When historians fall out

Richard J Evans squares up to Timothy Snyder.

In this week's London Review of Books, the first four letters are devoted to discussing Richard J Evans's damning review of the American historian Timothy Snyder's recent book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In one of the missives, the distinguished historian of Poland, Norman Davies, writes that Evans's review had treated Snyder as "an egregious interloper fit only to be chased from the parish", while in another letter a leading historian of the eastern European Jewry, Anthony Polonsky, argues that "Evans attacks Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, but Snyder's figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited, and they reflect the most recent research."

In his review of Snyder's book published in the 4 November issue of the LRB, Evans berated Snyder for his focus on the geographical area (Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia) that gives the book its title, Bloodlands: "By focusing exclusively on what he calls the 'bloodlands', Snyder also demeans, trivialises or ignores the suffering of the many other Europeans who were unfortunate enough to fall into Nazi hands." Evans went on in his review to list Snyder's apparent omissions from his account of Nazi and Soviet mass extermination, and accused him of writing with a geographical and historical myopia: "The fundamental reason... for the book's failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn't seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about."

In another of the letters in this week's LRB, Charles Coutinho points out that the particularly caustic criticism given by Evans in his review, may in part be due to a similarly disparaging critique of Evans's most recent book, The Third Reich at War, written by Snyder and published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009. Evans admits as much in his response to the letters (published alongside them), though is far from being apologetic:

Charles Coutinho does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder's book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and Eastern European history. At the time I wondered what made a supposedly serious historian fall into such egregious error. After reading his book, I now know: it's Snyder, not me, who has an incorrigible desire to drive out fellow historians he sees as "interlopers" from what he considers to be his own "parish".

This debate will no doubt continue, with further salvos of letters from eminent historians addressed to eminent journals to be published in the future. The only thing that seems certain in this academic maelstrom is that, even if the historical veracity or value of Snyder's Bloodlands is questionable, the historiographical impact of its publication is not.

Read David Herman's New Statesman review of Bloodlands here.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge