New Fronts In Old Battles

Robert Hanks

The Independent – United Kingdom
Published: Aug 03, 2007

When Norman Stone was professor of modern history at Oxford, Sir
Edward Heath is reported to have said of him, "Many parents of Oxford
students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education
of our children should rest in the hands of such a man." The Oxford
University Students Union passed a motion condemning him, after he
wrote a newspaper column opposing the idea of homosexual marriage,
as a "racist, sexist, homophobe".

The horror ran both ways: asked, on his departure from Oxford, why he
was taking a post at a Turkish university, Professor Stone told the
press that the students there were "less smelly and more attentive".

>From which you will gather that he is a great maker of enemies,
and of memorable lines. Both gifts are evident in his latest book,
World War One: a short history (Allen Lane, pounds 16.99), and in some
reactions it has already inspired. In 157 pages (plus maps, discursive
bibliography and index) he sets out a brief, easily digested narrative
of the First World War that is studded with epigrams, many apparently
designed with the sole intention of starting arguments.

"With the Ukraine, Russia is a USA; without, she is a Canada –
mostly snow."

"It is a strange fact of modern European history that Italy, weakest
of the Powers, brings the problems to a head: no Cavour, no Bismarck;
no Mussolini, no Hitler." Discuss. There have been plenty of histories
of the First World War before, but as Stone himself says, quoting
the historian JH Plumb, "There’s always room for a new book on a
good subject." Over the years, he has kept his eye on the burgeoning
literature. This new book incorporates recent insights into the way
warfare changed over the four years of fighting. New knowledge about
the origins of the war – as Stone puts it, "It’s pretty clear now
that it was a German plot" – rubs shoulders with an account of the
importance of railway timetables that clearly owes a lot to AJP Taylor.

He mentions Taylor as one of three writers he used to be able to
quote whole paragraphs of by heart: the others being Orwell and,
less predictably, Malcolm Muggeridge. The new revisionism – in which
Haig is rehabilitated as a tactically astute and caring war leader –
is tempered by old-fashioned contempt for his donkey-like leadership
in the early years. The book is disfigured by some very silly errors
("Alfred Einstein" is mentioned). But Stone offers what few British
historians can: the view from elsewhere, a sense of what the war
looked like outside the Western Front.

A few years ago, in an admiring review of a book by Noel Malcolm,
Stone wrote: "Usually, when people can read 20 languages, they lose
the ability to write their own." I wonder if this was a subtle piece
of self-deprecating humour, because his own facility with languages
is famous. He says not; he would never compare himself with Malcolm,
who "can even do Norwegian!".

Nevertheless, he admits to being able to read "about 11 or 12
[languages], and speaking a bit less." He started off learning French
and German at Glasgow Academy, a "remorseless" machine. Then he went
to Cambridge on a modern languages scholarship, switching to history
shortly after he arrived because "I couldn’t handle the literature
at all."

After graduation, he spent a couple of years in Vienna grubbing
in the archives of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While there he met
his first wife, the daughter of a minister in "Papa Doc" Duvalier’s
government of Haiti. He proudly notes the fact that their son, Nick
Stone, is now a successful thriller writer. Back in Cambridge on a
research fellowship, having failed to complete a doctorate, he was a
beneficiary of an initiative to get more people in higher education
speaking Russian: "It was in response to what was alleged to be Soviet
progress – in 1959, Macmillan wrote in his diary ‘There’s no doubt
the Russian standard of living will be far higher than ours in 10
years time.’" Stone pauses to guffaw at length. He learnt Russian,
and started teaching Russian history.

The international perspective that his facility with languages gave
him was reflected in his first book in 1975, which made his name: The
Eastern Front, 1914-17. It remains the standard English-language work,
"To which," he remarks, "I can only say ‘Alas’." A few years ago,
Penguin reissued it and asked him to look through it. "I can remember
on a hot afternoon in Ankara going through it, and when I read chapter
one, about the Russian army, really almost suicide country – because
I thought, ‘I’ll never write anything as good as this again.’ And
then I reached chapter three, about the October 1914 campaign, and
I cheered up: it’s more or less unreadable."

