Sir Martin on History

Sir Martin at his desk, under the watchful eye of Sir Jacob Epstein's maquette of Churchill. (26 March 1991, photo by Edward Hamilton West for the Guardian)
Sir Martin at his desk, under the watchful eye of Sir Jacob Epstein’s maquette of Churchill. (26 March 1991, photo by Edward Hamilton West for the Guardian)

On the tomb of the nineteenth century Church historian Bishop Mandel Creighton are inscribed the words: ‘He tried to write true history.’

Like the bishop – who was a member of my own college at Oxford – I believe that there is such a thing as ‘true history’.

What happened in the past is unalterable and definite. To uncover it – or as much of it as possible – the historian has several tools, among them chronology, documentation, memoirs, and the vast apparatus of scholarly work in which others have delved and laboured in the same vineyard.



It would be wrong to judge a historical figure solely by the standards of the present day. Every generation has its own morality. The historian is not primarily a judge who drags people from out of their environment and places them before a contemporary tribunal. His first aim is to see whether the people he studies acted for the good of their own society, as they envisaged that good. His second aim is to ask whether the ideas which he is examining are valid in terms of present values.


As a historian of the human condition, I have always tried to give a place and a name to those on whose shoulders fell the burden of the decisions of others – their rulers and their commanders – and those who did their duty without questioning, or seldom questioning, either the cause or the plan. Their stories deserve to be told in every generation, as an integral part of war, and as a testimony to human suffering and to the human spirit.


Sir Martin reflects on how the experiences of his life and his education shaped his interest in writing history, from an interview in the Claremont Review, published spring, 1983:  

On Sir Martin’s early interest in history, from his school days:

I remember many striking, unusual occur­rences from my very early years which made me wonder why things were as they were. I can remember the assembling hall in my school, where there were long lists of names of men who had been killed in the First World War. I can remember flying bombs falling in London. I can remember hearing on the radio Churchill and the King speak, with some other boys, and our being very curious to hear whether the King would stutter or not. I remember getting off the ship from Canada in July, 1944, in Liverpool (I was sent abroad to Canada during the war for safety, as many children were), and seeing all the destroyed buildings. I wondered what this meant, how it could happen, and what caused it.

I had an uncle who had been absent for what seemed a long time. I remember asking after him and being told that he was ill and far away and couldn’t visit us for a long time. When he did come home some years later, he was emaciated, and I learned that he had been some­thing called a prisoner of war in Japan. How could this happen, I wondered, and what did it mean?

Once I visited Belgium, and I remember vividly seeing many people there with tattooed numbers from German concentration camps on their forearms. I asked why these people wore numbers on their arms this way. I think I caused some embarrassment. There did not seem to be an explanation, or at least, no one seemed willing to give me one.

Once, when I was a school boy, I traveled to Paris, and was struck by an inscription on the petit Arc de Triomphe. It was a record of the great actions of Napoleon’s armies. I was mesmerized by the strong passions that were epitomized in this inscription, and seemed somehow characteristic of history.

Travel, I soon found, is very important for getting a full sense of how people live and what they think. I used to get about a great deal when I was 15 or 16 years old, by hitchhiking. In Cologne, on one of these trips, I stayed once in a bunker in front of Cologne Cathedral. It had been an underground shelter in wartime and was rid­dled with little cubicles, like coffins. I could get a sense of what the war was like from this, a sense that was dif­ficult to duplicate in any other way. One sees, when one is traveling, how each society is created, and always to some extent cursed, by its history.


 All of this – the travel, the turmoil in the world, the absence of explanations for what seemed important things – made a vivid impression on me, and I wanted to try to figure out, if I could, why many things that seemed anomalous to me were as they were. I would ask for explanations, and could not seem to get them. That, I think, is why I became interested in history.

There was another aspect to it, too. It was not only that when I asked, I found that explanations were lack­ing. Often explanations were given that seemed to me implausible, or contradictory of other things I knew that seemed to be true. This kind of thing happened to me often on my travels.


 I think two aspects of my character emerged at this time. I was, as I say, not attracted to extreme positions, and I was very keen to get the facts straight about things. For example, both the masters and the students at Highgate were anti-French. They often claimed that the French were untrustworthy, or even cowardly, and had deserted us in the war. But I had been to Le Havre and Rouen, and had seen the rubble there, and knew that the French had been through the war just as we had. So I was skeptical of this point of view.

On Sir Martin’s interest in being Jewish and in Jewish history:

I remember exactly when I first became conscious of being a Jew, and of how this made me somehow different in the eyes of some. When I was a little boy in Canada, four years old or so, I was out playing on Centre Island, Toronto. There was another little boy playing with a spade, and I wanted to borrow it. Well, when I asked this boy if I could borrow his spade, he said no, that his mother had told him not to lend things to Jews, that they never gave them back. Of course, I knew that I would have given back his spade. Later on, when I would sometimes hear people speaking ill of foreigners, of the French or Americans or whomever, I would think – “now, I wouldn’t have stolen that spade, perhaps those foreigners are not so bad either.”

