Editors' preface: In 1970, Elie Kedourie published a collection of his essays under the title The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies. The volume took its name from a new essay prepared especially for the collection, in which Kedourie looked at the role of Chatham House, the informal name of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Chatham House, a think tank, exercised a profound influence on British policy in the Middle East from the 1920s through the 1950s. In these decades, Britain brought an imperial order and liberal values to much of the Middle East, only to abandon the region to the depredations of an intolerant nationalism.
Kedourie's essay traced this abdication back to the moral defeatism of English radicalism, personified by Arnold Toynbee, a celebrity historian and a mainstay of Chatham House. Such an approach to the Middle East was infected with the self-apportioned guilt that drove the British retreat from its imperial commitments, leaving behind what Kedourie once described as "a wilderness of tigers."
This lengthy chapter was a devastating and much-discussed broadside. The book in which it appeared has gone out of print twice. It is now issued for a third time in a paperback edition by the Chicago publisher Ivan R. Dee, Inc. The following is its new introduction by David Pryce-Jones.
How do ideas take root and spread to displace other ideas until all of a sudden reality is perceived in a new light?
In 1960 I was literary editor of Time and Tide, then a weekly magazine published in London, a serious magazine but aspiring to be fresh. Professor James Joll was a specialist in nineteenth-century European intellectual history who had taught me at Oxford University. He and the Orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb had been the examiners of a doctorate presented in Oxford in the early 1950s by Elie Kedourie. The doctorate was critical of the negligent manner in which the British had broken up the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Gibb was a leading advocate of Arab nationalism and could not accept Kedourie's description of the small but malign part it had played in this turning point of the Middle East. Consequently Kedourie withdrew his doctorate, publishing it in 1956 under the title England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and abandoning Oxford for the London School of Economics. He remained there for his entire academic career.
Gibb had allowed bias to overcome scholarship. James Joll used to blush at the recollection of this scandal, in which, to be fair, he was only a secondary actor. But I saw an opportunity to recruit the kind of contributor that Time and Tide was looking for. Kedourie was receptive. In a book review that followed, he threw out the observation that the sooner Lawrence of Arabia was left to obscurity the better—this was almost sacrilege at a time when the man was seen as a hero rather than the fantasist he was. He also quoted a fine and self-defining sentiment of Lord Acton's, that history should be an illumination of the soul.
In person Kedourie was grave, courteous, his views fully considered and spoken with the assurance that comes from wide experience and profound reading, and he had an expression somewhere between a grimace and a chuckle at examples of the willfulness, inconsistencies, and folly that occupy so dominant a part of human activity. Having moved on from my stint as a literary editor, I used to visit him and his wife Sylvia in their home in Hampstead in north London, by tradition a district where refugees from assorted modern tyrannies have found refuge. I knew that they both came from distinguished families in Baghdad and, in common with the ancient Jewish community of some 120,000 people, had been dispossessed and forced into exile in the aftermath of World War II. I sensed a hurt too searing ever to be spoken about in mere conversation, and I did not care to press it.
And then in 1970, The Chatham House Version appeared. At the time, nationalist leaders in India, the Middle East, and Africa had come, or were about to come, to power. The British Empire had hitherto been a fixed point of reference in the world, and those who administered it had willingly accepted responsibility for the rule of law and the maintenance of order. The abrupt dismantling of this empire dislocated millions of people, leaving them at the mercy of self-appointed leaders. In one country after another, the achievements of many decades, and sometimes as long as a century or two, were undone in a flash of violence; law and order gave way to dictatorship and tyranny, and graveyards and prisons filled accordingly. And this, according to fashionable opinion-makers in Britain, was liberation, the exciting birth of the Third World.
Given his background in Iraq, Elie Kedourie understood only too well that liberation of this kind was no liberation at all. His task was to examine how things had come to this pass, to study the archives exactly and to keep the record, if only for the satisfaction that the historian feels when he "makes for himself a coherent intelligible picture," in other words, for the illumination of his soul. Above fear or favor, the historian in this perspective has a heroic role.
