April: A cruel month for historians?

April isn’t ending well for a couple of historians.

Orlando Figes, a University of London professor who specializes in Russian history, was identified as the author of some scathing reviews of other historians’ books on Amazon. Figes originally claimed his wife wrote the the reviews but now has ‘fessed up. But that does not appear to have reinforced the dike. There are now reports Figes “could face multiple lawsuits and that his academic position may be in jeopardy, [and there are] second looks into numerous past charges of plagiarism that journalists and historians now say Figes suppressed by constantly threatening expensive lawsuits.”

I read and reviewed Figes’ The Whisperers in late 2007. I enjoyed it and thought it thoroughly researched. It is, though, one of the books his anonymous Amazon reviews suggested readers consider instead of those by two other noted Russian historians.

Meanwhile, the late Stephen Ambrose, who seemed to be America’s favorite historian, is accused of fabricating interviews with President Eisenhower. Ambrose initially built his academic reputation as a chronicler of Eisenhower. Despite the fact he mentions a number of interviews with Eisenhower in his two-volume biography of the president and talked of “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing the former president, The New Yorker reports that, in actuality, he only saw Eisenhower three times, for a total of less than five hours.

In 2002, Ambrose was accused of plagiarizing another historian’s work in his book The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany (whose subjects included George McGovern). Ambrose, who died later that year, apologized but after those allegations surfaced he was accused of doing the same in another half dozen books. But fabrication is far more dire than plagiarism. As James Palmer notes, “Everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.”

It’s bad enough when historians provide support for British humorist Max Beerbohm’s oft-quoted adage, “History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.” Potential fabrication shakes the very foundation of history books, whether popular or academic.

Writing history is a perpetual exercise in judgment.

Cushing Strout, The American Image of the Old World

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