Boyd Tonkin: Has British history lost its tongues?

The Week In Books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

From time to time, the bestseller lists in Britain tell a story that warms the heart rather than chills the blood. Over the past fortnight, at the top of the non-fiction charts, a heavyweight work of modern history has been outselling its nearest rivals by a ratio of four or five copies to one. True, Antony Beevor's all-conquering D-Day: the battle for Normandy can draw on all the commercial firepower of the battle narratives that British readers love. Yet Beevor reinforces his front-line drama with rich reserves of social and diplomatic backstory. He delivers the civilian's and politician's as much as the soldier's tale.

In British publishing, big history remains big news. And its appeal (as Beevor shows) often stems from a broad Continental dimension that bursts the bounds of our island story. As European firms have snapped up British utilities and services from water to airports, one less tangible market has witnessed massive investments – and even near-takeovers – in the other direction. From Simon Schama in the Netherlands and France to Paul Preston in Spain; from Norman Davies in Poland to Ian Kershaw and Richard Overy in Germany; from Orlando Figes and Catherine Merridale in Russia to pan-European synthesisers such as Tony Judt, Mark Mazower and Norman Davies (again), British historians have occupied other people's pasts and made them their own. We have experienced an age of gold in the interpretation of Continental history by British-trained and British-based writers. Now, thanks to the meltdown of language teaching in many schools and universities, the days of glory have already passed.

That, at least, is the sobering implication of Cosmopolitan Islanders by Richard J Evans: the magisterial chronicler of the Third Reich who was recently appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. Expanded from an inaugural lecture , his book (Cambridge, £12.99) asks how an often insular culture managed to nurture two generations of world-ranking historians whose passions and positions made them "a good deal more cosmopolitan" than most of their peers across the seas. Evans's own figures suggest that 44 per cent of UK historians operate as foreign specialists, compared to 23 per cent in France and 15 per cent in Germany, On this patch, if on no other, British culture really has assumed a role at the heart of Europe.

Many of these scholars have opened and changed minds in the countries they investigate. Norman Davies is a "national treasure" in Poland. Much decorated in Spain, Paul Preston wrote the life of King Juan Carlos. Christopher Clark's history of Prussia became a German bestseller. British curiosity has joined in a virtuous circle with Continental "generosity". Only the generally Anglophobic French intelligentsia has resisted this cross-Channel tide.

Why did it begin to flow? The broadening vistas of postwar students attracted to Europe by "the taste for adventure, the search for big ideas, the desire for the exotic or the influence of inspirational teachers" accounts for much of this flowering. So did the class-of-1968 engagement with principled politics on an international canvas – Evans cites his own concern with the Vietnam War and Powellite racism as triggers of a quest for "the origins of Nazism". Above all, however, the heyday of meritocractic state education gave promising newcomers the will, and the chance, to develop all-important language skills. Without those, another's nation's memory - stored in archives or the minds of witnesses - will forever be a closed book.

Here, Evans switches register from celebration to lament. He diagnoses a "severe and perhaps terminal crisis" of languages in UK schools, partnered by a collapse at university level. So enjoy the bumper harvest of European history while you can. It may not survive the eradication of language-learning from state schools, to leave an intellectual scrubland fit only for the BNP.

P.S.The "World Literature Weekend" at the British Museum – organised by the London Review Bookshop, in association with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – kicks off today with Hanan al-Shaykh in conversation with Esther Freud. Among events tomorrow, Dubravka Ugresic (left) – that witty and fearless explorer of the end of Yugoslavia and the migrant lives that resulted from its ruin – will be talking to Lisa Appignanesi; I will be meeting Chinese novelist Ma Jian and his translator Flora Drew, while winning translators of the Independent prize will showcase their priceless art. On Sunday, leading Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti talks to Ruth Padel, and Marina Warner and Robert Chandler will ask how – across cultures – folk tales cast a spell on literature. More details from; or 020 7209 1141.