Ian Kershaw on the trials of writing modern history

Fallible memories and a surplus of sources mean that the most challenging era for historians to tackle is the one in which we now live, says Sir Ian Kershaw

Protesters on the streets of Prague during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968. Of all the history books Ian Kershaw has authored down the decades, his two wide-ranging volumes on modern Europe have proved the most difficult to write. (Photo by Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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When I embarked on my most recent book, Roller-Coaster, Europe, 1950–2017, I remarked to a friend that I had a particularly daunting task ahead of me. He, however, was dismissive. “It will be easy”, he said. “You will remember a lot of it.” At first sight, my friend seemed to have a point. After all, the decades since the Second World War largely coincide with my own lifetime. I was born in 1943, so I lived through all of what I am surveying and analysing in the book. How difficult could that be? Very difficult, as it turns out: Roller-Coaster has proved to be the most challenging book I’ve ever attempted.

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Princess Margaret attends the premiere of Captain Horatio Hornblower, Leicester Square, 1951. (Photo by Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images)

For one thing, memory is both fickle and fallible. My own memories, like those of any individual, are confined to my own experiences. They can tell me little or nothing about circumstances beyond those experiences, even in my own country let alone in other parts of Europe. Historical assessment cannot rely upon anecdotal evidence. I have added a handful of footnotes in which I do mention my personal recollection of specific events that left a mark on me. One of these refers to my fear during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, another couple to my reactions to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I witnessed at close quarters while living in West Berlin at the time. But I have kept these out of the main text. In any case, what was clear to me from the start was not only what I didn’t remember, but what I didn’t know. And that was a great deal. Even a keen interest in world affairs did not mean that I was acquainted with more than a fraction of what was needed to understand and write about developments across Europe.

A career that began for me with a book on monastic economy based upon a single monastery in northern England, Bolton Priory, in the 13th and 14th centuries is drawing towards a close with a history of Europe in our own times. The sharp contrast in the fields of enquiry tempts me to reflect a little on the different ways I have had to operate as medievalist and historian of modern Europe, primarily of Germany in the Nazi era and more recently as the author of two wide-ranging histories of the entire continent (To Hell and Back, Europe, 1914–49 and Roller-Coaster).

I was a passionate medievalist. Even now my favourite history books are on the Middle Ages. As a young university teacher, I was fully engaged in the academic debates that are the lifeblood of history seminars. An article I wrote on the Great Famine of 1315-17 in England contributed to an intense debate about whether agrarian crisis at the time halted two centuries of rising population already a generation before the Black Death. I sometimes had the feeling that the further back the period of historical enquiry and the fewer the surviving remnants of the past were on which to reconstruct it, the more ferocious were the debates among historians.

Ian Kershaw.

Historians of Anglo-Saxon England seemed a particularly pugnacious breed. Whether England was a country of sturdy free peasants, or a servile society under a thin crust of aristocratic leadership could produce heated debate – some of it based upon the interpretation of something called ‘Folkland’, to which, as I recall, there are only three references in the whole corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters. Outside specialist circles, such controversies do little to set the pulses racing or affect how we view our own society. My current work, on the other hand, is underpinned by the hope that my exploration of very recent history might help a better understanding of the society we live in.

What differences in approach and execution have I encountered in trying to write about history in such contrasting fields? History, we are sometimes reminded, is a ‘seamless web’. It is indeed the case that something serious historians of all eras have in common is that they pursue objectivity and never wilfully distort the available sources for reconstructing and understanding the past. Yet the techniques they use in exploring disparate avenues of history are necessarily varied, and historians of different eras face differing challenges.

My training as a medievalist instilled in me the need to pay detailed attention to primary sources and deploy close analysis and criticism of those sources. I had the sense in my early writing that I was fairly well abreast not only of the secondary literature, but also of the primary sources (printed and archival) that informed my work. Of course, if I had been writing a history of medieval Europe rather than a localised study, I would have felt less confident about my prospects of mastering the secondary literature and source materials, which are more voluminous than might be imagined. Even then, however, a knowledge of Latin would probably have proven more useful in writing a history of medieval Europe than all but a comprehensive knowledge of modern European foreign languages would be in trying to construct a history of Europe’s recent past. The sources for this latter topic are as good as boundless.

