6 SEPTEMBER 1946, Page 18

Understanding History .

MANY people who would not agree with Henry Ford that "History is bunk" nevertheless know little about the subject. It plays no

part in their judgement of contemporary affairs, nor does it enrich their visits, to ancient towns and villages. This is the introduction or key volume to a series designed to combat this ignorance.

Although the books are meant for the general reading public, they

are all to be written by people with good academic standards, a nineteenth-century tradition which has not been consistently fol- lowed in our own time. Mr. Rowse is convinced, rightly I believe, that "the most congenial approach to history is the bio- graphical . . . The key idea of this series and what distinguishes it from any other that has appeared is the intention, by way of the biography of a great man, to open up a significant historical theme—for example, Cromwell and the Puritan Revolution or Lenin and the Russian Revolution." It is good to notice in the list some comparatively neglected subjects such as "Bolivar and the Inde- pendence of Spanish America," by J. B. Trend, or " Venizelos and Modern Greece, by J. Mavrogordato.

Some of the remarks in Mr. Rowse's introductory volume will inevitably come as platitudes to those who have studied this subject at a university, but the book is. not really intended for such people. On the other hand, Chapter V, with its discussion of the relations between Darwin and history, its quotations from Marx and Croce, may well be too difficult for beginners. Perhaps the most practically helpful chapter is the last, "How to Tackle Reading:" with its %yarn- ing against the more lush and absurd biographies like Hackett 's Henry VIII and its sensible suggestion to 'defer reading the great, prejudiced classics such as Gibbon and Macaulay until one nas read enough modem specialists to . discount their bias. Mr. Rowse is superbly anti-Philistine, and alway shows his awareness of the aesthetic side of history.

The author rightly insists on the need for diplomatists, states- men journalists and civil servants to study history, and on the shocking revelations Of historical ignorance in high places afforded by Sir Nevile Henderson's Failure of a Mission, he says: "Only. a little orderly reading of modern history would have given him the clue." But one does not need to be a Marxian determinist to doubt the truth of his suggestion that with a little more history all round in influential quarters the second world war might have been averted.

Mr. Rowse quotes from Professor Butterfield's The Englishman and His History, but not from his earlier and better book, Thi Whig Interpretation of History. In that book the aim of history is declared to be "the elucidation of the unlikeness between past and present," and Butterfield observes that there is no more un- historical method than to study the past through the blinkers of the present, to say ", What led to our religious liberty?" instead of "Why were they persecuting?" He also thinks there iS 3 positive advantage in reading distant and obscure periods of historYi because more mental elasticity and more historical imagination must be employed in understanding them. (Mr. Rowse, himself an expert on the sixteenth century, seems to favour studying the nineteenth century.) In this Butterfield is adopting an attitude similar to Dr. Bowra, who defends the classics on the excellent grounds that they are so alien to modern ways of thought that in translating them one is forced to penetrate behind the words to the- alien sense. Understanding periods of history very remote from one's own is perhaps a step towards comprehending the baffling policies of foreign Powers. The motives of the Kremlin May be obscure, but they can scarcely be more so than those of Hildebrand or Barbarossa.

Mr. Rowse is perhaps a little too inclined to rhapsodise over the virtues of the English and of Mr. Churchill in particular, but apart from that this is a good and useful book. PHOEBE POOL.