Letters to the Editor - September 2013

A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.

Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.

Email p.lay@historytoday.com, or send to

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No One’s to Blame

It is hard to see how anyone could accuse the UK government of being insufficiently jingoistic in its marking of the First World War, but Gary Sheffield (The Great War Was a Just War, August) manages this. To describe it as ‘a war of national survival’ is absurd: does he think that the UK would have ceased to exist in any sense if it had lost? Many human beings did indeed did cease to exist. As Richard J Evans points out (Guardian, July 13th), the blame game should be avoided: ‘Every country had its strategic and ideological reasons for going to war in 1914.’

If one wishes to examine the causes of the war, a social system that relies on trade routes and markets, and so leads to countries quarrelling over their control, is the best bet. The British Empire (built on conquest and murder) is part of what the UK government was defending.

Sheffield trivialises the issue by characterising the view he disagrees with as the ‘Blackadder view’. Perhaps his own apologia should be characterised as the ‘Professor of War Studies view’.

Paul Bennett

Big History, Small Minds

It is rare that one reads an editorial that incites a response, but the review of Big History was ambivalent enough to remind me of a recent time when I, a neuroscientist, was in the uncomfortable position of speaking to historians about the rich historical information we each carry in our genetic material.

I described how the spread of mankind’s colonisation through the Pacific was charted using human genes and how the peopling of Australia and New Zealand was understood using the genes of our co-evolved microbial pathogens. I emphasised the power of mathematics to decode this and other deep seams of new historical information. Nothing could have exceeded the politeness of these professional historians except, perhaps, their lack of interest. It was left to the distinguished master of the hosting college, who, like me, had studied history only as an undergraduate, to continue the discussion with any enthusiasm.

I sense your ambivalence will find considerable agreement among professional historians, which may surprise researchers for whom multidisciplinary approaches are now the norm and who see these extraordinary new tools as an opportunity to illuminate the history of men and women, big and small.

David Edwards
Professor of Paediatrics and Neonatal Medicine, King’s College London

Syria is at Fault

John McHugo’s attempt to lay the blame for Syria’s civil war at Israel’s door (Syria: Caught in a Trap, July) is both mendacious and myopic. He fails to mention that Syria was the aggressor against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, which was the cause of the country losing control over the Golan Heights. Does he seriously imagine that any of the current population of that area, including those who were living there in 1967, would prefer to be ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator rather than continue to live in a liberal democracy? Or does he have no concern for their wishes and feelings, as his sympathetic portrayal of the Assads would suggest?

McHugo’s assertion that Israel has sought ‘to achieve hegemony over Lebanon’ is equally spurious. Israel has sent troops into Lebanon in the past in response to being attacked from that territory. Syria, on the other hand, has had a hand in Lebanese politics for decades and is believed to have assassinated political enemies there in its efforts to turn the country into a fiefdom. 

McHugo’s most ridiculous claim is that the failure on the part of the Assad regime to develop Syria economically and socially is due to being ‘forced to devote their time and energy to matters of defence and foreign affairs’. If that was the case then Israel, which faces much greater military threats than Syria, would be a poverty stricken backwater. As it is, Israel has the highest living standards of any country in the region and is a progressive state in every way.

McHugo needs to learn how to use facts rather than rely on prejudice and opinion if he is to be taken seriously as an academic.

Daniel Taylor
Tilehurst, Reading


Readers of the letter by June Purvis on the death of Emily Wilding Davison in the August edition of History Today, in which she appears to say that Davison did try to commit suicide in 1913, will be surprised by an article published in the June edition of BBC History Magazine, in which she says that Davison did not intend suicide – thereby agreeing with my article (The Good Terrorist, June)! What is the explanation for this volte-face? Has Purvis changed her mind? Is she a bit confused ? Or is she so determined to pursue vendettas with male historians that she is prepared to say anything?

Martin Pugh
Hexham, Northumberland

An Atheist’s God

I found Tim Stanley’s reflections on Whig history and the Gove recommendations for the history curriculum to be thoughtful and persuasive (The Contrarian, May). The only bit that did not ring true was his suggestion that Giles Fraser supported the proposals because of their theological character. So I did what any modern lay historian would do and googled the source. It turned out it was an article in the Guardian (March 8th) that was quoted. And, as I had suspected, Stanley’s interpretation was quite wrong. Fraser was pointing out that theology influences our approach to history most insidiously precisely when we are most ignorant of it; that is, of both theology’s influence and of its content. Thus, he suggested, we do well to inform ourselves of the history and issues of theology in order to more consciously counter its influence.

I am reminded of the episode in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, when the protagonist, Yossarian, and his girlfriend du jour are discussing the atheism they both adhere to. Yossarian gets carried away in violent denunciations of God for creating the existential and historical mess that they are stuck in. He is surprised when his friend, weeping, begs him to stop his attack. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, bewildered. ‘I thought you didn’t believe in God either.’ ‘I don’t,’ she says, ‘But the God I don’t believe in is a kind, loving God, not the monster you don’t believe in.’

Atheism is too important a matter to be left to the atheists.

Jeff Ewener
Toronto, Canada

A Little Greek

Your reviewer Rebecca Earle (Reviews, July) should beware of parading her ignorance of foreign languages; it does not inspire confidence in her judgment. She seems to think that the plural of metropolis should be metropoli. Metropolis is originally a Greek word and its plural in Greek is metropoleis. In his review of The Enlightenment on page 64 of the same issue, Robert J Mayhew uses metropoles as the plural; this could just possibly be defended as being what the Latin plural might have been, although it is doubtful that any Latin author would prefer this form to the correct Greek form. If you are writing in English, however, you should use English forms. The plural of metropolis is metropolises, just as (unless you are Flanders and Swann) the plural of hippopotamus is hippopotamuses.

Michael JB Almond
Errol, Perthshire

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