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Plagiarism is Not Cool

March 30, 2015

Plagiarism, the misappropriation of another author’s work, represents an unpardonable sin, especially among historians. When your work is not original, it needs to be cited back to whose work it was. While unintentional plagiarism can happen, particularly when an author digests other works voraciously, the intentional kind constitutes a grave breach of professional ethics.

It’s therefore appropriate that historians who commit plagiarism often pay a hefty professional price for it. Every few years a new case pops into the media, leading to questions about just how commonplace plagiarism is: far too common, is the painful answer. Back in 2002, best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose, who churned out books on WW2 at a industrial pace, including the cash-cow Band of Brothers franchise, was found to have nakedly plagiarized not just one, but several of his books. Disgraced, Ambrose died soon after the extent of his fraud was revealed, including that he fabricated many of his historical finds, so he escaped further scrutiny.

Sadly, I have to reveal that a best-selling historian has plagiarized my work. I want to make clear that I have known of this serious breach of ethics for some time, I tried to address it through proper channels, privately, but having received no response to my query, it’s time to out the plagiarist.

The author is Max Hastings, a best-selling popular historian who’s published a raft of military history books and is a columnist for the Daily Mail. Sir Max churns out books at a rapid rate, like Ambrose, digesting and repackaging the works of other historians who do primary (i.e. original) research. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you cite whose work it actually is. Moreover, I enjoyed Hastings’ books when I was young, they’re readable popular history, so outing him here is painful.

With the centenary of the Great War, books on the 1914-1918 conflagration are appearing in abundance, and two years ago, Hastings published Catastrophe 1914, which elaborates the opening campaigns of that terrible conflict. Reviewers not well informed about WW1 liked it, but specialists — full disclosure: I’m one of them — were less positive. Hastings appears to be slipping as he ages, and a lot of the book is just repackaging.

As someone who’s written about WW1 a lot, including its opening phase, I read Hastings’ latest book with interest, an interest that turned to dismay when I realized that he had lifted some of my work, without attribution.

My work is plagiarized in Chapter 4 of Hastings’ book, which addresses the failed Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia in 1914, and which is titled “Disaster on the Drina.” Which, not coincidentally, is the exact title of a scholarly article I published on this very topic back in 2002. My “Disaster on the Drina” was based on extensive original research, particularly in Viennese archives, and is the only scholarly article in English to analyze that failed campaign in operational detail. Hastings’ “Disaster on the Drina” is secondary, i.e. unoriginal, work that never fully cites where it comes from, including the title itself. It should be noted that I made no money off my article, which appeared in an academic journal, while Hastings’ book is a best-seller.

Page 151 of Catastrophe 1914 is especially egregious. It tells the story of the battle at Cer Mountain in Serbia in mid-August 1914 (I’ve written about this forgotten-but-important battle on my blog also). Here, Hastings writes in a fashion that’s lifted whole hog from my article, with zero attribution. I’ll spare you the line-by-line analysis, but two things jump out. First, Hastings cites the death of Colonel Joseph Fiedler, who fell at Cer and was the first of thirty-five Habsburg colonels to die at the head of their regiments in 1914. I revealed this fact to the world in my article — I know because I actually counted up the dead Austro-Hungarian colonels of 1914 in Viennese records, not a small task, to come to this conclusion — yet where it comes from is nowhere cited in Hastings’ end-notes (in fact, page 151 has no source citations at all).

Similarly, Hastings cites heavy Serbian casualties in the Cer battle, including forty-seven officers and 3,000 troops lost in their victorious attack, while in the lead regiment all four battalion commanders and all but three of sixteen company commanders fell dead or wounded. Again, this is lifted straight from my article, without attribution. In my article, those numbers are partly derived from someone else’s work, which I cited because that’s what real historians do.

My 2002 article is listed in Hastings’ bibliography, but never in the end-notes, and here he can’t even get its title right! (Hastings calls its sub-title: “The Austro-Hungarian Army in Bosnia” when it’s actually Serbia: somebody’s not reading closely.) All this may seem like nit-picking, but it cuts to the heart of historical integrity. Sir Max undoubtedly has assistants who do most of the research and writing for him, it’s the only way to produce thick historical books rapidly, in succession, as he does. Here, these assistants presumably got sloppy. The exact same thing — outsourcing “his” work to careless research assistants — proved the undoing of Stephen Ambrose.

I have no idea how much of Hastings’ book isn’t really his work, I’ve only looked carefully at the places where he stole my work. I recommend that any historians who have written about the 1914 campaigns in English take a look for themselves, since it’s invariably the case that plagiarists seldom lift the work of just one author. Once you start stealing the work of others, it becomes a habit.

It brings me no pleasure to out Max Hastings as a plagiarist, but the ethics of the historical profession must be maintained. Moreover, my own book on the Eastern Front in 1914, titled Fall of the Double Eagle, is coming out later this year. Its fifth chapter, which covers the 1914 Serbian campaign, is titled — you guessed it — “Disaster on the Drina,” and it’s based in part on my 2002 article, with some important additions and updates. I want it to be perfectly clear to readers that I termed it such, in print, eleven years before Max Hastings plagiarized it.

From → History

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