One thing that book didn’t offer, and the new book does, is an emphasis
on the Turkish dimension to the war. "It’s something people tend to
forget about… it looked as if it was a sort of side-show, and in
some ways it was what the war was about." Turkey, Stone argues, was
the big prize for the European powers: a large but unstable empire,
which controlled access to the world’s greatest oilfields, and between
the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

He has taught in Turkey for 12 years now, having originally gone
to attend a conference on Bosnia. "I remember arriving in Istanbul
thinking, I sort of smelt in the air, ‘Hmm, good country’. I liked
the place, I liked the people." At this point, he was on the verge
of taking early retirement after an unhappy decade at Oxford – the
unhappiness being, it must be said, mutual.

Academics tended to dismiss him as a lightweight: since The Eastern
Front he had produced a well-regarded textbook and a shrewd, lively
biography of Hitler, but nothing substantially original. He had also
flaunted his Tory politics in a column, and even acted for a while
as foreign-policy adviser to Mrs Thatcher. He recalls as one of his
achievements that "I got her to be pro-German for a week". This
did not go down well at the university that voted to withhold an
honorary doctorate from her. Among students, his stock was higher:
he has always been a vastly entertaining talker, and takes a great
interest and pride in the achievements of his pupils.

When offered the chance to run the new Russian-Turkish centre at
Bilkent University in Ankara, he jumped at it. The decision was,
he says, "more than eccentric", but right: "There’s a lot to be
said for just picking up your traps and finding a new horizon." He
speaks admiringly of his students, and thinks that living in Turkey
has given him a new perspective on Europe, particularly Russia, as
"when you realise that Tatar-Turkey dimension, you understand the
thing an awful lot better."

But even in Turkey his talent for making enemies has not deserted
him. These days, his main antagonist is what he jovially calls "the
dear old Armenian diaspora". In 2004, Stone reviewed unfavourably a
book on the subject of the Armenian massacres – "a terrible rubbishy
book," he recalls, "the sort of book to be read out in a funny voice"
– in The Spectator, and derided it further in The Times Literary
Supplement. Since then, he has been a magnet for Armenian anger over
what they see as, in effect, Holocaust denial. In fact, Stone has
never denied that vast numbers of Armenians were slaughtered during
forced deportations from Turkey in 1915; he does not even dispute the
possibility that there was genocidal intent. What he does dispute is
that there is unequivocal evidence of such intent, and in the absence
of a smoking gun, prefers to stick to "massacres".

He has been smeared a number of times as a paid apologist for
Turkey. When I mention these attacks, he makes a disgusted moue:
"It’s just dotty, it’s dotty and it’s demeaning." An even more
convincing defence came from a correspondent in The Spectator:
"Norman may have his faults, but he has always been entirely prepared
to bite the hand that feeds him. Often quite hard, if he thinks it
necessary." In the new book, he has been quite careful how he describes
the Armenian massacres. The tactic hasn’t been entirely successful,
to judge by a negative review already on, accusing Stone
of "indifference" to genocide. Indifference to genocide, I doubt;
indifference to what people think he ought to say – there, I think,
he would plead guilty. And enjoy doing it.



Norman Stone was born in Glasgow in 1941, and educated at Glasgow
Academy and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. After research in
Vienna and Budapest, he returned to Cambridge as lecturer in German
and Russian history, and was professor of modern history at Oxford,
1984-1995. Since 1995 he has been director of the Russian-Turkish
Centre at Bilkent University, Ankara. The Eastern Front, 1914-17
(1975) won the Wolfson Prize; other books include Hitler (1980),
Europe Transformed (1984) and the new World War One (Allen Lane);
he is completing a history of the making of new world orders since
1945. In 1999, he made his fictional debut as model for "Fluke"
Kelso, the academic hero of Robert Harris’s Archangel. Married twice
(divorced once), with three children, he divides his time between
Oxford and Turkey.