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The Writing Life: Ian Kershaw

Sometimes history just depends on that next cup of coffee.

(Courtesy Of Ian Kershaw)
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By Ian Kershaw
Sunday, October 19, 2008; Page BW11

One of the most frustrating feelings I experience when I sit in front of a computer screen before I start writing is knowing that I have to put words onto the empty space and that I am the only person who can do this. No matter how easily I can be distracted at that moment, I am never really free from the recognition that, however long I put it off, I must finally return to the task.

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Once I surmount the initial hurdle, I write fairly quickly and can keep going for lengthy spells each day as long as they are punctuated by frequent short stops to make myself yet another cup of coffee or tea. I have never smoked, but probably, had I done so, I would have been a chain smoker. The coffee or tea serves the same purpose, I imagine, as cigarettes do for other people. I need the promise, with the completion of every paragraph I write, that I can get up and reward myself. Usually, the coffee goes cold on my desk, but then I have the excuse for making yet another cup at the end of the next paragraph. And so it goes.

When I have something substantial to write, like a chapter or lengthy essay, I tend to worry away at it until it is finished. I work to a fairly rigid routine, beginning about 9 in the morning, breaking at one o'clock for a brief lunch followed by a fast walk of two miles or so, which then sets me up for the afternoon, through which I work until about 7:30, when I stop for the evening meal. In this way, I can write on average 2,000 words a day -- a rate I managed to keep up for months on end while writing my Hitler biography.

Even in a computer age, I know authors who can write only with pen and paper. But I've never been able to compose fluently with a pen. When I was 12 or 13, my dad bought a little portable typewriter. He never used it; but I did. I taught myself to type properly and wrote most of my school work on it. I used the typewriter at university, which was not common in those days, and for my first books. As soon as early word-processors appeared, I bought one while on a visit to the United States (since they were cheaper there than in England) and thought this the most wonderful invention I had heard of -- a typewriter with easy corrections and alterations. The only problem with my first computer was that it had no backup device. One day, I tried to save a chapter I had just finished, heard a slight blip, and the chapter was gone. Next day, so was the computer.

Writing for me has always been an important sideline to my "day-job" -- teaching at a university. My first serious writing was my doctoral thesis, on medieval monastic history, followed by a few other academic pieces on the Middle Ages before, in the mid-1970s (inspired by my German teacher and enabled by my rapidly improving prowess in the language), I jumped about seven centuries and ended up working on Nazi Germany. For the past 30 years or so, practically all my writing has been connected with this darkest period in Germany's history, and with World War II and the Holocaust that were its outcome.

Nazism is a macabre subject to spend 30 years writing about. Why didn't I choose something a bit more cheerful, or write on more varied themes? I suppose, for one thing, that, like many other historians, I found myself more drawn to the horrible rather than the pleasant-- death and destruction, rather than peace and prosperity. Given a choice, most students plump for the violent upheavals of the French Revolution rather than the uneventful tranquillity of, say, 18th-century Geneva. Their teachers are not much different. So when I became interested in the history of modern Germany, it was not postwar recovery and the "economic miracle" that fascinated me, but how an advanced and cultured society at the heart of Europe, with one of the most liberal constitutions imaginable, could undergo such a rapid and immense collapse of civilization that within a few years it unleashed the most terrible war in history with, at its heart, the most appalling genocide ever -- yet -- perpetrated. War and genocide are certainly depressing topics to write about. Unfortunately, however, they are scarcely unimportant.

The centrality of Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust to our understanding of the 20th century, and of the thin ice on which modern civilization rests, has provided me over the years with my inner justification for the time spent researching and writing about them. As I was born in 1943 and spent my formative years in England in the immediate aftermath of a war that my country had helped wage against Hitler, I suppose there was also a personal interest in writing about that period. But I would not want to exaggerate this. Mercifully, no one in my family died or suffered during the war, and I am neither German nor Jewish. So it was not personal experience but detached, intellectual curiosity that drove me to try to better understand the roots of the mega-disaster that befell Europe and the world.

Written composition is usually more precise than verbal communication. The principal reason for writing for me has always been to explain something to myself. That ultimately is why I have written so extensively on such a dismal subject. Of course, that others have taken an interest in what I have written, and that it is adjudged to have contributed a little to the wider field of research, is extremely gratifying. But these were not the main reasons for writing in the first place. Every book or essay I have undertaken has taught me a great deal more about one of the most crucial periods in the whole of human history. And that has made it worthwhile.

The writers I most envy, however, are not other historians, but novelists such as Ian McEwan. If only I had the imagination to write like they do! And how wonderful to have the freedom to write without having to check the factual detail for every sentence. For a historian, even a banal sentence such as "It was a hot sunny day as Hitler's train pulled out of the Pomeranian railway station" can't be written without checking the weather forecast for Pomerania that day. Perhaps it was sultry and showery. Or maybe what the weather was like at that precise hour is unclear. That is one reason why literary flourishes, often displayed through colorful adjectives, are difficult to combine with exact historical scholarship. And the search for precision and factual accuracy is also a reason why writing history books takes such a long time -- even once the painful start has been made, and the cups of coffee are coming at regular intervals. ยท


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