What are readers to make of it? A prominent popular historian writes a major work on the Second World War which is widely praised, only for it to receive a highly critical review from a leading academic historian. That is the fate of Andrew Roberts's The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War at the hands of Richard Evans in the Times Literary Supplement.
The entire episode is a case study of historiography in action. Most historiography relates to long-dead historians or to theorists, such as the post-modernists. It is far less common to see discussion of contemporary works in such terms, but Evans's review sets up an apparent contrast of popular history with academic scholarship. That certainly is the tone of the review: "Roberts approaches his topics in a kind of Boy's Own spirit, filling his pages with acts of derring-do by heroic, almost invariably British troops..." Professor Evans, who holds the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge, derides the book as an example of Roberts's "hastily written potboilers, widely criticised by reviewers for their inadequacies and inaccuracies", refers to "many other inaccuracies and errors", and so on.
So far, apparently so clear. Academic standard versus popular mendacity and to be set accordingly as an historiographical exercise. Well, that deserves a poor mark. First, most academic reviewers have been far less harsh. In the Observer, for example, Robert Service praised "a sparkling addition". The complaint, instead, from academic reviewers has been about a lack of originality, which is of course a problem with writing on the subject, but not one that prevents academics from tackling the familiar, as Evans has notably shown with his own, deservedly praised work on the Third Reich. Second, not all the non-academic writing about Roberts, a scholar with whom I enjoy friendly relations, has been positive. Instead, there has been a degree of political critique, notably with a harsh assault in the Independent by Johann Hari.
In his review of Roberts, Evans devotes a certain amount of attention to his subject's political resonances — "Roberts is an unabashed apologist for the British Empire...an unapologetically Conservative historian" — but he has failed to explain how this relates to the review unless in terms of his criticism that too much space is given to the British.
Doubtlessly true. I myself would have preferred far more attention to the Sino-Japanese War, which I argued, in my military history of the Second World War, had already by 1939 provided a clear indication of why Germany would lose. But what Evans faults Roberts for is true of most scholarship, both British and foreign. Evans, for example, criticises Roberts for failing to consult the Germany and the Second World War series produced by the Military History Research Office in Germany, volumes of which he made good use in his own The Third Reich at War. Yet this series is heavily focused on the German war and underplays that involving Japan. In criticising Roberts, Evans cites Karl-Heinz Frieser on the battle of Kursk, but Frieser is all too typical of much German scholarship in presenting defeat as a result of being beaten in "the production battle in the factories" and as minimising or ignoring the extent to which the Germans were eventually outfought. The last is a key point, and one about which academics are divided in their emphasis, with German historians tending to underplay the battlefield in favour of the home front. Thus, again, the academic versus popular approach will not work.