The New Statesman Essay - How history became popular again

Richard J Evans explains why even Downing Street now wants to hear what historians have to say

History has suddenly become chic again. After a long period of clogging their books with statistics, histograms and sociological jargon, burying most of their findings in the decent obscurity of learned journals, and focusing their attention on subjects so minute as to be of interest to hardly anyone except themselves, professional historians have started to reach out to a wider public once more.

For many years, academic historians complained that the public did not buy their books or pay any attention to what they said or wrote. But the present interest in history is not new. In the 1960s, A J P Taylor commanded television audiences running into millions with his seemingly effortless half-hour lectures straight to the camera, delivered without visual aids of any kind and without the help of an autocue. Both Taylor and E P Thompson, another prominent historian, played leading roles in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, thus belying Taylor's oft-repeated statement that historians had nothing of relevance or importance to say to society.

Earlier, there was G M Trevelyan, whose English Social History was the only English-language book (apart from Palgrave's Golden Treasury of English Verse) to be found on the single bookshelf in my parents' house. All the rest were in Welsh. In my uncle's house, apart from manuals on bee-keeping, the only English book was another historical work, Winston Churchill's The Second World War. A piece of toilet paper inserted at page 53 of the first volume indicated how far my uncle had got with it. But read or not, Churchill's work sold hundreds of thousands of copies, a testimony not just to the standing of its author but also to the appetite of the reading public for books about the past. Further back still, in the Victorian era, the grand narratives of the Whig tradition were part of the intellectual furniture of every educated household, and the scramble for copies of the latest volume of Macaulay's History of England, with queues of carriages lining up along the streets outside bookshops on publication day, has been equalled in our own time only by the fight to get a Tracy Island in Hamleys toy shop in the weeks before Christmas.

It was the growing professionalisation of history in the 20th century that did for the likes of Macaulay and Trevelyan. In the search for scientific accuracy and methodological sophistication, historians began to cut themselves off from the wider reading public. The exhilaration caused by the advent of the computer, with its ability to crunch numbers on a scale hitherto undreamt of, led to a growing output of increasingly technical work, comprehensible only to the initiated. And the increasing number of university-based historians found that, with more or less the same amount of history to go around as before, to conduct original research meant focusing on smaller and smaller subjects.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ideas that excited the wider reading public were derived above all from the social sciences. Marxism, sociology, psychology and similarly present-oriented systems of ideas provided the grand narratives and sweeping perspectives that people required to make sense of the social and political world around them, from historical materialism to modernisation theory. Novelists and fiction writers shared this orientation towards the present, with a whole range of writers from Kingsley Amis to Iris Murdoch, John Updike to Alison Lurie writing about the societies they lived in and generally avoiding the past.

Now, wherever we look, we find novelists turning to the past for inspiration: think of recent Booker Prize-winners, from Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. The power of Zadie Smith's White Teeth derives not least from its depiction of the impact of the past on the present day.

Consider television, too. A few years ago, producers seemed to think of history as something you found in old newsreels and talked to old people about. If it hadn't been captured in a moving image, it wasn't worth doing. Documentary series such as Lawrence Rees's superb The Nazis: a warning from history, or his somewhat more uneven sequel about the Second World War on the Eastern Front, have continued in this vein. But more recently television has discovered the previous millennia of human history, not to mention the aeons before human beings were around. Dinosaurs, Neanderthals, Alexander the Great, Ancient Egyptians, Roman Britain - any historical or prehistorical subject, no matter how remote, is grist to the mill.

Computer-generated images, advanced prosthetics and other sophisticated technological innovations have made it much easier than before to find striking visual images with which to portray the distant past.

The current BBC offerings on the Victorians, marking the centenary of Queen Victoria's death, have a huge range and variety which depend to a very limited extent on moving pictures from the early days of cinema. You can view reconstructions of life in a house as it was - or is thought to have been - in the 1940s, or follow Michael Wood as he tramps across South America in the footsteps of the last Inca or drives through the remotest regions of Inner Asia in search of traces left by the conquering armies of Alexander the Great. And last year the BBC launched its own History Magazine, which acquired a circulation of tens of thousands within a few months. As well as information on forthcoming history programmes and on historical sites, exhibitions and museums that readers can visit, it has brief digests of recent articles in the academic journals, short exchanges on controversial historical subjects and summaries of the latest history books by their authors. Although there are some longer articles by academic historians, the magazine is partly designed for the post-literate age, and aims at a readership whose attention span seems to have been calculated at no more than about five or six minutes. Yet the circulation of the older and more upmarket History Today (this year celebrating its 50th anniversary) doesn't seem to have suffered a bit.

The most striking aspect of history's new popularity is the arrival of the best-selling blockbuster. For example, the two-volume, 2,000-page biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw, professor of modern history at Sheffield University, has reached the best-seller lists without in any way compromising its academic integrity.

But the current master of this genre is Norman Davies. His huge history of Europe and his equally enormous history of Britain - The Isles - have sold in their hundreds of thousands, and not just in the UK. Davies is a Fellow of the British Academy and a former professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. Yet he has imbibed from his former teacher A J P Taylor not only the common touch but also a quirky individuality. His books are unconventional in almost every respect. For example, Europe: a history prints all its maps sideways-on, refusing to put north at the top in the usual way; its narrative is interspersed with frequent boxes or capsules containing little essays on diverse and seemingly arbitrarily selected topics; and many of its judgements and opinions seem almost deliberately designed to provoke.

These quirks are the equivalent of Taylor's famous footnotes ("George V: wore his trousers creased at the sides, not front and back", was one of my favourites). But each of Davies's books also has a message: that the history of the British Isles has been part of the history of Europe from the beginning, or that the history of Europe itself is as much the history of Russia, Poland and the Ukraine as it is the history of France, Italy or Spain.

