June 2010
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History at the Hay festival

You’ve probably heard by now that Michael Gove has enthusiastically endorsed the appointment of Niall Ferguson to write the history curriculum. Would you like to hear that again?! I don’t think so. In many ways it isn’t surprising that a right-wing imperialist should have been chosen, much to Schama’s chagrin, to do Gove’ bidding. Having worked in the USA most of the time, with very little idea of what goes on in English schools, the perfect candidate!  Whether what Ferguson says will make any serious difference to what we will be teaching in a few years time, I seriously doubt. He’ll make a lot of noise and then get bored when faced with the awkward issue of explaining how his vision can actually be taught to children in classrooms. We’ve been here before, especially in 1990  and will be here again. After 20 years’ practice at subverting the NC for history we know a thing or two . Always remember, no plan survives its first encounter with the enemy.

What was more interesting to me were the comments of Anthony Beevor, but not those about the history curriculum. My interest was drawn to what he said about using the Soviet archives. He asserted that  it would be impossible to write books such as Stalingrad now, since the Soviet archives on which they rely for detailed information have closed. “I happened to be incredibly lucky in timing. Towards the end of Yeltsin’s presidency he appointed a minister of archives who forced the military to open their archives; this had never happened before. This was 1995, when I was starting on Stalingrad.” Later, he said, the FSB, the Russian security service, began to track all files accessed by foreign historians. Eventually the archives closed altogether.

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