Boyd Tonkin: The past that we believe in is to others a myth

Outbreaks of revisionist history are questioning deeply held views

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People who argue that nothing should be sacred often stay attached to their own chosen taboos. Secular humanists (and here I'll stand up to be counted) like to tell religious believers that, in an open democracy, the odd squall of outrage and offence is a tiny price to pay for the benefits of freedom.

Fair enough, but many libertarians who look for no gods in the sky remain prone to a modern form of ancestor worship. They tend to revere the historical events and characters that helped secure the liberties and dignities they praise: from Napoleon to the Suffragettes; from the American Revolution to Mahatma Gandhi. How secularists respond when their own ancient idols become the butt of mockery and loathing offers a good test of probity and consistency. Just now, that gauntlet has been flung down on two fronts.

Outbreaks of revisionist history are currently questioning the deepest beliefs about the past of countless citizens in France, Britain and the US.

In France, a compendium of essays entitled The Black Book of the French Revolution has triggered a media avalanche of dismay and disgust with its indictment, not only of the violence of the Terror and the ruinous wars that wracked Europe from 1792 to 1815, but of the revolutionary ideal itself.France, of course, does maintain a state faith: in the Republican virtues of 1789, lauded automatically by left and right alike. To challenge them can feel like a form of blasphemy.

Meanwhile, the maverick American author Nicholson Baker has just published Human Smoke. This documentary-style collage of the events that led up to the Second World War makes the pacifist's – some might say the appeaser's case – against the conflict. It presents Franklin D Roosevelt and, above all, Winston Churchill as racist warmongers, aggressive conspirators, and blood-soaked war criminals. The book suggests that a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany would have prevented more misery than it caused, and comes close to implying that reckless Allied force pushed Hitler towards genocide. Expect a carnival of excoriation when Baker's bombshell reaches these Winston-worshippping shores in May.

In both cases, the threat to orthodoxy comes from rather subtler weapons than the gross lies peddled say by Holocaust deniers. Indeed, plenty of Britons will be far more appalled by the idea that Churchill's ferocious intransigence somehow contributed to the "human smoke" of Auschwitz than by the fantasies of David Irving and his sorry crew.

Baker describes himself as "a non-religious pacifist who is sympathetic to Quaker notions of non-violent resistance". Whatever the effect of Human Smoke, it aims more to rehabilitate the peace-seekers of the 1930s than to justify the losing sides in the conflagration that they proved so powerless to halt. To anyone who sticks – in this instance, if in no other – to the doctrine of the unavoidable "just war", Baker may be more unsettling than a hundred neo-fascist covens.

Across the Channel, the "Black Book" has stirred up some slumbering demons of its own. Enemies of the Revolution of 1789 – monarchists, Catholics, conservatives and regionalists – never really went away. They made up a sometimes formidable bloc in French politics right up until the country's defeat in 1940. Then, because Marshal Petain's collaborationist regime had drawn so heavily on counter-revolutionary principles and personnel, the anti-Jacobins fell decisively from grace at the Liberation in 1944.

Arguments against the sacred uprising became utterly heretical. A sceptical historian such as the great Francois Furet could banish many illusions, but not defeat the myth. Even a revisionist history as fine as Simon Schama's Citizens (which counts the cost of 1789 from a progressive, not a reactionary point of view) failed to find a French publisher. The compilers of the "Black Book" have deepened outrage by borrowing a title and a format from The Black Book of Communism, a French bestseller of the 1990s that sought to show that Marxists in power had claimed almost 100 million victims. One historian, Stephane Courtois, worked on both incendiary devices. Behind the implicit comparison lies the proposition – commonplace in Britain, still shocking in France – that the Revolution ushered in the totalitarian age that Hitler and Stalin would bring to fruition.

A propos of the French Revolution, I can look at the spluttering horror of Fifth Republic orthodoxy with fascination, and not a little relish. When it comes to Nicholson Baker's apologia for appeasing Hitler, then I begin to feel the same foam form upon the lips. No matter: even the most vehement unbeliever treats as holy some kinds of story, myth or hero. And it's precisely these untouchable taboos that ought to be subject to probing and persistent doubt. Those of us who cherish the right to give offence should from time to time enjoy the taste of our own medicine.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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