Letters - August 2010
Editor Paul Lay reads a selection of your correspondence.
Jonathan Downs’s article (‘Losing Our Marbles’, July 2010) seems to me to rest on an unarticulated premise which needs to be questioned. If Britain’s claim to the Elgin Marbles is dubious, the claim of Greece is not clearcut either. Any theft was from the Ottoman Empire (which no longer exists), not from the state of Greece (which did not exist at the time). There are too many historical discontinuities for modern Greece and Egypt to claim the direct inheritance of the Athenian democracy and the Ptolemaic kingdom respectively. Any claim must be geographical, not historical: that the current occupiers of territory are entitled not only to any heritage found on the territory today, but also to any that has ever been found there, whoever occupied the territory at the time. Downs takes this for granted; it needs to be supported by argument.
One of the glories of such institutions as the British Museum and the Louvre is their wide range, both chronologically and geographically. In them the visitor can encounter the worldwide experience of humankind. The logical conclusion of Downs’s approach would be national museums which only reflect the history of their own territory. In practice, national museums would reclaim the best pieces and leave foreign museums with unwanted and uninspiring artefacts. The narrow focus of national museums would risk drifting into a nationalist presentation of history, as opposed to the broad and deep worldview which helps to foster international understanding.
Perhaps talks between museums should focus not only on the presence of Greek and Egyptian artefacts in northern Europe, but also on the absence of north European artefacts in Greece and Egypt.
June 1940? Non
I enjoyed Jonathan Fenby’s article on General de Gaulle in June’s edition (‘The Man Who Said “Non”’). However, the photograph at the top of page 37 actually dates from the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, not June 1940, as stated. It depicts an Allied M10 Tank Destroyer at one of the barricades built by the French Forces of the Interior. It was taken beside the Rue de Rennes at the entrance to the Rue Sainte Placide – according to After the Battle magazine, issue 14, 1976 – which reproduced the same photograph.
Well done on your joint competition with Royal Mail (July 2010) but could you ask them when there will be a stamp series commemorating Cromwell and the Commonwealth? This year also sees the Royal Mint issue a £5 coin marking the Restoration with no prior numismatic reference to the man who embodies the end of monarchist absolutism in Great Britain.
Monarchy is a useful framework for the promotion of wider popular knowledge of history, but the whole story should be told. Does any reader recall a Cromwell stamp or coin issue?
House of Historians
Your excellent editorial in the July issue listing the high number of historians in the new House of Commons was very interesting, but had one outstanding omission. Chris Skidmore, the newly elected Tory MP for Kingswood, is a young Tudor historian whose recent book, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart (Weidenfeld and Nicholson), offers a plausible explanation of one of the enduring mysteries of English history. The death of Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, in September 1560 was an event that forever precluded the possibility that Elizabeth I would marry her favourite.
As we now have such a large number of historians in Parliament, it occurred to me that History Today ought to encourage the formation of an all-party History Group to defend history and promote further interest in the subject among our rulers. Such a group of sympathisers in high places is sorely needed, given recent threats to the place of history in our schools and colleges, coupled with surveys showing appalling ignorance of basic knowledge of historical events and figures among the young, a phenomenon which sits so oddly with the popular resurgence of interest in history in the 21st century.
Perhaps Gordon Marsden MP, as a former editor of History Today, could be invited to inaugurate such a group?
Lewes, East Sussex
Thank you to John P. Fox for his timely and thought-provoking essay, ‘Katyn: Tragedy upon Tragedy’ (June 2010). While the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis have been well-documented, too little is still being said about the terror and misery brought upon the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe by our Soviet allies during the Second World War. One should point out that the murder of 16-21,000 Polish POWs in March and April 1940 was not an isolated incident, but rather a tragic milestone in the Stalinist policy to subjugate the Poles.
Already in September 1939, while invading Poland’s eastern provinces, the Red Army and the NKVD frequently executed Polish POWs, especially officers, but also civilian ‘class enemies’ (aristocracy, policemen, civil service officers). Under the Soviet occupation an estimated 500,000 Polish men, women and children were deported into the wastelands of the Stalinist empire, where thousands were worked to death or perished from hunger, neglect and inhumane treatment. Another 77,000 Polish citizens were forcibly drafted into the Red Army’s building battalions where they served as slave labour. Throughout the war the Soviet military hunted down partisans of the Home Army, loyal to the London-based Polish government in exile, thousands of whom were murdered or imprisoned in gulags. Any real or imagined threat to the Moscow-sponsored Communist new order in Poland was ruthlessly suppressed and human life had little value to Stalin’s henchmen.
Thus, if you were Polish, or for that matter, Lithuanian, Latvian or Estonian, there would be little doubt in your mind that Stalin was co-responsible for the outbreak of the war in 1939 and all the unimaginable suffering that followed.
Derek A. Hamilton
New York, USA
From Rifles to Railways
David White’s article (‘Born in the USA: A New World of War’, June 2010) was most interesting, particularly for quantifying the effect of modern rifled weapons on the battlefield.
His treatment of the naval engagements in Hampton Roads in March 1862, however, reminded me of something which has puzzled me for many years. As White says, the Confederates had salvaged the hull and machinery of the sail-and-steam frigate Merrimac, which the US Navy had tried to destroy on abandoning Norfolk Navy Yard in April 1861. On this patched-up hull, an ironclad superstructure was erected. The resultant vessel was commissioned and fought as the CSS Virginia, yet in popular legend the Merrimac lives on. Can anyone say why this should be?
I would take issue with White’s claims for the Confederate’s use of railroads. While there were instances as quoted where an integrated network was attempted, in general the southern states had built a number of individual lines of local interest where no overall concept of a network existed. Neither did a standard gauge – many railroads were built to the so-called standard 4ft 81/2 ins introduced from England, but many preferred a 5ft gauge. Southern use of what lines they had was hampered by this inability to run through without transhipment and the USMR often had to regauge captured lines to utilise Northern stock.
I was overjoyed to see the cover of the May edition of History Today bearing David Low’s 1940 cartoon All Behind You, Winston and I read Taylor Downing’s article, ‘Cometh the Finest Hour’, with interest. Mr Downing did a terrific job covering the topic; the only addition I would make would be to shed light on Churchill’s previous five or so years in the House of Commons before he became prime minister. It is important to note that the hero of the Second World War was shunned in the period leading up to the war. As William Manchester points out in his book The Last Lion (Bantam, 2001), Churchill had been opposing Hitler ever since he became Chancellor of Germany. When Baldwin and Chamberlain ignored defence spending and instead sought to cooperate with and manage Hitler, Churchill advocated strengthening England’s defence systems, particularly its RAF and radar installations. Churchill would give speeches before an empty House and when MPs did stay to listen, he was booed.
Thus, the transformation that occurred as Churchill became prime minister was remarkable and marked a drastic change in public opinion, as the people turned from appeasement to active opposition to the evil in Germany that Churchill had long warned about.
New Jersey, USA