In this case, in the conditions after World War I, Britain had supplanted the Ottoman Empire as the preeminent power in the Middle East. A small handful of dignitaries at the center in London had been accustomed to making decisions and always in the same sense of upholding law and order. These dignitaries, heirs to a high imperial tradition served by experienced advisers and officials, had reputations as statesmen, soldiers, and men of the world. But behind Britain's splendid twentieth-century façade was a structure shriveling from within. Famous though they were, Field Marshal Allenby, Lord Milner, Lawrence of Arabia, and the rest had in fact lost confidence in themselves and the imperial mission. Loss of will led to misinterpretation of Arab and Muslim society, to mistaken judgments and broken promises, and so to abdication of responsibility for those they ruled.
Large numbers of people within this empire could never have predicted that decisions might be made over their heads which would negate the rule of law and turn upside down everything they had taken for granted. One by one, and cumulatively, these decisions encouraged local nationalism, to the point when there was no alternative except to surrender to it. Unknown in Ottoman days, nationalism was an ideology imported from nineteenth-century Europe, a "curse" in Kedourie's scornful word, because it forced unfamiliar identities onto the masses, politicizing them, and pitting ethnicities and sectarian faiths against each other in these lands with mixed populations. Most disastrously of all, unscrupulous and ambitious men—"little officers," in another scornful phrase—easily manipulated nationalist ideology in order to seize power, whereupon as autocrats they proved far more brutal than ever the British or the Ottomans before them. In one Arab country after another, and beyond in the Third World, independence brought tyranny, not freedom, to people in no position to defend themselves.
Illusion and Denial
None of these horrors need have happened. But to add insult to injury, there were many in Britain and elsewhere to pretend that all was for the best. The violence and tyranny suffered by others was a cause of self-congratulation for socialists, and some conservatives went along with it as well. Never mind law and order, they liked to argue, the British should never have had an empire in the first place and had rightly got out of an exploitative and immoral enterprise about which they ought to feel nothing but guilt.
The intellectual vapidity of that era was captured when Harold Macmillan, British prime minister no less, in a speech which set its stamp on events, spoke of "the winds of change" as though the end of empire blew in from something vague to do with climate, unrelated to the willfulness, inconsistencies, and folly of those who made decisions. Professor Arnold Toynbee was a would-be polymath with much influence in the corridors of power, and perhaps nobody did more than he to falsify history with a fictitious account of the British, indeed the whole West, depicting them as aggressors and everyone else as victims—and this while Third World rulers were busier than ever filling their graveyards and prisons with their own subjects. Here was what Kedourie in the title essay of this book defined once and for all as "the shrill and clamant voice of English radicalism, thrilling with self-accusatory and joyful lamentation." This may claim to be the most devastating polemic since World War II, and more than that, a landmark in the redirection of public opinion. To continue to lay the blame for Third World horror and violence on the British and the West was condescending as well as nonsensical.
Various contemporaries—a novelist, journalists, academics—have told me what an impact these essays have had on them. From individual to individual, as it were accidentally, until the response of readers becomes a critical mass: that is how ideas spread and displace other ideas. Publishing numerous other books and a wide range of articles, Kedourie in the end established that his ideas and interpretations correspond to reality and therefore have lasting value. He was one of those exceptional writers who oblige their readers to examine what they think they know and to modify their view of the world accordingly. Whatever he wrote has the power to go beyond received opinion straight to reality. A scholar, even a miniaturist if necessary, he had a profound sense of tragedy and possessed the language and artistry with which to do justice to it. In his account, events as they had actually unfolded could be measured against events as they might have unfolded, had those involved been wiser or more humane.
What might he have made of the current upheavals in Afghanistan and Iraq, or of Islamism in its recent development? Whether it likes it or not, the United States now has to maintain law and order as Britain once did and grapple with the same rivalries between peoples not really accustomed by their past to organize themselves into states and nations. However constant the tragedy of history might seem, Kedourie was a great enough man to show that telling the truth about what has happened is also the way to preserve hope for something better one day.
David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor at National Review. Last year Ivan R. Dee, Inc. reissued his 1989 book The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.
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