On the Spot: David Olusoga

We ask leading historians 20 questions on why their research matters, one book everyone should read and their views on the Tudors ...

Why are you a historian?
My mission is to make history accessible and tell stories of the past across every medium. In genre terms, I am a historian of empire. 

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That the people of the past are, in their intellect and nature, exactly the same as us. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.  

What book in your field should everyone read?
The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. Now a little dated and the work of an art historian, but it remains nevertheless one of the most vividly written histories. 

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
I’d love to have seen Paris during the first weeks of the Revolution. When what ruled was optimism not terror.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Hannah Arendt. She’s not a historian, although her writing on political theory was steeped in historical analysis.  

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Hendrik Witbooi, a brilliant African leader who died fighting the Germans in 1905. 

How many languages do you speak?
Poor German, worse French and a tiny amount of Yoruba, so as to not offend my older Nigerian relatives. 

What’s the point of counterfactualism?
It draws people to history and makes the point that the events of the past were contingent. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
New forensic techniques, such as radio isotope testing, have the potential to unlock the stories of human remains excavated centuries ago. 

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
I’m still not a fan of General Haig but I better appreciate the issues. 

Which genre of history do you like least?
The idea of genre itself. 

Is there a key historical text you have not read?
Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples

What’s your favourite archive?
The US Library of Congress.

What’s the best museum?
The Imperial War Museum, the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, the In Flanders Field Museum. 

Tudors or Stuarts?

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?

Rome or Athens?

Cromwell or Charles I?

Braudel or Gibbon?
Braudel, every time.

David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster. He was the recipient of the Longman-History Today Trustees’ Award 2017 for his outstanding contribution to history. His most recent TV documentary was Black and British: a Forgotten History (BBC, 2016). His Civilisations, co-presented with Simon Schama and Mary Beard, will be broadcast on BBC2 in 2018.