Saturday, April 25, 2020

History of history in danger

The Champlain Society's Witness to Yesterday podcast continues to produce a flood of long-form conversations about Canadian history with many leading practitioners, and one guesses its listener figures continue to grow.  It's an admirable project.

But I confess I cast a jaundiced ear upon the most recent addition, a conversation between Patrice Dutil and military historian Tim Cook  on "How Canada nearly forgot the Second World War."

Well, no, it did not, I said even before clicking on it. Listening did not convince me otherwise. Cook, a fine and productive scholar and author of many well-received books about Canada's twentieth-century wars, has a new book, The Fight for History, which seems to posit a great consensus to dismiss the Second World War and to disrespect those who fought it. But his discussion with Dutil relies on that tired old trope about how we contemptible Canadians forget and dismiss their history, while other nations -- the Americans and British always prominently cited -- cherish and promote and salute their own histories. 

In fact, any cursory search in American discourse finds many Americans believe their fellow Americans to be uniquely present-minded and oblivious to all but the crudest myths of the American past. The current leaders of Britain's Brexit made their names for their crusade to reverse and overcome Britons' supposed ignorance and disdain for British history. And in France neglect of the glories of French history is always a crise nationale for some politicians and commentators.

I recall reading in the memoirs of Charles Stacey, the official historian of Canada's Second World War army, how he was told he'd better get that work out fast, because after about 1948 no one would care and more. And how he spent the rest of his long life watching in amazement the endless flood of books and memoirs and documentaries on his subject.  Surely military history has always been one of our less forgotten subjects

There is no field in Canadian history, I suppose, of which one cannot say "Too little is known." There is always more to know, and we are, after all, a relatively small country with relatively limited means to produce, market, and distribute our culture, including our historical culture. But I've been a freelance writer about Canadian history most of my life, with precious little support or encouragement from either the academic or the public history establishment. If Canadians did not support their own history, I among others would have had to have found a different line of work a long time ago.

Cook and Dutil's podcast seem to have its own conspiracy going, to neglect the vast libraries of Canadian trade-market and local-history accounts of World War II (and other wars) that have been flowing from presses since about 1946. Surely military history has been one of the most generously supported branches of Canadian history pretty much forever. Every time my friend Patrice says on the podcast, "I've never heard of that," I found myself thinking it was hardly history's fault if he has not read it. Concerning the example given in the podcast of one subject alleged to have been criminally neglected study -- S.S. commander Kurt Meyer's war crimes against Canadian soldiers --  -- here's one notable book on the subject, solid scholarship by a non-academic author, as it happens.)

Tim Cook has made valuable contributions to the immense library of Canada's military history, but he does not convince me that special pleading by veterans' organizations for more attention ever constituted "a fight for history."

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