Davies isn't the only historian with a message. The 1990s saw the emergence of a generation of talented young Tory historians whose hostility to Europe stood in sharp contrast to Davies's views. Andrew Roberts's superb biography (dedicated to Margaret Thatcher) of the last Victorian prime minister, Lord Salisbury, portrayed him as the first Eurosceptic, while Niall Ferguson's best-selling The Pity of War argued that Britain would have done better to have stayed out of the 1914-18 war, allowing Germany to win and thus preventing the rise of Hitler. Again, these are long, weighty books, written to the highest academic standards, yet they still manage to attract a wide readership. Others who achieve the same combination of scholarship and popularity include David Cannadine and Roy Porter; the latter's recent book on the British Enlightenment has succeeded in placing England and Scotland alongside France as a centre of progressive thought in the 18th century.

Most of these historians share a broad-based view of history, in which culture and society are as important as politics, and take what might be described as a liberal political stance. Underlying much of their work, for all its nuance and sophistication, is a view of history as progress which comes out in various ways, most notably in Porter's 1997 history of medical science, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind. They incorporate the social and cultural approaches of the 1970s and 1980s without losing the ability to tell stories. In his television series on the history of Britain (and in the best-selling book of the series), Simon Schama brought even the remote past to life without talking down in the least to the audience or indulging in cheap gimmicks of the sort we saw when David Starkey rode into view on top of a tank in a programme about Tudor England.

Popularisation on this scale comes at a price. It became something of a parlour game in the common rooms of Oxford and Cambridge colleges to spot the factual errors in the first edition of Norman Davies's Europe. But another favourite Oxbridge topic concerns the huge advances that some historians now get for their books. Few can match the £600,000 that Niall Ferguson was paid by Penguin for a three-book deal that began with The Pity of War - a deal that he clinched for himself after sacking his literary agent for insufficient ambition. ("He should have come to me," my own agent said. "He could have made far more money than that.") But even young and relatively unknown historians who have not featured on Any Questions or penned columns in the Sunday Telegraph can persuade a trade publisher to fork out tens of thousands of pounds for a book on economic history, an essay on a long-defunct country in central Europe, or an academic work on early modern Italian nuns.

But what accounts for this boom time for historians? To some extent, we are all profiting from the end of ideology, the demise of communism and the collapse of old ideological certainties. No longer does society look to the future for inspiration; instead, we have started looking to the past. Even that least historically oriented of political movements, new Labour, invited Linda Colley - who, like Cannadine, Porter and Schama, is a Cambridge-trained historian associated with the school of Sir John Plumb - into No 10 to deliver a lecture on identity and citizenship. Colley's book Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837 both reflected and pushed forward the debate about national identity that has become so crucial in the age of devolution.

In a way, it was not surprising that the Prime Minister was eager to hear what she had to say. What better kind of identity is there than one created in the past? In the bewildering kaleidoscope of competing identities that characterises the postmodern age, we are trawling through history for bold patterns and big pictures. Old kinds of identity are in decline. Class is no longer a potent force in advanced industrial societies. National identity has become a problem rather than an assumption, in an age of multiculturalism, globalisation and European integration, and we are no longer sure about what it means to be British.

Even gender is widely perceived as constructed as much as given. In this situation, people are turning to history for answers. What we are has to be seen as the end product of a process of becoming, a process that only history can recount and explain.

Memory has become central to society's moral vision of itself, whether it is the public memory of events such as the Holocaust, or the less disturbing visions of the past conjured up by a burgeoning heritage industry. In the last decade or so, there has been a kind of recovery of public memory of the Second World War and the crimes of the Nazis; long-ignored war criminals are at last being prosecuted, old injustices being tackled. The opening of the Holocaust Exhibition Wing of the Imperial War Museum last year, and the establishment of an official Holocaust Memorial Day, show how the memory of these things is becoming more important to society with the passage of time, not less so. With communism gone, democratic capitalist societies need a new negative image against which to define themselves and their values, and they are finding it once more in the past, above all in Hitler and the Nazis.

Many of our central political arguments are now conducted in historical terms. The debate on Europe, for example, centres on competing historical definitions of where England belongs. The question of devolution revolves around historical visions of Welsh and Scottish autonomy. Nothing in modern British politics is more historically grounded than the problem of Northern Ireland. Even the idea of global warming depends on the identification of long-term historical processes.

People have grown distrustful of the kind of modernist blueprints for a perfect society fashionable in the 1960s, which delivered such social failures as tower blocks, caused serious damage to the environment and encouraged the destruction of many comfortingly familiar landmarks in a rapidly changing world.

All this is generating a new demand for history. And historians are rising to the occasion. The word "history", as A J P Taylor liked to point out, was the same as the word for "story" in virtually every European language apart from English, a fact he urged his fellow historians not to forget. Both Taylor and Trevelyan were champions of narrative history, history told as a coherent and sequential story. Younger generations of historians have rediscovered narrative and are turning away from the analytical, social-scientific models of historical writing dominant in the 1970s and 1980s. The new narrative history, to be sure, is more self-conscious, more personal, more playful than the old, as befits the age of postmodern irony and self-awareness. But in the hands of someone who really knows how to deliver it, narrative history can provide a grand epic sweep, allied to a clear message. It tackles themes of human behaviour and morality that the contemporary novel, at least in this country, seems to fight shy of. Those lessons taught by Taylor and Trevelyan have not been in vain.

Richard J Evans is professor of modern history at Cambridge University. His In Defence of History has just been reissued by Granta with an extensive new afterword; his Telling Lies About Hitler: history, Holocaust and the David Irving trial will be published by Heinemann next month