Johann Hari: The dark side of Andrew Roberts

This historian's work elaborately defends the crimes of a white man's empire

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What does it say about Britain that today we merrily laud a historian who celebrates the most murderous acts of the British Empire – and even says women and children who died in our concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity?

Andrew Roberts is routinely described in the British press as a talented historian with a penchant for partying. They affectionately describe how the 46-year-old millionaire-inheritee sucks up to the English aristocracy. He brags: "To [the] charge of snobbery I plead guilty, with pride," saying he has "an exaggerated sense of – and tak[es] an unapologetic delight in – class distinctions." But all this Evelyn Waugh tomfoolery masks the toxic values that infuse Roberts's works of "history".

Roberts, who has a new book out this week, describes himself as "extremely right-wing". To understand him, you need to look at a small, sinister group of British-based South African and Zimbabwean exiles he has associated with. In 2001, Roberts spoke to a dinner of the Springbok Club, a group that regards itself as the shadow white government of South Africa. Its founder, a former member of the neo-fascist National Front, says: "In a nutshell our policy can be summed up in one sentence: we want our countries back, and believe this can now only come about by the re-establishment of civilised European rule throughout the African continent."

The club, according to its website, flies the flag of apartheid South Africa at every meeting. The British High Commission has accused the club of spreading "hate literature".

The dinner was a celebration of the 36th anniversary of the day the white supremacist government of Rhodesia announced a unilateral declaration of independence from Great Britain, because it was pressing the country to enfranchise black people. Surrounded by nostalgists for this racist rule, Roberts, according to the club's website, "finished his speech by proposing a toast to the Springbok Club, which he said he considered the heir to previous imperial achievements".

When I first pointed out this connection, Roberts said he gave a "historical speech", hadn't realised the Springbok Club was a racist organisation, and didn't recall anyone saying anything racist. Wasn't the apartheid flag, and the fact they were there specifically to celebrate the anniversary of a white supremacist declaration, a hint?

That Roberts would cheerfully lap up the applause of the Springbok Club is not surprising: it is perfectly logical to anybody who has read his writing, which consists of elaborate defences for the crimes of a white man's empire – and a plea to the US to continue its work.

How should this empire exercise its power? One useful tactic, Roberts appears to believe, is massacring civilians. The Amritsar massacre is one of the ugliest episodes in the history of the British Raj. In 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children who were peacefully protesting, and about 400 died. Dyer was even repudiated by the British government. As Patrick French, an award-winning historian of the period, explains: "The biographies of Dyer show that he was clearly mentally abnormal, and there was no way he should have been in charge of troops."

Yet Dyer has, at last, found a defender – Andrew Roberts. In his book A History Of The English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, he says that after Dyer shot down the peaceful crowd, "[i]t was not necessary for another shot to be fired throughout the entire region". He later comments: "Today's reactions to Dyer's deed are of course uniformly damning ... but if the Amritsar district, Punjab region or southern India generally had carried on in revolt, many more than 379 people would have lost their lives."

It is an extraordinary rationalisation for killing women and children in cold blood, and rejected by virtually all other historians. It was only after I exposed this passage that Roberts finally said: "I have never approved of massacring civilians."

But in his writings Roberts is even supportive of politicians who take mass punishment to its most extreme conclusion: concentration camps. His political hero is Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister who, during the Boer War, constructed concentration camps in South Africa that inspired Hermann Goering. Under Salisbury, the British burned Boer civilians out of their homes and farms and drove them into concentration camps, so they could grab control of one of the most strategically important parts of Africa. The result was that about 34,000 people – some 15 per cent of the entire Boer population – died in the camps, mainly of disease and starvation.

Roberts presents a very different picture. He says the British introduced "regime change" in Pretoria out of a concern "for human rights". Far from being a "war crime", the concentration camps "were set up for the Boers' protection". The mass deaths there were not a result of British policy. No: they were primarily the prisoners' own fault, because they didn't know how to take medicine or treat disease, and deliberately spread lice.

The "evidence" he gives for this is the word of a single British doctor who worked in the camps. What would our picture of the German camps look like if we relied on the words of a Nazi-employed doctor? Professor Mike Davis, an academic expert on the British Empire, says: "His arguments about the Boer concentration camps are similar to the arguments of the apologists about the Nazi camps."

This is not merely a matter of the past. Roberts sees his histories as road maps to the future, advising George W Bush, at a White House dinner to celebrate his histories, to adopt "the whole idea of mass internment", saying: "I think it is the way the administration of Iraq should go." Incredibly, he cited Ireland as a model of how internment can work, a claim that provokes incredulity in Irish historians.

This man is a high-society yob and he would be shunned in a culture that took human rights seriously. But it appears that in Britain today justifying mass murder will be cheerfully overlooked, provided the killing was carried out under the flapping of the Union Jack, and you can sprinkle some tart gossip into the pages of Tatler afterwards.



j.hari@independent.co.uk

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