What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
It’s a whole host of intersecting fascinations, actually. I started off studying Central European history in the aftermath of 1989, then gravitated to Germany – specifically Nazi Germany – which I still find fascinating. My last two books – The Devils’ Alliance and First to Fight – have taken me back to Polish history, which is in a way where I started from. Polish history is endlessly fascinating, not least in how its dark chapters of oppression and occupation have played out in the twentieth century. I hope I can bring some of that complexity and fascination across to English-speaking readers.
Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
It has changed enormously since the time I first started – no internet then, so one actually had to go to archives and libraries for *everything*. Obviously that has changed, online materials make some aspects of research easier, but the essentials are still the same, you need archives and libraries to get to the material that you need, especially if you are looking to produce something original.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
I think that is largely true, but it is also changing. Increasingly, over the last 30 or so years we have seen a shift in the way that history is written, and I don’t just mean the emergence of marginal narratives around sexuality or gender, rather there has been a general process of democratisation going on, whereby all voices are more prominently represented, not just those of the great and the good. This process, by extension, means that the adage about history being written by the victors is much less true now than it once was, but there are still huge sectors of the wider narrative, on any given subject, that are neglected. It’s the historians job to seek those out and rectify them, rather than just go for the low-hanging fruit or disappear down an academic rabbit-hole.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
Norman Davies was the great formative influence on my career. I worked for his as researcher and as co-author, and it was a brilliant apprenticeship. Norman is a terrifically independently-minded historian and a great stylist. He taught me a lot.
Three history books to recommend: I’d say Barbara Tuchman The March of Folly, a wonderful, quirky work of meta-narrative. Neal Ascherson Black Sea – a brilliant melding of history with travelogue, and Richard Grunberger A Social History of the Third Reich”, which shows that serious subjects don’t need to be presented in a boring way, and that nuance need not be sacrificed for readability.
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?
I’d have to say Hitler. I’ve spent so long reading and writing about him, it would be fascinating – if discomfiting – to observe him at close quarters. Same principle applies to an event. Most fascinating would be those that I have written about and tried to make come alive on the page – so perhaps the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or the Battle for Berlin in 1945. Essentially, I’d like to see if my depiction of events was accurate!
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
I’d add modern Polish history. I think we have a surfeit of German and Russian history already, and it would be most useful to counterpoint that with the experience of one of the countries that has suffered most egregiously from the depredations of the other two. It would also serve to immunise younger generations against the supposed positives of communism.
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?
Nothing major, I don’t think. Learning languages is always good, not only professionally but also philosophically. Also, I’d say that reading widely is very advisable – and not just stuff that is “on-topic”; seek out novels, travelogue, popular history, everything – be an intellectual magpie. But beyond that, I’d say relax and enjoy the ride. It’s all good, we’re not here for long, so let’s just make the most of it.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?
I’m currently writing about the rescue efforts of the so-called Ładoś Group; a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists, in Bern Switzerland, who presided over the most extensive passport forgery operation of World War Two, sending Latin American passports into occupied Poland to enable Jews to escape the Holocaust. It’s a fascinating story of moral bravery.