Michael Smith, what first attracted you to the period you work in?
I was in military intelligence before becoming a journalist in the 1980s, so I was acutely aware of how much the reporting of intelligence matters in that period was based on conspiracy theory rather than reality. I have never felt the need to rewrite stories that have already been told, preferring to research and disclose new stories as they emerged from interviews with former intelligence professionals or files released by government departments. Intelligence is not about old stories told before; it is about revealing what is new. By pushing the boundaries of what we know forward I hope I have helped to improve people’s understanding of intelligence and how it works. That was certainly one of the main aims of my latest book The Real Special Relationship.
Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
It has undoubtedly changed. Initially, it was about seeking out former intelligence professionals and persuading them to talk about what they had done. At the National Archives, there were intelligence documents in some of the Foreign Office, Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry and Cabinet Office files but it was needle in a haystack stuff. The situation changed dramatically with the Waldegrave initiative in 1993, which led to the release of an astonishing number of MI5 and GCHQ documents and even some historical secret service documents. The number of intelligence files released has only grown since and there are also a lot of US intelligence files in the US National Archives and Records with direct relevance to the UK intelligence services.
I decided in 1994 to use this new information to write a book that told the real story of British intelligence, not the conspiracy theory, and approached the Foreign Office with a request to speak to someone from MI6. As a result, a senior MI6 officer met me together with two former MI6 officers who were sorting out the MI6 archives. They answered my questions politely if not always completely and told me about Frank Foley, the MI6 Head of Station in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s, who had helped to save tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and as a result became the subject of my next book.
The US agencies have always been more inclined to release documents with a lot of US intelligence files, many of them relevant to the British intelligence services, posted on the internet. Even the National Security Agency (NSA), the US equivalent of GCHQ and one of the most secretive organisations in the world, has put formerly top secret documents on its website, while the CIA has created a virtual “Reading Room” containing millions of historical documents on its website. The State Department’s publication Foreign Relations of the United States, also on the internet, contain a large number of intelligence documents. But interviews with former professionals remain a prime source of information.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
History is written by historians. In the immediate aftermath of a war, the “first draft of history”, written by the media, inevitably reflects the views of the victors but if historians are doing their job in the modern world that one-sided view will not last for long.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
I worked very closely with John Keegan when I was at the Daily Telegraph, so he was an important influence. He was not only a brilliant writer but, despite never having been a soldier, had the ability to look at war through the eyes of both the generals and the ordinary soldiers. As an intelligence historian, I was deeply influenced by writers such as MRD Foot, DC Watt, Christopher Andrew, Richard Aldrich and Nigel West, who in the 1980s and 90s was one of the few people able to persuade former MI6 officers to reveal their secrets.
One of the first non-fiction books I can remember reading as a young teenager was Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. I had been brought up on stories of Victorian heroes and heroines and was fascinated with Florence Nightingale, “the Lady with the Lamp”, and General Gordon of Khartoum, just two of the four subjects of the book. I was shocked by how Strachey changed my perception of both Nightingale and Gordon and the way he got behind his subjects. It taught me to always question the received truth.
The 1920 book Red Dusk and the Morrow by Paul Dukes, who worked for the British Secret Service in Bolshevik Russia, is a brilliant adventure story and a rare authorised look inside an espionage operation by the British intelligence officer who carried it out.
John Keegan’s phenomenal break-out 1976 book The Face of Battle looked at three battles, Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916, depicting war in stunning detail, evoking everything from the comradeship of the ordinary soldiers to the bloodlust and stench of death on the battlefield, and challenging many of the long-held beliefs about how the battles were won and lost.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
Well neither would be enjoyable but they would be true life-changing experiences. The historical figure would be Genghis Khan. What was he really like? As for the event, it would have been interesting to be with the SAS patrols who liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I have been there and even now, despite a wide expanse of land and a large number of trees, you cannot hear a single bird sing.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
It’s curious because the one issue that infuriated me during my children’s education was the obsession with the Vietnam War. I simply could not understand why our schools need to spend so much time studying someone else’s colonial war, given how many we had of our own. If instead they studied the British occupation of India, from Clive through to Partition, they would understand far more about Britain’s large Asian communities and indeed Britain’s Muslims. It’s also ridiculous given the size of the Asian community that the subject is barely covered at all. They are being deprived of their own history.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Never believe any story until you have absolutely demonstrated to yourself that it is true.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
I wrote a story for the Telegraph, based on files released to the National Archives, about a plot by the British Special Operations Executive to assassinate Hitler which was vehemently opposed by MI6 and thought that this was a great plot for a novel. The actual SOE plan never took place but I imagined that if it did MI6 might have sent someone in to kill the SOE assassin and stop the operation going ahead. How would they do that and what would be the reaction on the ground? The result was my first novel Ritter: No Man Dies Twice, in which the protagonist is the German detective who has to deal with the consequences and is drawn into the MI6 operation. It was published in February 2022 by Safe House books who contracted me to write a follow-up. So that is what I am working on at the moment.