Roger Moorhouse is an historian of Nazi Germany. His new book “The Devil’s Alliance” is a history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and will be published next autumn by Bodley Head.
What is an historian?
A historian is someone who investigates and evaluates the past, making sense of it and explaining it to others.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
Chance mainly, as I don’t think I’ve ever ‘pursued a career’ in anything! I was studying history and was asked by my Professor (Norman Davies) to do some research for him. It all snowballed from there. I am now published in 17 languages.
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
Tough choice. I very much enjoy Norman Davies’ work – not only because I worked on a few of his books, but also because I like his often unconventional and thought-provoking approach to the subject.
I also enjoy a dose of travelogue with my history, so I enjoyed Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”, for instance, and Anna Reid’s “Borderlands”. But I don’t really have a favourite amongst them, certainly nothing that I couldn’t do without. I don’t really get sentimental about books. I wouldn’t be saving the library if my house was burning down – I’d probably start with my wife and kids – then the cat.
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?
The internet has certainly revolutionised historical research, with so many resources and archives (or parts of them) now available online. But I don’t have a favourite, and I would say that much of the material that is found online is very derivative, consisting mainly of a retreaded and regurgitated version of what we already know. So, often, I think the real gems are still to be found in the archives.
As to procrastination – my favourite place for that is Twitter @Roger_Moorhouse which I think recreates the atmosphere of the college SCR, where there is always a discussion or an argument going on, there is the sacred and the profane, and there are interesting people to learn from. As a freelancer, I rather miss that atmosphere now, so Twitter has become my ersatz-SCR.
What is your favourite historical place?
Berlin. It was the subject of my last book “Berlin at War” and it never ceases to surprise me. It has an amazing layering of history, all the way from the palaces of the Prussian Kings, through to the Kaiserreich, to Hitler and on to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. Every time I go there, I learn something new. You never stop learning.
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?
It would have to be wartime Berlin, for the reasons above. But I would want some sort of immortality to go with my time machine! Wartime Berlin was no picnic…
You have a new research project and a deadline, what is your normal working pattern?
Pretty organic really. Lots of reading first, until the strange little voice in the back of your head starts speaking to you. (Is that just me?) Then start making a plan, read more, archival work, read more, and hopefully it should all start coming together. I tend to enjoy the writing phase, so that’s usually the easy bit. I try to work ‘business hours’ so as to fit in with the family, but sometimes that’s not possible – either because of a deadline or when inspiration strikes…
Your period of expertise no longer exists, which historical period would you research instead?
Good question. A historian’s research and analytical skills should be universally transferrable – in theory – to any subject and any period, and I would like to think that I could turn my hand to the Wars of the Roses, or the Reformation, or whatever else. But, realistically, for me it would have to be modern history as that’s where my own interests lie, and it should be Germany-related, as I speak fluent German, so it would be a shame not to exploit it. So, maybe Germany in World War One? Or during the Cold War? Something like that.
Why is history important today?
It’s a cliché of course, but I think we do need to have some grasp of the past in order to understand the present. That said, I am always a bit wary of the utilitarian arguments sometimes applied to history – that we ‘must’ study it because, bla bla bla.. Most people I am sure get by in life just fine with only the barest knowledge even of their own times, never mind anybody else’s. So, to me, history essentially holds its own fascination. I find that studying the past is stimulating, surprising and inspiring, and I simply try to communicate that excitement and interest to my readers.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
Not really a fact, I’m afraid, more an aphorism. As historians we must always guard against one of the profession’s cardinal sins; teleology, the temptation to ‘read history backwards’; we know what happened, so we just tell the story of how that came to pass, excluding all the aspects – however fascinating – that don’t fit that narrow narrative.
To help guard against that and keep an open-minded approach, I like to remind myself that: “yesterday was once tomorrow”. I think that helps us, as historians, to bear in mind that though we know what is coming, the people that we are studying did not, and we have to put ourselves – as far as is possible – into their shoes.