“The Reverend Canon Kingsley cries History is a pack of lies.”
—Bishop Willkin Stubbs

Marc Ferro sets out to broaden our horizons. He picks 14 countries (or sometimes ex-countries) to tell us “the vision of the past which is proper to each.” By “proper” he clearly does not mean “correct,” for he puts his stamp of approval on precious little of what his survey turns up. Usually Ferro delves into the elementary or secondary school textbooks of his chosen countries. Sometimes he com pares two different versions of the same history—as, for instance, the version of Armenian history that is taught in the schools of Soviet Armenia as against the version which Armenian exiles teach to their children—or, again, how Islamic history is taught to children in Iraq compared to the less “Arab” emphasis when the same tradition is presented in Egypt, and also compared to the quite anti-Arab version which goes back a long time in Iran.

Other countries that Ferro covers include South Africa, India, Trinidad, Poland, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and the United States (including our Black, Indian, and Chicano history). One must commend Ferro for setting out to see the world from all these different points of view. He tells us that he enjoyed doing so and that he plans future editions of this book with broader and deeper coverage. But if Ferro did enjoy his task he must be a misanthrope, for he assails his reader with continual carping about “distortions” of history. There is very little analysis of why different societies (or regimes) have construed the past so differently. After the in-depth work of Professor Donald Detwiler on how American schools now teach German history and how German schools now present American history, the random potshots of Ferro seem pointless.

In his acknowledgments, Ferro claims that his book was “painstakingly edited” by a woman at its original French publisher. This is credible only if Ferro delivered the work in absolute chaos. Mistakes and inconsistencies mar almost every page. Typos, wrong dates, ungrammatical usage, mixed systems of punctuation, quotations that open but never close—all abound. Of course, some fault could lie with the English translator or publisher: (The translator, mercifully, is left anonymous.)

What are we to make of a cryptic pronouncement such as this, which appears out of the blue: “The Vietnam War revealed much as to the Indian problem, and the Indians have been revalued in so far as America now rejects her nightmare experience in the Vietnamese adventure.” Since Ferro is pontificating on the U.S., an American reader can get the drift, barely.

But what are we to do when, discussing India, he tells us that “one of the founding fathers of ‘third-worldism’ was an Indian, N. Roy—though it is also true that in India itself communism had no great role before independence.” The man meant here is M. N. Roy and the key to the cryptogram is that M. N. Roy was one of the founders of the Third International (the Comintem) in Moscow in 1919. Thus the reference to communism—which did, however, figure prominently in pre-independence India and in fact created problems for Gandhi’s independence movement precisely because it was not “third-world” but was second-world, beholden to Moscow.

The reader of Ferro must work hard, but occasionally there’s a rest. Treating Islamic history, Ferro announces that, in their own eyes, “the Islamic countries ‘are the navel or the center of the world.'” One waits for his axe to fall on this “distortion,” but no, this time it’s all right—”seen from their point of view, it is in a sense justified.”

This, in a sense, is inane. But Marc Ferro has given us a good title, if nothing else, and “The Use and Abuse of History” is exactly what we encounter when we tum to William Shirer. If Ferro had leveled his bead at journalism instead of textbooks, he could have filled a book by setting Shirer straight. In 1925 the Chicago Tribune hired a 21-year-old lad from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and sent him to Paris to do copy editing for the Paris edition of the Tribune. This was William Shirer. Within a year or so he was allowed to do some reporting (often of sports—which he didn’t care for). And in 1927 he was promoted to foreign correspondent, writing for the home paper in Chicago.

Considering his youth, there is no mystery as to how Shirer acquired the views that he did during his years in Europe, which lasted until late 1940. The interwar years were extremely complex, and Shirer’s meager intelligence was caught up in the left-wing liberalism of his better—endowed cronies—John Gunther, Dorothy Thompson, Vincent Sheean, and many other less-well-known American journalists. 

Unfortunately, what Shirer has been doing for several decades now is to rewrite journalism as history with out bothering to consult the archives, except to pad out his original snap judgments. It is hardly surprising to read in 20th Century Journey that the causes of so many events “are a mystery to me,” as Shirer often puts it. “I could never understand . . . ” this or that, he frequently confesses. Apparently he has never tried. His mission has been to perpetuate the ill-formed views of his youth. His feelings do seem to have matured but his thought has not deepened or even grown more critical. 

