Blood and Rage, By Michael Burleigh

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Historians who start life as serious, measured writers run a serious risk of falling, at the first hint of fame or notoriety, into a professional trap of pomposity, repetition and banality. This may be termed "the curse of Clio", or perhaps "Starkey's syndrome": a latterday episode in what Cyril Connolly termed Enemies of Promise. But, whatever the causes, it is a striking and depressing phenomenon.

The forefathers of such post-professional self-aggrandisement certainly set a bad example. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor exhibited serious symptoms of this affliction; as later, from the high left moralism that was his trademark, did EP Thompson. Among my more engaging interlocutors of recent years, I can certainly count Norman Stone and my erstwhile colleague at LSE, David Starkey. Starkey it was who, over lunch one day, and on being told by me that I was about to give a lecture on the French Revolution, replied: "My dear boy, don't you know there wasn't one?".

There are some who, by dint of intellectual focus and strength of character, resist such a degeneration. Eric Hobsbawm, Paul Preston and Paul Kennedy are among those who have, for all their public engagement, kept their balance. But the malaise continues to spread. Among recent patients we can note Niall Ferguson, an aspirant economic historian fallen foul of superficial comment on contemporary events and of colonialist revisionism. Now, to my surprise and personal distress, I find that the same has happened to another former colleague at LSE, a fine historian of the Third Reich and modern Europe, and, when last encountered, a person of modest and attentive mode: Michael Burleigh.

Blood and Rage proclaims itself to be a "cultural history of terrorism". In eight far-ranging and fluently written chapters, it covers the Fenians in 19th-century Ireland, Russian nihilists, American anarchists, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany and Red Brigades in Italy, as well as the ANC, Black September and – in a long concluding chapter – more recent Islamist groups. All are, for Burleigh, examples of one phenomonon, a cult of death and destruction that has little anchorage in politics and is more the product of "a pre-existing chemical mix" that is set to explode.

The first thing that strikes the reader of this book is its mediocrity. All is based on secondary material, and the main stories, events and characters are well known. Despite the fact that most episodes involve people who are still alive, or who lived through them, Burleigh never sees fit to interview anyone. The overall analytic framework is weak, and unoriginal. We never learn what a "cultural history" means, as if there could be such a thing. Compared to some major works on terrorism, by authors such as Walter Laqueur, Conor Gearty or Gerard Chaliand – who, without any shred of indulgence, do seek political causes, and recognise political context – Burleigh's account is lacking. Equally, in his discussion of Islamist guerrilla groups, he has nothing to add to the works of such writers as Jason Burke, Fawaz Gerges, Olivier Roy, Malise Ruthven or Steven Simon.

More surprising is the careless use of history and facts. This is not just history light, it is history sub-prime. The major factor in stimulating Islamist militancy in recent years, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is virtually ignored as a causal factor. On Iran, the author is clearly overextended. On page 347, in discussing the Iranian revolution, we have Khomeini returning to Iran a year after the departure of the Shah – in fact, the Ayatollah returned two weeks later. Meanwhile, the word for revolutionary guards, Pasdaran, is repeatedly misspelt. In his assault on the term "Islamophobia", Burleigh dates its appearance to 1998, something of a surprise on the basis of already-wide public debate. The Runnymede Trust published a report on this topic in 1997. The use of sources is, surprisingly, also slipshod: he gives a tendentious account of a meeting of Muslim students who had, under false pretenses, gained use of a hall at LSE, citing Ed Husain's The Islamist. Burleigh uses this incident to imply that LSE students are credulous, whereas on available information, few attended this gathering.

All of this is, however, overlain with what is the most offensive and, if we may put it this way, Starkey-esque style of writing. Rushed opinion is buttressed by arrogance, not least towards former colleagues and institutions in which the author worked. A reference to the students of his former institution, the LSE, whom I have had the pleasure of teaching these past 25 years, has them described as "Eurotrash and Americans doing 'Let's See Europe'". At one point he sneers at fellow-participants at a conference in Madrid in 2005 on the dialogue of civilisations, "the usual obsfuscatory cloud of ecumenical goodwill". He fails to note that some of those who participated, such as the Egyptian Nasser Abu Zaid, had suffered at first hand from Islamist violence and knew far more than he about the matter.

In predictable vein, the final sections launch a general offensive against academics who write on terrorism for failing to engage with the reality of suffering involved. A survey of books shows, Burleigh tells us, "how unserious academics have become as a group". This would be as much a surprise to the Laqueurs and Geartys of this world as it is to those of us who have worked, over decades, on the Middle East. Bashing academics, the stock-in-trade of the sometimes virulently anti-intellectual Robert Fisk, is best left to others.

Beyond the need for the general reader to have informed, comparative, critical works on terrorism, there is an important missed opportunity in Burleigh's book. For on some issues, he is right and should do more justice to his arguments: on the indulgence of violence in Western society, by the right in regard to Afghanistan or Angola in the 1980s, as well as by the left, be it on the FARC in Colombia, the IRA or the so-called "Iraqi Resistance"; and, most neglected of all, on the terrible and long-lasting psychological as much as physical damage terrorism causes to all, especially children, caught in its path. These are issues which await the moral imagination and the skills, analytic and investigative, of a modern historian of the calibre that, in his earlier works, Michael Burleigh most certainly was.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE

Comments