to the Arabs as the “Black Letter” in which he gave assurances to Dr Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Zionist movement, that the terms of the Mandate would be fulfilled. In it, he quoted from his speech in the House of Commons:

Under the terms of the mandate his Majesty’s government are responsible for promoting the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

A double undertaking is involved, to the Jewish people on the one hand and to the non-Jewish population of Palestine on the other; and it is the firm resolve of his Majesty’s Government to give effect, in equal measure, to both parts of the declaration and to do equal justice to all sections of the population of Palestine…

It is desirable to make clear that the landless Arabs,… were such Arabs as can be shown to have been displaced from the lands which they occupied in consequence of the land passing into Jewish hands, and who have not obtained other holdings on which they can establish themselves, or other equally satisfactory occupation. It is to landless Arabs within this category that his Majesty’s Government feels itself under an obligation to facilitate their settlement upon the land. The recognition of this obligation in no way detracts from the larger purposes of development… of furthering the establishment of a national home for the Jews…

MacDonald went on tho state in his letter that there would be a need for co-operation, confidence, readiness on all sides to appreciate the difficulties and complexities of the problem, and, above all, that there must be a full and unqualified recognition that no resolution can be satisfactory or permanent which is not based upon justice, both to the Jewish people and to the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.  It seems from this document that, from (at least) its second time in government, the Labour Party has favoured what has now become known as a two-state solution. 

A Royal Commission headed by Lord Peel was established in 1936, following the fresh outbreak of rioting by Arabs earlier that year. It found that Arab and Jewish differences could not now be reconciled under the Mandate and therefore suggested the partition of Palestine. The Arab leadership rejected the plan, but the Zionist Congress accepted it with qualifications, though with a substantial minority voting against. The British government eventually rejected the plan itself in November 1938. Jabotinsky’s evidence submitted to the Royal Commission is revealing in its definition of the evolution of Zionism by this stage:                                                                                   

The conception of Zionism which I have the honour to represent here is based on what I should call the humanitarian aspect. By that, I do not mean to say that we do not respect the other, the purely spiritual aspects of Jewish nationalism, such as the desire for self-expression, the rebuilding of a Hebrew culture, or creating some “model community of which the Jewish people could be proud.” All that, of course, is most important; but as compared with our actual needs and our real position in the world today, all that has rather the character of luxury. The Commission has already heard a description of the situation of World Jewry especially in Eastern Europe, … you will allow me to quote from a recent reference in ‘The New York Times’ describing the position… as “a disaster of historic magnitude.” … Three generations of Jewish thinkers and Zionists among whom there were many great minds… have come to the conclusion that the cause of our suffering is the very fact of the “Diaspora,” the bedrock fact that we are everywhere a minority. It is not the anti-Semitism of men; it is, above all, the anti-Semitism of things, the inherent xenophobia of the body social or the body economic under which we suffer. Of course, there are ups and downs; but there are moments, there are whole periods in history when this “xenophobia of Life itself” takes dimensions which no people can stand, and that is what we are facing now…

… the phenomenon called Zionism may include all kinds of dreams – a “model community”, Hebrew culture, perhaps even a second edition of the Bible – but all this longing for wonderful toys of velvet and silver is nothing in comparison with that tangible momentum of irresistible distress and need by which we are propelled and borne. We are not free agents. We cannot “concede” anything. Whenever I hear the Zionist, most often my own Party, accused of asking for too much – Gentlemen, I really cannot understand it. Yes, we do want a State; every nation on earth, every normal nation, beginning with the smallest and humblest who do not claim any merit, any role in humanity’s development, they all have States of their own. That is the normal condition for a people. Yet, when we, the most abnormal of peoples and therefore the most unfortunate, ask only for the same condition as the Albanians enjoy… then it is called too much.

We have got to save millions, many millions. I do not know whether it is a question of re-housing one-third… half… or a quarter of the Jewish race… Certainly the way out is to evacuate those portions of the Diaspora which have become no good, which hold no promise of any possibility of livelihood, and to concentrate all those refugees in some place which should not be Diaspora, not a repetition of the position where the Jews are an unabsorbed minority within a foreign social, or economic, or political organism.

I have the profoundest feeling for the Arab case… I could hardly mention one of the big nations, having their States, mighty and powerful, who had not one branch living in someone else’s State… but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation…

After the failure of the partition scheme and a subsequent attempt to work out an agreed solution at the London Conference (Feb-March, 1939), the British government announced its new policy in a White Paper published in May 1939. Arab demands were largely met: Jewish immigration to Palestine was to continue at a maximum rate of 15,000 for another five years. After that, it was to cease altogether unless the Arabs would accept it. Jewish purchase of land was also to be restricted in some areas and stopped altogether in others. Jewish reaction was bitterly hostile, but the Arab leaders also rejected the White Paper: according to their demands, Palestine was to become an Arab state immediately, no more Jewish immigrants were to enter the country, and the status of every Jew who had entered the country was to be reviewed. The Jewish Agency for Palestine, which had been coordinating the migration, led the Zionist reaction to the British government’s new policy:

1.  The new policy for Palestine laid down by the Mandatory in the White Paper now issued denies to the Jewish people the right to rebuild their national home in their ancestral country. It transfers the authority over Palestine to the present Arab majority and puts the Jewish population at the mercy of that majority. It decrees the stoppage of Jewish immigration as soon as the Jews form a third of the total population. It puts up a territorial ghetto for Jews in their own homeland.

