How many history books have you seen emblazoned with the words, “a new history”? A lot, I’ll warrant, certainly many more than those which claim to be old histories. In fact, Amazon lists 189,973 history books that feature the words “new” and “history” in their titles, and even accounting for histories of New Zealand and New York, we can assume that many thousands of these books claim to be new interpretations of their subjects.
Of course, the whole point of any history is that it should shed new light, or present new evidence that supports an existing interpretation. History that does neither is little more than the historian’s version of churnalism, in which secondary sources are simply digested, their sentences rephrased one notch below copyright infringement, and then chucked onto the shelves in time for Fathers’ Day.
There’s a lot of this junk history about, and the easiest way to spot it is to look for primary sources in the endnotes. If there are none, then the chances are the book should be left on the shelf. That’s not always the case, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.
The pressure on conscientious historians — especially those writing for the trade, rather than the academic, sector — is therefore to be revisionist. It’s not enough to say to one’s publisher that you have new material that will confirm an existing thesis. Instead, you have to offer something that can be called “a new history”. Existing theories must be debunked, subjects turned on their heads, the house totally rebuilt.
All this is understandable, and I make no bones that I do the same thing myself. Next year, I shall publish a book on the Great Escape that will certainly be a “new history”, because what I found in the archives tells a very different story to the one we all know from the movie and Paul Brickhill’s book.
However, does there come a point in which history is needlessly revised? Is historical revisionism sometimes a product of commercialism and political fashion rather than research?
I think it is. Take the case of the famous Dam Busters raid, which is the subject of an excellent documentary by James Holland to be shown tonight on BBC2. (Declaration: James is a friend, but despite that, he’s no idiot. It’s a good programme, and no, you don’t have to watch it.)
For many years, we have been told that the raid on the dams on the Ruhr and the Eder has been wrongly celebrated, and that despite the ingenuity of the bouncing bombs and the undeniable bravery of the RAF aircrew, the operation was more of a propaganda coup than something that really hurt the German war effort. The dams were quickly rebuilt, industrial output wasn’t that badly affected, German morale was not dented – so the argument goes.
Such an analysis was doubtless a reaction to the tub-thumping presentation of the raid, especially that conveyed in the 1955 film, starring Michael Redgrave. For some historians, such as Max Hastings, the raid ‘contributed little of substance and a great deal of moral force to the Allied cause at a hard and bitter time’.
This is the fashionably revisionist view, but as you shall see tonight, Holland argues that the Dam Busters revisionists have got it wrong. The raid was in fact a triumph, and did an enormous amount of damage. After studying the German archives, Holland shows that:
…not only were two major dams completely destroyed, so too were seven railway bridges, eighteen road bridges, four water turbine power stations and three steam turbine power stations, while in the Ruhr Valley alone, eleven factories were completely destroyed and a further 114 damaged, many severely. Vast tracts of land had also been devastated by the tidal waves that had thundered up to eighty miles from the dams.
Such damage can hardly be considered “little of substance”.
Furthermore, Holland completely skewers the argument that as the dams were quickly rebuilt, the damage was therefore not that great. The whole point of their swift reconstruction “underlines just how important they were to Germany”, and the men and material required had to be diverted from elsewhere.
Holland also argues that the destruction of the dams struck a huge psychological blow against the Germans, as these were structures that were venerated as triumphs of the country’s might and technical knowhow. In short, the raid was indeed a catastrophe for Nazi Germany, and a triumph for the British.
Holland’s analysis will no doubt draw its detractors, perhaps inspired by a politically fashionable thinking that seeks to denigrate just about every British success during the Second World War. Of course, there was much that we got wrong, but we also got many things spectacularly right
What Holland has done is to revise the revisionists, and as a result, put this historical episode back where it started. If he is correct — and for what it’s worth, I think he is — then we must ask why were we so often told that raid achieved so little.
What motivated those who sought to bust the Dam Busters? Documentary evidence or fashion?