What first attracted you to the period you work in?
I came to it after quite a long ramble through other periods, beginning with a childhood fascination with Ancient Rome (I loved the helmets), followed by Medieval Europe (knights in armour, castles, cathedrals), the early 17th century (Cavaliers, The Three Musketeers) and the Napoleonic Wars (cavalry charges and uniforms). And there was the ever-present fascination with World War Two; I grew up amid veterans, in a London pock-marked by bomb-sites, watching films like The Dam Busters.
It was not until I began research for my biography of Chopin that I became aware of two things that had never struck me before. The first was that everything going on in Europe during his lifetime, be it in the field of politics, culture or ideology, was profoundly inter-connected and part of a process that could be traced back to the beginning of the 18th century, one which would transform the western world. The other thing that struck me was the abundance of primary sources, including very intimate ones.
The European Enlightenment and the reaction to it which gave rise to the Romantic Movement involved educated people all over the Continent in the re-evaluation of every aspect of life, both public and personal. The first third of the 18th century witnessed a surge in literacy, particularly among women, an increase in the production and falling cost of paper, and the spread of regular postal services. Taken together, these three developments encouraged the writing and publication of an increasingly wide variety of books. They also encouraged letter-writing and the keeping of diaries. Until the self-consciousness and solemnity of the mid-19th century closed in, these letters and diaries were remarkably candid, and they provide not only a wealth of detail about people’s daily lives but also a trustworthy insight into what they thought and felt. Since most educated Europeans read the same books, which were published in large numbers in many languages, we also have a unique insight into how those thoughts and feelings were formed.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
The way I research obviously depends on the subject. When researching The Forgotten Few and Warsaw 1920 I was able to interview many participants and eye-witnesses – and found myself wishing I had started work on them years before, as I would have been able to interview so many more. In the case of Holy Madness and 1812 a major resource were printed memoirs, diaries and letters. For all my other books I worked mainly in archives, in several countries. This has become much more difficult and less enjoyable in recent years, as there is less and less access to the documents themselves. And there is nothing like handling the real thing. Looking at the minutes or memos written down at one of the meetings of the Congress of Vienna held in archives in, respectively, London, Paris, Vienna and Prague sheds invaluable light on what actually took place. Reading a document online or, what is worse, on microfilm, can be very misleading. And in the case of the archives of the Quai d’Orsay the poor quality of the microfilms I looked at for Phantom Terror meant some of them were quite impossible to decipher. When I asked to see the originals I was told I must write to the Foreign Minister and await authorisation, which would take weeks to obtain.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
Very much so. The case of Poland and East-Central Europe in general can serve as a perfect example. Throughout the nineteenth century the historiography of the region was dominated by the imperial German narrative which made out that the whole area was populated by culturally inferior peoples incapable of building or sustaining viable polities and cried out for the civilizing dominance of its western neighbour. Another example is the representation of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as a grotesquely backward state following its annexation by the newly-united Italy under the House of Savoy. And there is no lack of others.
But there are also highly successful counter-narratives which lend quite unwarranted prestige to the defeated, the most notable example being the enduring glorification of the Habsburg Empire as a benevolent and harmonious multi-ethnic polity.
Which historians who helped shape your career?
At my dysfunctional prep school in London the History Master, Mr Atkinson, had absolutely no qualifications whatever, and as far as I can see based his teaching on Our Island Story. But his somewhat romanticised view of Britain’s past glories did fire my imagination and inspire a lifelong fascination with the past. He was also a collector of almost anything old and a keen observer of detail; he took me mud-larking for coins, clay pipes and other artefacts in the Thames at low tide, and he taught me to observe different styles of street furniture, fanlight and coal-hole cover, or things like old insurance company plaques on buildings as I walked around London. Spotting tell-tale detail is as important in trawling through old archives as in dating old buildings.
None of my subsequent History masters were particularly inspiring, and it was on account of the dreariness which I encountered in tutorials, seminars and lectures when I went up to Oxford that I decided to switch to Modern Languages. This was, counterintuitively, the best thing I could have done as far as my career as a historian was concerned. I spent the next three years reading the whole of French and Russian literature, which together embody the development of ideas and attitudes throughout the western world from the sixteenth century to the present day and help to explain why people behaved as they did. And the study of old texts in French (which was the language of international discourse until the end of the nineteenth century) gave me a vital advantage when it came to research, even over a modern French-speaker.
Although he never taught me, I owe a great deal to the late Norman Stone. I only met him after he had written an enthusiastic review of my biography of Stanislaw Augustus, The Last King of Poland. I was immediately captivated by his wonderful sense of humour and above all of the ridiculous, and we became firm friends, sharing many outrageously bibulous moments. He not only encouraged me in my work – which was important as, not having an academic post, I was considered something of an amateur by some of my peers – he also endorsed my approach, which is to see all historical figures and indeed events as fundamentally rather farcical, even if they result in tragedy. He was a virulent enemy of solemnity, pomposity and cant, which only serve to obscure what really took place behind the scenes of those great moments described in elevated prose and immortalised in grandiose paintings or staged photographs.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
To my mind, the fundamental problem is that from the earliest age pupils are taught the history of England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and so on without any qualification as to what is meant by those terms. The teaching of English history does include quite a bit of that of Rome, but hardly any of the Danes, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, French, Dutch, Jews, and more recently Indians, Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and Africans, all of whom have made mighty contributions to it – not to mention that of Britons who travelled or lived in other parts. And in the case of Britain we are at least talking about an area whose borders, defined by sea, are specific. But what of Germany or Italy, which, as Metternich famously put it, was nothing but a geographical expression until 1870, or France, which in 1789 was smaller than it is today yet no more than some twenty-five per cent of whose population spoke French?
The fact is that no ‘nation’ and no ‘country’ has ever been an island and ever since mankind evolved on this planet there has been a process of globalisation, with people moving around, spreading their influence genetically and intellectually. The curriculum should accommodate this. Not merely as a gesture to the multi-ethnic origins of the pupils of today, but as an essential recognition of the influence of earlier, historic interlopers.
I grew up having to accommodate the world-view of my Polish home with what I was taught at my English school, while holidays with French cousins confronted me with a completely different set of assumptions. As a result, I was obliged to look at the history of each of those three nations from three different perspectives, a habit that has served me well as a historian. When studying, say, the Tudors, it should be obligatory to consider how England was viewed from Paris and Madrid, and indeed Rome. People should be taught to look at events not from one side of a national border but from the clouds above.