York Membery interviews the eminent historian Norman Stone about his life in Turkey and his latest book.
Historian Norman Stone might be known as much for his outspoken views as his scholarship - but after what seems like an eternity, he’s back with a corker of a book about the First World War. In a mere 40,000 words, his World War One: A Short History brings more clarity to this complex, much-written about subject than some historians manage to do in books three or four times as long.
Stone is as adept at painting the broad brush strokes as he is at coining snappy one liners, for instance the opening line to the chapter on 1914: ‘In four years, the world went from 1870 to 1940.’ (A reference to how tanks and aircraft were going into battle just four years after cavalry rode off to war.) Just about every page is likely to enlighten the reader in one way or another: for instance, one page notes how the generals that led the armies into battle were by and large born in the 1850s, an era of horses and carts; another points out that the German Army was roughly the same size as France’s in 1914, despite their disparity in population (65 million compared to 40 million).
One reason for the book being so lucid and readable without dumbing down, appears to be the target audience. ‘I was writing for my twenty-one-year-old son,’ says the former Professor of Modern History at Oxford who has been based in Turkey -- first at Bilkent University, Ankara, now at Koç University, Istanbul -- for the last twelve years. Furthermore, unlike some, Stone doesn’t believe that you should judge a history book by how much it weighs. ‘I groan whenever I see one of these huge American tomes without a joke or an original thought where you just feel crucified by the self-importance of the author,’ he says.
So what made the maverick historian -- reputed to be the inspiration for Robert Harris’s hero in the historical thriller Archangel -- decide to tackle the Great War at this stage in his life?