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Conrad Black: With friends like these…

Conrad Black reflects on his friends’ nastiness about each other’s work.

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This has been a year of unusually frequent reviews of books by friends and close acquaintances by others I know and it is disappointing to see how bilious many of them have been. Sir Max Hastings’s review of Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon biography in the Wall Street Journal on 31 October was wildly unjust and inaccurate. It mistakenly suggested that Napoleon was solely responsible for the continuation of war in Europe from 1803 to 1814. Britain bankrolled and incited repeated wars of coalitions but Hastings complacently asserted that Britain’s “purposes in Europe at least were vastly more enlightened and above all peaceful” than those of Napoleon. (The phrase “Europe at least” was to exempt Britain’s outrageous provocation of the United States on the high seas that brought on the unnecessary and inconclusive war of 1812.)

Britain’s purposes were to promote constant war by regimes much more reactionary and oppressive than Napoleon’s. But for Britain’s meddling, Italy, Spain, Russia and even France (which Napoleon set up as a constitutional monarchy just before Waterloo) would have moved long before they did into enlightened government; the Polish nationality would have been resurrected over a century before it was and the Prussification of Germany might never have occurred. Hastings ignores Napoleon’s patient toleration of subordinates’ treachery, including those of Talleyrand, whom he credulously cites, and the “loyal” Marmont, whose conduct was so dishonourable that his title was adapted to a new French verb meaning “to betray” (raguser).

And Hastings’s priggish references to Napoleon’s romantic life, like his criticism of the socio-economic prominence of the people in Roberts’s acknowledgements, are just churlish. (The author decides whom he should thank, not the reviewer, and it is Hastings, not Roberts, who “succumbs to self-parody”.)

Hastings continues his tiresome habit of referring to the subject of the book, as he has in other reviews, as “the hero”, as if Roberts were merely waving an incense pot. Yet this is probably the best single book about Napoleon ever published in French or English. Hastings and I are former colleagues and he has many qualities but they weren’t on display in this shallow and nasty review.

With that said, Simon Heffer’s dismissal of Catastrophe, Hastings’s book about the start of the First World War, in the New Statesman in June, was slightly snappish and particularly so, given that it was largely a sequence of snide comments from other reviewers. Hastings is good at a soldier’s-eye view of war, unsteady in evaluating the conduct of generals and, apart from the very worthy Winston’s War about Mr Churchill in the Second World War, hopeless at judging the conduct of statesmen.

Journalists are rarely serious historians and even more infrequently successful at understanding the lot of people who actually have the responsibility for great events involving the lives of large numbers of people. Simon Heffer, who bears (legitimate) grievances at Hastings’s treatment of him at the Daily Telegraph, implied that Hastings is not “a serious scholar who fits his conclusions to the evidence” and that he is overly opinionated and reliant on the author’s “own army of research assistants”. More damning was Heffer’s deployment of the comments of Christopher Clark, the author of the widely and deservedly praised Sleepwalkers, directly competing with Hastings’s book, that Hastings is “not a historian. He is a man who writes about the past.”

This is too disparaging but is at least an arguable view, unlike Hastings’s contemptible assault on Andrew Roberts’s splendid Napoleon the Great. Sir Max has lived by the pen and, if not more careful, will be left for dead by the pen, to fester with his playmate Tom Bower – against whom my libel suit (over his novel about my wife and me nearly ten years ago) is a much anticipated event in Canada in 2015, especially by me. Canadians will be leaping like salmon to be jurors at the trial. I have had to delay proceeding with it until now to get more important litigation out of the way.

Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor is an entertaining book of vignettes, with a little analysis, of Winston Churchill’s techniques and most commendable habits. If Hastings thinks Napoleon is Andrew Roberts’s hero, it challenges the imagination to think how he might describe Boris’s idolisation of Churchill. Boris’s dismissal of Franklin D Roosevelt as a swindler in Lend-Lease (which Churchill described as the “most unsordid act in . . . history” and “an inspiring act of faith”) and as a tyro in international affairs duped out of eastern Europe by Stalin are falsehoods that even Hastings repudiated in Winston’s War. Boris overlooks Churchill’s opposition to the Normandy landings and his “naughty piece of paper” assigning Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Stalin in Moscow in October 1944 and implies that the US contributed only money to the war effort, overlooking the almost always victorious efforts of the 13-million-strong US armed forces and that the Allied armies on the Western Front in 1945 contained 72 US divisions, compared to 15 British.

Boris levitates a bit in portraying Churchill as “the most glorious political speaker of any age”, as almost the sole victor of the Second World War, as one of Britain’s greatest reformers, as the winner of the cold war and the founder of Ireland, Israel and Europe (while retaining his British, non-federalist credentials). It’s a lively read, as it could scarcely fail to be, given the author and his subject, but it is not exactly history. I will not join the ranks of those who have presumed to mind-read and speculate on whether Boris was acting with careerist motives.

I have enjoyed my professional and personal relations with all of these men (that does not include the malicious Bower) but as historians they run an extensive gamut, from the exemplary Roberts and the solid and often elegant Heffer to the more uneven but often flamboyant Hastings and the amiable, singular and slightly unserious Johnson. But they are all distinguished in their different ways and it is rather sad that they could not be more generous in rating each other’s work, in private comments as well as in published reviews.

Conrad Black is a cross-bench peer

This article appears in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution