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18 Historically Speaking · May/June 2005 George Antonius: The Historian as Liberator Chandler Rosenberger There are two kinds of historians, the wag once said: those with a philosophy of history, and those with a knowledge of it. We might add another distinction : historians who want to write history versus those who long to make it. For the latter , the modern age offers powerful tools— access to mass media, wide distribution of inexpensive books, and, most importantly, the idea that ordinary men and women can find dignity as members of a grand and venerable nation. For the historian who champions a "people," honors and accolades await. The historian who spends years stitching together a history that extends back to shards of pottery and rumors of tribes can, in many parts of the world, expect to be welcomed, anachronistically, as one of the nation's founding fathers. Central Europe's ethnic nationalisms stand firmly atop such columns of historical myth, but it might be wrong to begrudge their authors a place in their nations' pantheons. Did we ever really expect historical truth from Czech historian Frantisek Palacky or Slovak writer Ludovit Stur? Given their deep involvement in politics , it sometimes seems that the only truth they ever promised was the truth oftheir own significance in their nation's development. On that point, they were indisputably right. This is how George Antonius wanted to be right. When Antonius wrote The Arab Awakening in the late 1930s, he had nothing more ardently on his mind than that the Arabs should be awakened exactly as he imagined they had been. From a comfortable villa in Jerusalem's Shaykh Jarrah Quarter, Antonius wrote the history of the Arab world's liberation from the Ottoman Empire twenty years previous as ifthere had been one united people to liberate; he told the tale of the Arab people's betrayal at the hands of British and French as if there had been an Arab people, one people, who had been betrayed. Antonius never found his seat in the parliament of his people, as Palacky did; but like the Central Europeans who conjured maps from their own selective memories, Antonius enjoys a legacy of sorts in the fraught politics ofArab resentment. It may be true that there was no one Arab people to betray at the 20th century 's beginning. But, thanks in part to Antonius, an Arab people now exists that firmly believes it was betrayed at the moment of its birth. Antonius was a Syrian ofGreek Orthodox faith who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge before joining Great Britain's war effort as a press censor, rising to deputy chief of the Egyptian office in 1917. In 1921 he was assigned to the Education Department of Palestine, rising to assistant director. His civil service posts gave him the chance to serve several powerful commissions. In 1925 and 1927 he accompanied Sir Gilbert Clayton's missions to King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to negotiate settlements between Saud and his neighbors. In an application for the fellowship that would allow him to write his history, Antonius claimed to have "helped in negotiations of all agreements concluded between Great Britain and Arabian leaders" from 1925 to 1930. Antonius's great opportunity as a historian came in the form ofan open-ended fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs. Funded by Chicago industrialist Charles Crane, the Institute offered young men and women with unusual knowledge of issues of the day the chance to travel widely and write on what they had discovered. Frustrated with his failure to secure promotions in the British civil service, Antonius sought and won an Institute fellowship in 1930 and embarked immediately on "a systematic study of the recent history of the countries of the Near East, which I am dividing into two periods: (a) General, from 1800 to the present day, involving a comprehensive but in no sense a detailed view, and (b) Special, from 1914 to the present day, involving a study of detail."1 From the start, Antonius wrote his history ofArab nationalism with one eye firmly fixed on the events swirling around him. His first report to his patrons described an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 18-20
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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