On the Spot: John Bew
‘What is the most common misconception about my field? That it is ‘great man’ history.’
Why are you a historian of statecraft and foreign affairs?
Both my parents are historians, which played a part. Growing up in a highly politicised environment – Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s – was also important.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
I’ve become favourable to those who used history as a spur to imagination and source of inspiration. Both Attlee and Churchill were avid readers of history but believed in mankind’s ability to escape its grip when the moment came.
Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism, J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
What book in your field should everyone read?
Henry Kissinger’s World Order or Friedrich Meinecke’s Machiavellianism.
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Bantry Bay, Christmas 1796, when Lord Castlereagh, Chief Secretary in Ireland, looked out at the remnant of a failed French invasion fleet.
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Jon Parry and Brendan Simms.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s much-maligned Foreign Secretary. He was awkward and shy but saw so much in his life.
What foreign languages do you speak?
I can read French and a reasonable amount of German.
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
The intellectual history of international relations.
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
The Treaty of Vienna, 1815 – not perfect, but better than the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
Which genre of history do you like least?
I’m impressed by economic history but can’t get into it.
Is there a major historical text you have not read?
Robert Caro on LBJ.
What’s your favourite archive?
The manuscript room of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
What’s the best museum?
What is the most common misconception about your field?
That it is ‘great man’ history.
What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
Having the same flaws as every other generation.
Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?
Normans or Anglo-Saxons?
Rome or Athens?
Braudel or Gibbon?
John Bew is Professor in History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and author of Citizen Clem: A Life of Attlee (Riverrun, 2016).