Timothy Garton Ash on the history of the present

April 19, 2011
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A leading thinker recommends five books about his or her field of interest. This month, the topic is the History of the Present, with books chosen by historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash.

The Histories Herodotus

Herodotus was, in a way, a historian of the present. He is the father of us all. Herodotus is really the first one who goes around with his eyes and ears and notebook open, recording all these fantastic stories and trying to put it all together to work out what happened and why. He is the first person who does this business of saying, “Well this is what the Persians say about it and this is what the Greeks say about it, so let’s try and work out what’s the truth in between.”

Modern readers of Herodotus can learn a fair amount about how history happens—the interplay of individuals, personalities and larger forces like economics, geography, technology and, of course, chance. It’s all there in Herodotus, along, it has to be said, with a lot of fantastical details, like ants the size of dogs, flying snakes and stuff like that. It’s also a lot of fun and there’s vigour in the prose.

Historical and Critical Essays Thomas Babington Macaulay

Macaulay is the greatest historical essayist in the English language, in my view. This Everyman edition is two volumes of his essays from The Edinburgh Review, which was The New York Review of Books of its time. It had long critical review essays of the kind people are still writing. Although Macaulay was a teeny bit dismissive of his own work in the genre, they are actually models of their kind, full of wonderful insight. The essay on Frederick the Great in volume two will just have you rolling in the aisles. Quite a lot of my work is on the frontier between literature and politics, and Macaulay is absolutely there. He writes a wonderful essay on Milton.

If you did a search, you probably wouldn’t find Macaulay being mentioned more than once a month these days, but he’s an absolute master of the genre and I think many people are still in his debt without quite knowing it.

Homage to CataloniaGeorge Orwell

This is the finest model of how to write about a foreign conflict, a war or a revolution. Anyone who wants to go off and write about Egypt, Tunisia or Libya today should pack a copy of Homage to Catalonia. It’s brilliant reportage. As you know, it opens with a vignette of an Italian militiaman in the barracks in Barcelona and he only saw this guy for a few moments but it captures the excitement. There’s great descriptive writing, hard political analysis and then, what is most fantastic, at the very end he says: ‘Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.’ So he explicitly warns the reader about the selectivity and partisanship, which, in a way, makes it all the more credible. It’s the model of political reportage. I went to Poland 30 years ago to write about Solidarity and that’s the book I read before I went.

The Last Days of HitlerHugh Trevor-Roper

Despite the appalling debacle of the Hitler diaries, I think that Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Last Days of Hitler is the most superb work of contemporary history. It’s one stage on from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, because Orwell is a reporter on the front line and Trevor-Roper is the historian who arrives the moment afterwards. He has a series of absolutely brilliant imaginative insights into what it was like to be in the court of Adolf Hitler. For example, the kind of institutional Darwinism between the different organisations and movements. Armies of boring German scholars have spent decades in the archives producing 2,000-page tomes to show that Trevor-Roper was right in this insight he got in a few months. He also had the dream situation for a contemporary historian, which is to have all your key witnesses locked up in prison, available for interrogation at any moment.

His valedictory lecture at Oxford, I think it was called ‘History and Imagination,’ was about how important imagination is to the historian. When you’ve got the facts straight and read all the documents, then you have to imagine yourself, almost like a novelist, into that world, and that’s what he does.

The Diaries of Evelyn WaughMichael Davie (editor)

I think Evelyn Waugh is one of the great English novelists of the 20th century and he kept this diary intermittently. A lot of it is about the absolutely amazing quantities that he drank. He started quite early in the day. It’s a document of its time. It’s full of hugely politically incorrect and, by the end, almost self-parodic episodes, but it’s also brilliant at catching the moment that life is turned into art.

Let me give you an example. He goes off to witness the coronation of Haile Selassie, the event that was turned into his novel, Black Mischief. He writes: “Monday 3rd November, 1930. Met Polish attaché whose driver had brought him to wrong address. Lunched. Wrote description barbarous gebur. Went out to see what I could barbarous gebur. 3.30 no signs barbarity.” That is so perfect, because it captures what an awful lot of journalists do. They go with their prejudiced expectations looking for the exotic, the oriental, the ghoulish: the barbarous gebur. They write a description of it and they go out to see if they can find traces of it—but there are no signs of barbarity. At that point you are at the fork in the road. The left path leads to veracity, the Orwellian path of historical truth where you actually have to say, “Well, it’s a great shame but it wasn’t so barbarous after all.” Down the right fork is the path to the novel. I’m afraid that what happens in our own time, far too often, is that people mix the two.

Interview by Anna Blundy

Read this interview in full at The Browser’s FiveBooks section

Read more articles by Timothy Garton Ash