The sheer quantity of material to be taken into account by a historian of modern times was, of course, apparent to me when I changed fields from medieval history to work on Nazi Germany. I often felt then that keeping on top of the constant flood of new publications, as well as trying to cope with the libraries of books on almost every aspect of the history of the Third Reich, was a hopeless task. But I came to know the field fairly well, was able to assess what of the massive literature was important and relevant for my purposes, and, immense though the archival sources are, could find my way around them both in German and other repositories reasonably effectively. On some key issues – the precise role of Hitler at a number of crucial junctures and decision-making on the Holocaust, to mention just two of them – the primary sources available were, in fact, neither plentiful nor easy to interpret.

A mere second’s thought is enough to highlight that the information overload on more or less any aspect of modern European history is immense. No individual can master such an array of material

In attempting to write my two books on modern Europe, more than ever in the second volume, the question of available materials and how to deal with them poses itself in a different form even from when I worked on Nazi Germany, let alone medieval England. A mere second’s thought is enough to highlight that the information overload on more or less any aspect of modern European history is immense: a vast outpouring of official records, government and party propaganda, private papers, business accounts, newspapers and other media products, a plethora of sometimes conflicting statistical data, film, radio and television and much else besides, including the seemingly limitless sources of information on the internet. No individual can master such an array of material. Nor, in all probability, could a team of historians, and teams don’t lend themselves to producing a single coherent history.

Ian Kershaw lived near the Berlin Wall in 1989 but that didn't necessarily make analysing its fall (pictured here) any easier. (Photo By Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images)
Ian Kershaw lived near the Berlin Wall in 1989 but that didn’t necessarily make analysing its fall (pictured here) any easier. (Photo By Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images)

To Hell and Back and Roller-Coaster can make no pretence at all of trying to encompass the vast reservoir of source material available. Even if I had far wider linguistic skills at my disposal, I would be unable to work through all relevant material for a single country let alone for all countries in Europe. And it would be a pointless exercise anyway. Experts have written on the history of every European country and dealt with, say, economic history or cultural developments. More general works draw on a rich corpus of research on an extraordinary range of topics, undertaken by countless scholars who have made important contributions in doctoral theses, journal articles and monographs. A history of Europe has, therefore, a vast array of scholarship on which it can and must draw.

So I had to begin by finding what to read. Orientation was not always easy, especially in areas where I had little or no background knowledge. Sometimes, I could call on help from colleagues who were experts in a particular field to determine the most reliable and important works. Trawling through bibliographies and footnotes also helped. I decided at the outset to give Roller-Coaster, like To Hell and Back, a chronological structure in which chapters would cover relatively brief periods and be subdivided thematically. Extensive reading on each limited period allowed me to deduce what I saw as the salient patterns of transnational development and to shape the chapters around those key patterns.

Economic, political and communications revolutions transformed Europe in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Pictured are families of British miners on a picket line outside a Staffordshire power station during the miners' strike of 1972. (Photo by R Viner/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Economic, political and communications revolutions transformed Europe in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Pictured are families of British miners on a picket line outside a Staffordshire power station during the miners’ strike of 1972. (Photo by R Viner/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Writing the history of the very recent past is hugely challenging, but intensely exciting. Some might think that a book that ends in autumn 2017 scarcely constitutes history at all. It is indeed the case that in the final chapter, on the crisis years since 2008, I effectively ran out of history works to consult. I had to turn to specialist works on economics and political science, as well as sifting through the daily products of some first-class journalism.

It used to be thought that history could only be written once a substantial period of time had elapsed since the events under consideration or when the ‘sources’ (usually meaning government records) became available, often after 30 years or even longer. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s, our history curriculum stopped at the First World War. For a long time when I was teaching history, the Second World War seemed to mark a definitive end-point. But it is worth remembering that the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich began systematic research on the Third Reich only six years after Hitler’s suicide. In any case, modern media have helped to make obsolete the notion that historical writing has to wait to coincide with the opening of the archives.