Around 1947, when I was about nine years old, there was a very popular radio program – “Dick Barton, spe­cial agent.” All the boys in school would listen to it. Immediately after this program there was always the news, and we would listen to the headlines. One day the headlines reported that Jewish terrorists in Palestine had hanged an English sergeant. On hearing this report, the boys in school looked on me as an enemy. I was as­sociated with these terrorists because I was a Jew. There were 40 or 50 boys, and you can imagine how staggering their united hostility would be. This gave me some understanding of what it is to be a Jew, I suppose, and it had an effect on me.

On Sir Martin’s decision to study Modern History:

Originally I had wanted to study geography. Human geography was just coming into some vogue. I was always interested in frontier regions, for example, in such places as Trieste, where language and cultures were mixed. But the masters at school at that time did not consider geography a subject fit for gentlemen to study at the university. So I did history. I was not really bothered by having to do history. On history, too, I was very keen. But I think at the time I might have preferred geography just a little.

On Sir Martin’s belief in travel and why it is important for educating one’s self:

After finishing with the army and before returning to college, between April and October of 1957, I traveled extensively, spending two and one-half months in Yugoslavia and the same amount of time in Turkey. From Greece to Yugoslavia to Turkey – a few short train journeys or boat rides – one could see the extremes the world presented, from an open society to a left or right dictatorship. Turkey was under a right-wing dictator at that time, and Yugoslavians were being indoctrinated both as anti-Russians and anti-Americans. Some of my friends there would argue that it was I who came from a repressive society. And I would ask them how could it be that I am permitted to travel, while they are not.

Once again it was borne in upon me how important was the right to travel. I could see, talking to people in Turkey and in Yugoslavia, that they could not be easily brainwashed if they had the right to travel, even just to go across the border to Greece, which at that time was much more moderate than either Turkey or Yugoslavia. Even in the best case, it is difficult for people to hold independent views. When their information is controlled, it is nearly impossible.

On the system Sir Martin experienced at Oxford, 1960:

Ordinar­ily one would be given an assignment on Thursday and be required to submit an essay on the following Thursday. This gave you the weekend to read a vast number of books and articles, and then the night before tutorial you could write your essay. Now there were two ways to do this. You could skim the readings and – knowing the views of your tutor beforehand – write a plausible essay reflecting the tutor’s or the standard view. Or you could try to read the materials thoroughly, try really to master the subject for yourself, and write an essay on this understanding. Well, this second approach was virtu­ally impossible because of the vast amount of material and the short amount of time. But I decided that this was the approach to take if anyone really wanted to learn something, to understand what had happened, and not merely be able to say something plausible or fashionable about it. In general, one was expected to be too clever by half, and I decided to try to be accurate and tell the basic story. It was surprising how often the basic story, the real story as it emerges from the documentary record, would be lost even in the supposedly authorita­tive works.


 I had a reaction against this kind of teaching, and was led instead to stress the basics, to tell the basic story as well as the very clever parts.

On advice heard, but not heeded:

A.J.P. Taylor, who was one of my tutors, used to say that the story of modern history has already been told. All the essentials are there in the history books that have been written. Nothing that affects the main line of the story can be learned from unpublished documents. But it was remarkable – or so it seemed to me – how the history books missed or distorted the main line of the story while making fashionable, clever asides. I gradu­ally became convinced that the real story of modern history had not yet been fully told and determined to get the facts and tell the story as the documents revealed it.

Taylor once gave me three pieces of advice to guide my scholarship:

First, do not waste my time with maps. This is not a serious intellectual endeavour.

Second, there is nothing new to be learned about Churchill. We already know everything important there is to know.

Third, unpublished documents can reveal nothing new about modern history up to, and including, World War II. All has already been revealed.

On Sir Martin’s interest in Churchill:

I first became aware of this problem surrounding Churchill when I was writing for a school magazine. I distributed a questionnaire to all the masters in school. There were questions on several of the great men of the century, Mao, Stalin, Roosevelt – and Churchill. I dis­covered in the answers to this questionnaire that Churchill was very controversial. Opinion on Churchill was by no means uniform that the common view – Churchill the saviour of Britain – was correct. One master even said that Churchill was a murderer.


One has to try to keep politics out of history. But history has impli­cations for politics. It is very difficult with a man like Churchill, who had such an impact on things, and who is still an important figure, just to focus on the documentary evidence and tell what happened. That is difficult in part because politics influences the writing of history, and also because telling the story according to the documentary record is itself the most difficult way to write history. It takes very hard work.


 … it was the fashion to make clever remarks. This is what distinguished one’s work. And it was not thought that there was any necessary connection between the facts and one’s cleverness. One was taught at university to skim and write cleverly: aphorisms, paradoxes, theoretical conclusions, were all considered a mark of particular ability. And it is a lot of work to labour over all the documents. Historians, like many people, can be lazy.


On the whole, Churchill was not written on at Oxford. He did not seem to come into the essays and discus­sions. He did not seem to be treated as a particularly important figure. As I became familiar with the British Foreign Office documents, and had some way to make an independent judgment, I found that the real story of Churchill did not appear, or was distorted, in the books that dealt with his career. This, together with the things I began to learn about Churchill, made me interested to go more deeply into his life.