2. The Jewish people regard this policy as a breach of faith and a surrender to Arab terrorism. It delivers Britain’s friends into the hands of those who are biting her and must lead to a complete breach between Jews and Arabs which will banish every prospect of peace in Palestine. It is a policy in which the Jewish people will not acquiesce…

3. The Royal Commission… indicated the perils of such a policy, saying it was convinced that an Arab Government would mean the frustration of all their (Jews’) efforts and ideals and would convert the national home into one more cramped and dangerous ghetto. It seems only too probable that the Jews would fight rather than submit to Arab rule…

4. The Jewish people have no quarrel with the Arab people. Jewish work in Palestine has not had an adverse effect upon the life and progress of the Arab people. The Arabs are not landless or homeless as are the Jews. They are not in need of emigration… The Jewish people has shown its will to peace even during the years of disturbances. It has not given way to temptation and has not retaliated to Arab violence. But neither have Jews submitted to terror nor will they submit to it even after the Mandatory has decided to reward the terrorists by surrendering the Jewish National Home.

5. It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British have decided to deprive the Jews of their last hope and to close the road back to their Homeland. It is a cruel blow… This blow will not subdue the Jewish people. The historic bond between the people and land of Israel cannot be broken. The Jews will never accept the closing to them of the gates of Palestine nor let their national home be converted into a ghetto…

This document shows quite clearly that Jewish immigration to Palestine, which had been underway for at least a decade and a half before Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, was neither the product of a defeatist collaboration with them nor of some form of perverted ideological motivation.

Nazism & the Arab Cause: Hitler & the Grand Mufti

Further evidence as to the ideological distance between Nazism and Zionism, were it needed, is revealed by Hitler’s recorded statements made in the presence of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in November 1941. In the previous year, following the German destruction of Poland and occupation of western Europe, Jewish emigration to Palestine from the Reich had all but halted, falling to 1,100 from a high of 9,800 in 1934, following the Ha’avarah Agreement, and from 9,200 between the Anschluss (reunification with Austria and the onset of war). Hitler’s true intentions, were they ever to be doubted, as to the means of achieving ethnic cleansing, are as clear in these statements as they are from the mass murders of Polish Jews that had already taken place and were common knowledge in those countries, like Hungary, which received large numbers of refugees who could no longer so easily gain passage to Palestine. Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, contains details of this which I have summarised elsewhere on this site.

Haj Amin al Husaini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was the most influential leader of the Palestinian Arabs both before and during the Second World War when he lived in Germany. He met Hitler, Ribbentrop and other Nazi leaders on various occasions and attempted to coordinate Nazi and Arab policies in the Middle East (Lacqueur). The Record of Conversation between him and the Führer in Berlin begins with his statement on foreign policies of what he termed The Arab Legion, including the Arab countries of North Africa which he said were ready to rise up, together with the Palestinians, against the ‘enemies’ they shared with Germany, namely the English, the Jews and the Communists. He mentioned a letter he had received from the German government which stated that

Germany was holding no Arab territories and understood and recognised the aspirations to independence and freedom of the Arabs, just as she supported the elimination of the Jewish national home.

Hitler himself then stated that Germany’s fundamental attitude was as stated in this letter:

Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews. That naturally included opposition to the national home in Palestine, which was nothing other than a centre, in the form of a state, for the exercise of destructive influence by Jewish interests. Germany was also aware that the assertion that the Jews were carrying out the function of economic pioneers in Palestine was a lie. The work done there was done only by the Arabs, not by the Jews. Germany was resolved, step by step, to ask one European nation after the other to solve its Jewish problem, and at the proper time direct a similar appeal to non-European nations as well.

Germany was at the present time engaged in a life or death struggle with the two citadels of Jewish power: Great Britain and Soviet Russia. Theoretically there was a difference between England’s capitalism and Soviet Russia’s communism; actually, however, the Jews in both countries were pursuing a common goal. This was the decisive struggle; on the political plane, it presented itself as in the main as a conflict between Germany and England, but ideologically it was a battle between National Socialism and the Jews. It went without saying that Germany would furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle, because platonic promises were useless in a war for survival or destruction in which the Jews were able to mobilize all of England’s power for their ends.