“I could never understand,” Shirer tells us in Volume Two of 20th Century Journey, why Hitler, once he con trolled Germany, should still bother to take Mussolini seriously, or why Bernard Shaw and even Winston Church ill called Mussolini a great statesman. But a glance at any one of the foreign affairs document series now in print from the governments of Britain, France, and Germany would make plain to Shirer that all through the 1930’s each of those powers was desperately courting Mussolini to keep him out of the opposing camp. Ironically, Shirer criticizes Anthony Eden for accepting Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia when, in actual fact, Britain’s official (but secret) acquiescence in the conquest was publicly condemned by Eden—who thereby helped to push Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. 

And there are wider gaps in Shirer’s comprehension-gaps as wide as the Grand Canyon. In his first volume, he reveals the warm, rosy feeling he got in the late 1920’s when Gustav Stresemann and Aristide Briand seemed to be achieving German French amity despite the bitterness many of their countrymen still felt about World War I. At the time, Shirer confesses, he shared the illusion that Stresemann felt genuine goodwill toward France and the West. Shirer rakes Charles and Anne Lindbergh over the coals for later seeing Hitler through rose-colored glasses, but that’s how Shirer and his friends saw Stresemann a few years earlier. Now that Stresemann’s private papers have been published, and it is revealed that he was intent on increasing Germany’s power, Shirer joins the chorus of condemnation against that great states man. What naiveté! If Stresemann had been an angel, he wouldn’t have been made the chancellor and then foreign minister of a bitter, revanchiste nation. Shirer cites against Stresemann a 1925 letter to the Crown Prince (Wilhelm II’s son) in which Stresemann argues that Germany must postpone big decisions (such as whether to ally with Russia—the Prince’s preference—or with the West) until Germany has regained some military force of its own. Stresemann, in other words, reconciled the Prince (a militarist) to detente with the West, just as he cooed to the West what it wanted to hear. 

Had it not been for Stresemann’s Locamo treaties with the West, the West would never have winked at the secret German rearmament which so delighted the Crown Prince that they withheld support from extremists like Hitler—until Stresemann died in 1929. Shirer calls this deviousness. But the true aims of a go-between like Stresemann are no better revealed by his secret “militarism” than by his public “pacifism.” We cannot know the true aims of Stresemann, and in fact, they do not matter since, unlike Hitler, he exercised no personal power. 

The same applies to Ramsay Mac Donald, a British prime minister whom Shirer roundly condemns. MacDonald, he tells us, was “a shrewd politician [and] a successful negotiator, but in the end through some flaw of character a victim of his own in creasing, and finally overweening, vanity.” This is still the English Labour Party line Shirer learned in the 1930’s from his Labour friends in Lon don. They hated MacDonald because he stayed on as prime minister when the Labour government fell in 1931 and most of the rest of the Cabinet quit. 

But yet Shirer wants to have it both ways. He admits that later in the 1930’s Labourites were blind to the danger of Hitler and clung to a combination of pacifism and appeasement until 1939. How, then, can he lament Labour’s fall from power in 1931? Had the Socialists hung on to power, they’d have been all the blinder. What MacDonald did in 1931 was to make possible a broad “national government” which not only saved England from the mindless ideological clash of the Weimar Republic, but also saved En gland from the aimlessness into which France soon drifted. 

What talent Shirer has is not for analysis but for description. Unfortunately, 20th Century Journey contains few sustained narrative descriptions. Volume One does have a longish and exciting “you are there” account of the pandemonium at Le Bourget airfield near Paris in 1927 when Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis. The flight’s 33½ hours were longer than Lindbergh had planned, and he had to land at night. He had bolted an extra fuel tank in front of his windshield and the French feared he would crash. Once down, the plane was mobbed and stripped of some of its canvas by souvenir hunters. Lindbergh threw his helmet to the mob, which diverted it a few seconds while he escaped with French officers, but the helmet was caught by an American who resembled Lindbergh and who was just about tom limb from limb. 

As a raconteur Shirer can be entertaining. It’s a shame that he has not taken seriously his “second calling” as a historian. As it is, his lively descriptions and amusing anecdotes are a siren’s song that will lure the unwary to accept his unreliable interpretations of some of this century’s crucial events.


[The Use and Abuse of History, by Marc Ferro; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul]

[20th Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and the Times, by William L. Shirer; Volumes One and Two; Boston: Little, Brown]