The conversation at the table was very historical, very political. My mum’s a journalist, my aunt is Margaret McMillan who’s the head of St. Anthony’s College, she’s a historian and in my family history was something that we always talked about. It was always there, always part of our lives and my sisters and I didn’t realise that it was a separate subject. We just thought that people tended to talk about the world and what made the world the way it was and that was its history, its past, and it was seamless.
In your opinion can History play an active role in our society today?
Yeah – I’m someone who is very interested in what history can do to help us in the present. The more historians I’ve met, the more I’ve realised that some of them are totally, legitimately, fascinated by the past for the past’s sake and that’s great – you know that’s brilliant in fact. But, for me I’ve always had this burning desire to start in the present and work out why things are the way they are and therefore context is everything.
So if you like, the fact that I came from a family of journalists did help because perhaps my dial was set to the present, my dial was set to wishing to understand the world around us which is perhaps more journalistic. History helps us but not in a Machiavellian sense in which you say ‘A plane’s been shot down today that means that this is going to happen in four days’ time’. I am fascinated by politics and current affairs in the world and to gain a fuller appreciation of events, to get a fuller appreciation for people’s motivations you’ve got to know about the recent past and the more you know about the recent past the more you think ‘gosh, I’ve got to go back further’.
For example, in the way that politicians are fairly unpopular at the moment and I would argue that’s something to do with our legislative system whereby once a week the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister start screaming at each other on Prime Minister’s Questions. That’s a bit strange for people, it’s quite disengaging and that comes out of a system of politics that was developed 400 years ago. So histories do have a real relevance.
In universities there is an increasing gap between Social and Military History, as someone with a keen interest in Military History what are your thoughts on the distinction and dichotomy between the two?
I think it’s sad and surprising in a way. I welcome any further enriching of the history syllabus, although I find the ghettoisation of military history a bit weird because of course all that encourages is a gulf opening up between military-war studies and history and international relations where there shouldn’t be one because as everyone knows, as Clausewitz said, as Mao Zedong said ‘War is simply politics’, politics by another means or politics by bloodshed. As far as I’m concerned there is a paper thin, non-existent gap between how societies wage war, what’s happened in those wars and the deeper reasons for those wars so I’m very reluctant to see that divide opening up.
There is a need to understand how all facets of a conflict relate to each other?
Israel-Palestine is a brilliant example of that. The military, political and social have all been fascinatingly interlinked ever since 1948 and before, and it is the ability of either side to win an advantage at the negotiating table, the ballot box or a new weapon systems has constantly seen the politics shift out there.
People who talk about the Palestinian refugee problem tend to tilt towards the Palestinian narrative, towards the political views that suit Palestinians as victims. But then there is a history, which tells of the extraordinary story of 1968, for example, when the Arab states looked like they were about to destroy the Israeli state before the IDF launched the pre-emptive strike. The great joy of the Middle East is that you can read wonderful books from either side and no doubt the synthesis is somewhere between the two.
Can Military History have a comparable social impact to Social History?
I think it can because you can broadly define military history and I would include things like diplomatic history. I mean to try and understand the military history of the First World War is pointless without looking at the diplomatic and political decisions that were taken leading up to it, many of which were taken by the military officers. The militarization of European society and European elites before 1914 was profound – I don’t really see the gap to be honest. The way fought in 1914-18 was so embedded or so linked to who those armies were composed of, what munitions they had, how those munitions were being delivered, the food, the quality of the education of the junior officers and the senior NCOs.
2014 is the Centenary year for the First World War, can it energise a renewed interest in Military History?
Anniversaries are great; they are fantastic to raise awareness. I found in my career that bizarrely people don’t particularly care about D-Day from one year to the next but when it’s an anniversary they all go bananas and they can’t get enough of D-Day. It’s extraordinary; it acts as a little, useful focal point just because it was a precise number of years ago.
Your television programmes are watched by large audiences. What role can media play in engaging the public with history?
I think some people use the word popular as an insult and I think it is the highest praise really, I’m extremely proud to make programmes that are seen as popular by some and that I hope, are seen as popular by the people watching them. Its wonderful to help try and shape people’s outlooks and try and encourage people to learn more about, really everything, about our past – I’ve made programmes on the world wars, I’ve made programmes on Edwardian poverty and programmes about conflicts throughout history, about the development of institutions, the industrial revolution in Britain. It’s wonderful to play a little part of that.
Technology is changing how History is accessed – what are your thoughts on History and social media?
Every age has redefined what you can and can’t do with History. No doubt the first History programmes on the wireless were criticized because they were insufficiently detailed. You can learn a huge amount from Twitter, obviously provided that it is part of a balanced diet where you’re also reading the books and you’re also reading the articles. But no I think it’s a hugely exciting thing to try to do, which is to explain to totally uninitiated people why that First World War happened. I think that’s a fantastic thing to do and I enjoy it immensely. Twitter and that ability to communicate serve to add to the discourse, it doesn’t make people read books less.
Finally, your work has ranged from the Romans, to the Aztecs and to Twentieth Century Battlefields – is there a particular period of History that you especially enjoy?
I think the 18th century is my first love. It’s the period I know most about and enjoy hugely, so yeah the long 18th century – 1688-1815, that’s my great joy. I’ve visited a lot of wonderful periods but there is something about the 18th century that I will always love and it comes from my childhood, as well as from school and university I think.