Hitler went on to refer to Iraq, where Germany had been prevented from the rendering of effective practical aid so that the country was overcome by the power of Britain, that is, the guardian of the Jews. Germany was involved in severe battles to force open the gateway to the northern Caucasus region. Therefore, he argued, he could not make any declaration of intent about Syria, because this would be united by de Gaulle’s followers as an attempt to break up France’s colonial empire and lead to a strengthening of their common cause with the English. He then made the following statements to the Mufti:    

1. He would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the Judeo-Communist empire in Europe.

2. At some moment… which… was not too distant, the German armies would in the course of this struggle reach the southern exit from Caucasia.

3. As soon as this happened, the Führer would on his own give the Arab world the assurance that its hour of liberation had arrived. Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of British power.

This would, he concluded, bring about the end of the British world empire and French influence in the Middle East. Significantly, however, he refused to make the kind of declaration the Mufti had asked of him at that time, which would provoke an immediate revolt against the British and the Jews in Palestine. Referring to the Anschluss with Austria, he remarked that,…

… he (the Führer) would beg the Mufti to consider that he himself was the Chief of State for five long years during which he was unable to make to his own homeland the announcement of liberation.                   

His point was clearly that, before ‘force of arms’ had been successful in extending the Reich’s territorial control to the south of the Caucasus, the Judeo-British link could not be broken. Nevertheless, he assured the Grand Mufti that his statements could be regarded as a confidential declaration or secret agreement between the two of them. Hitler’s reference back to his first five years after becoming Chancellor of Germany is an interesting one in the context of recent claims that he was not always determined to exterminate the Jews but also supported Zionist emigration as a means to the ethnic cleansing of Europe set out in his early writings. If he went along with the dealings of some of his leading SS men, Eichmann included, it was only until such time as the military conquest of the European conquest was all but complete, and perhaps as a temporary means of earning money from exports. As he told the Mufti, he had to speak coolly and deliberately, as a rational man and primarily as a soldier, as the leader of the German and allied armies. In addition, we cannot escape the fact that his clearly stated aim in this German State document was the destruction of the Jews, not just in Europe, but also in Palestine and the Middle East, even if he expected this latter genocide to be carried out mainly by the Arabs. Given the extent of his military ambitions in 1941, it is difficult to imagine that he ever seriously contemplated, let alone supported, the creation of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine which, as he himself acknowledged, would become a thorn in his side before very long.

Creation and attempted strangulation of Israel

By the time an Anglo-American Inquiry Committee was appointed in November 1945 to examine the state of the Jews in the former Axis-occupied countries and to find out how many had been impelled by conditions to migrate, Britain, weakened by war, found itself under growing pressure from both Jews and Arabs alike. The Labour Government of Clement Attlee, therefore, decided to invite the United States to participate in finding a solution. President Truman welcomed the recommendation of the Committee to rescind the immigration and land laws of the 1939 White Paper, although Attlee declared that the report would need to be “considered as a whole on its implications.” Arab League reaction was hostile and threatening, refusing to consider a bi-national, federal solution. Those Arabs who would consider it were assassinated by supporters of the Mufti, leading others to drop out of talks. The Ihud Zionists put forward this solution, but they too found few supporters among the Jewish Community in general. Eventually, the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced in February 1947 that HM’s Government had decided to refer the Palestine problem to the United Nations. The tension inside Palestine had risen, illegal Jewish immigration continued, and there was growing restiveness in the Arab countries. Palestine, Bevin said, could not be so divided as to create two viable states, since the Arabs would never agree to it. This was how, under a Labour Government, the British Mandate was terminated, and the state of Israel was declared in May 1948 and was immediately and illegally occupied by the armies of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab states. They tried, and failed, to block the implementation of the UN Resolution establishing what they called “a Zionist State” by “Jewish usurpers”.

Our ‘Dr Livingstone’ would do well to remember these facts as well. His latest statement, made on an Arabic language TV station, is that “the creation of the state of Israel was fundamentally wrong”, a statement made with all the presumptive self-assurance of someone with a PhD in the history of Zionism and the establishment of Israel. Three greater Labour giants from the period itself, Ramsay MacDonald, Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin clearly did not see what they were engaged in as wrong, but so would the United Nations, yesterday and today. Of course, Dr Livingstone is again looking through the wrong end of his explorer’s telescope. Palestine before the Second World War was never recognised as an ‘Arab state’ (even in prospect) and many Jews had settled there long before the Second World War. In fact, for reasons already mentioned, the majority of those settling in Palestine had already done so before the War. It was the failed attempt by the neighbouring Arab states to “strangle Israel at birth” which led to it seizing, for its own protection, more land areas beyond those defined by the UN. Once again, Mr Livingstone is scapegoating the Jews for the Arab-Israeli Conflict of the last seventy years, in addition to making them, as victims of the persecutions of the previous seventy years, responsible for their own Shoah, or suffering.


Walter Lacqueur (1969), The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Bantam Books.

Richard Overy (1996), Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.



Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.


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