What is obvious, of course, is that the passage of time will permit, even necessitate, a reappraisal of writing on the very recent past. But, then, reappraisal of historical work, of whatever period, goes on constantly. This is in the nature of historical research. Writing on the immediate past nevertheless means sticking your head well above the parapet. At least some parts of the story will be familiar to readers who will have their own strong views and interpretations.

My own interpretation unfolds over the course of the book’s 12 chapters. To Hell and Back ended with Europe starting to rebound from three decades of near self-destruction. The obliteration of German great-power ambitions, the geopolitical reordering of central and eastern Europe, the subordination of national interests to those of the two superpowers, unprecedented economic growth, and the mutual deterrent threat of nuclear weapons served to create what I have dubbed a ‘matrix of rebirth’. The first chapters of Roller-Coaster deal with Europe shaped by this matrix: the Cold War, the rebuilding of western and eastern Europe, ‘economic miracles’, and cultural trends following the war. The bomb meant an underlying insecurity, but the early postwar decades also brought political reconstruction (of drastically different kinds in western and eastern Europe), extraordinary economic growth that fed both welfare systems and an emerging consumer society, and new forms of cultural experimentation. This part of the book closes with the ferment in the late 1960s that led to student protests in many parts of western Europe, the Prague Spring, and challenges to existing social and moral values.

The speed of changes, the upheavals, the ups and downs, and swift turns in events all fit the notion that the history of the era from 1950 to 2017 was no less than a ‘roller-coaster ride’

The elements of the ‘matrix of rebirth’ were already much weaker by the time a fundamental change took place in the 1970s and 1980s. This period ushered in the beginnings of what would congeal over the next two decades or so into what I call a ‘matrix of new insecurity’. Central elements were deregulated economies, the rapid expansion of globalisation, a dramatic revolution in information technology and communications, and, after 1990, the growth of multipolar bases of power to replace the earlier bifurcation between the USA and the Soviet Union.

The role of individuals has to be fitted into these crucial but impersonal developments. One example is the indispensable personal role that Mikhail Gorbachev played in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its east European empire between 1985 and 1991. Of course, there were massive structural problems within the Soviet system, but, as almost all experts agree, without Gorbachev it could have staggered on for quite some time. Other prominent figures – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl among them – played vital roles, often against the grain, and cannot be reduced simply to agents or reflections of impersonal change.

Mikhail Gorbachev in Lithuania, 1990. Without his charisma and drive, the Soviet Union may have staggered on way beyond 1991. (Photo by Sarembo/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Mikhail Gorbachev in Lithuania, 1990. Without his charisma and drive, the Soviet Union may have staggered on way beyond 1991. (Photo by Sarembo/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, the colossal changes in Europe since the Second World War transcend the part played by individuals. Overall, it is possible to see the second half of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st as shaped by a three-fold revolution: economic transformation beginning in the 1970s; political transformation following the collapse of the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991; and a communications transformation instigated by the spread of the internet in the 1990s. The speed of changes, the upheavals, the ups and downs, and swift turns in events all fit the notion that the history of the era from 1950 to 2017 was no less than a ‘roller-coaster ride’.

At the end, as we reach the present day, the balance-sheet is chequered. There have been immensely positive developments in many fields, as the book tries to make clear. Material possessions and health prospects, also mentalities and values, have altered drastically and generally for the better in comparison with the early postwar years. But many earlier certainties and norms have dissolved. De-industrialisation has destroyed or damaged communities, and as the gap in income and wealth has widened many are left with precarious jobs and no real stake in their society. The changes have caused much disorientation and dislocation.

The last decades have led inexorably to a new era of insecurity. Felt in different ways in so many avenues of life, this insecurity has fostered a widespread desire to find security in the familiar – in a sense of national or ethnic identity voiced not least by populist movements that now threaten to break up the very basis of the liberal democracy (and the liberties that it guarantees) that has been Europe’s cherished political system during the postwar decades. The achievements have been enormous, but the structures and values created since the Second World War are under threat as never before.

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Professor Sir Ian Kershaw is regarded as one of the world’s leading biographers of Adolf Hitler. He will discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall at BBC History Magazine‘s History Weekend at York – see historyweekend.com