With the ill discipline of a less patient age, publishers have anticipated next year’s centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War with a flurry of early histories. William Philpott takes aim at a selection of them, and wonders whether the time is yet ripe for the historians to take over from the memorialists. After the deaths of the last participants, might it be possible to assimilate some of the arguments of academic history into works aimed at a wider public, without risking accusations of insensitivity to the glorious dead?
The First World War does not have a monopoly on remembrance, as Felipe Fernández-Armesto shows in his review of a book on Spain’s own wars of memory, by a former Editor of the TLS, Jeremy Treglown. Fernández-Armesto thinks that “more often than not, appeals to ‘social memory’ are really incitements to perpetuate myths, prolong hatreds and justify conflicts”. In Spain, the bitter divisions of the Civil War took some time to reopen after Franco’s death, but now they are more in evidence than ever. There are a few causes for optimism, but a “realistic consensus on the past” awaits, as with the First World War, a genuine engagement with history rather than the partisanship of disputed memories.
Much of what we mean by “history” was invented by a fifth-century Greek born in modern-day Turkey, whose “pioneering prose treatise sought to explain the nature of the world he inhabited” in a “protean work united by the philosophical question of human happiness”. Those are the words of Edith Hall, discussing the latest translation of Herodotus’ Histories, by Tom Holland. With its descriptions of “princess-rustling” and “heavies”, this is a “twenty-first century Herodotus”, but it is also a translation that leaves this Professor of Classics “in awe” of the translator’s achievement.
Finally, our long-suffering, loyal band of Crossword solvers will notice that this week, we publish the 1,000th TLS puzzle. Of those, 878 have been set by Tantalus, periodically revealed to be Don Yerrill of Dumfries. We are happy to unmask him once again, and salute his splendid contribution to our pages.