When you’re evoking a different world, whether it’s a fiction or the past, details matter. Details make it surprising. Details make it real.
I’ve been reading a book called Freedom’s Battle, Volume 2. It’s a collection of first-hand accounts of the air war in World War Two, mostly from the British point of view. As you can guess from the title, it’s not the most balanced perspective on the war, perhaps not surprising for a book that came out in the 1960s, when the memory of that conflict was still raw for many people. But for all its faults, this is a fascinating book.
There are so many details I could never have imagined for myself. The reality of what it’s like to be in a plane as it’s shredded by gunfire. The horrors of being adrift on the Atlantic without supplies following a crash. The crude songs to keep spirits up. The articles written by airmen, spoofing life in service. What it’s like trying to spot enemy aircraft at night.
Secondary sources, those history books analysing what happened and why, are great for a broad perspective and to understand cause and effect. But to understand what events feel like, to get a sense of the reality of lived experience, nothing beats firsthand accounts. All those strange, unimaginable little details make the world come alive.
In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.
For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.
This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.
When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.
Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.
One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.
Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
– English 19th century folk verse
Yes, it’s the fifth of November, the weirdest day in the British calendar! Tonight, we celebrate the thwarting of a terrorist plot over four hundred years ago. An attempt to blow up Parliament and the King is ritually condemned using explosives, bonfires, and outdoor drinking.
This is Britain. Any celebration involves some sort of drinking.
I love bonfire night. Living in Leeds, I get to go to one of the most spectacular displays in the country, thanks to the massive effort at Roundhay Park. There’ll be a bonfire the size of an Aztec temple and a fireworks display that would knock your socks off. Thousands of people from across West Yorkshire come to see it, so the air is full of gasps and cheers. I can smell the smoke and hear the inane chatter of the local radio hosts already.
Even if I wasn’t going to a great display, I’d love bonfire night. The spectacle, the shared ritual, getting back into the warm afterwards, it’s great fun.
But is it actually much good for remembering the past?
I mean sure, we all know the name of Guy Fawkes and the first few lines of that poem. School kids get taught the story long before they learn about bigger, more recent events. So in that sense, it’s emblazoned across our minds like the memory of a bad breakup.
But if remembering the past is about avoiding its mistakes, then we really aren’t remembering the gunpowder plot very well. It was a product of a time of deep division, of polarised religious and political views. A time when minorities were oppressed and scapegoated. All of which sounds a bit too familiar.
The fact that we bang on about Guy Fawkes even reinforces a bad lesson. We ignore the fact that he represented a larger group and a deeper division. He is the scapegoat, ritually thrown on the fire every year.
As a historian, it pains me. Even I can’t remember the other conspirators without looking on Wikipedia. We’re remembering the faintest surface details and using them to celebrate someone’s messy demise. That’s kind of ugly and definitely missing the point.
I still love bonfire night. Nothing in the world is perfect, but some things are too awesome to miss out on. But as an act of remembering, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.
The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.
A Powerful Read
The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.
In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.
The Author’s Shadow
Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.
Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.
Another Side of Humanity
This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.
In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.
Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.
On the surface, the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin! seems like a simple piece of absurdity. During the late days of the Cold War, East German Christiane falls into a coma, only to awake after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her son Alex, believing that the shock of the fall of communism will kill her, decides to hide the truth. He creates a fiction around her, an imaginary Germany in which communism has triumphed. To protect his mother, he reinvents history. So far, so ridiculous.
But as I watched the film, I was struck by the commentary this offers on real history. History isn’t a straightforward view of reality. It’s something we create with a purpose. Part of that purpose is to understand the past, but we usually have other motives too. Whether we’re seeking entertainment, making a political argument, or trying to keep mum from slipping back into a coma, our reasons for exploring history give it form. Most of the time, we don’t deliberately try to deceive, but our motives and interests filter what we see. If you want to be entertained, you see the action and daring of war, not the civilian casualties. If you want to prove that Britain is a standalone powerhouse, you see the British RAF and not the Eastern European pilots who were part of its squadrons in the Second World War.
Like Alex, we create a history that suits us.
Sure, some people are more blatant about this than others. The way Donald Trump constantly reinvents the recent past, starkly filtering out his own inconvenient statements, is particularly glaring. But there’s a spectrum of behaviour here, from Alex’s deliberate deception to Trump’s narcissistic denial to more mundane bias.
I know I bang on about this a lot, but history isn’t a window into the past. It’s our relationship with it. Like Alex, we can go to extraordinary lengths to see the past we want to see. But unlike him, we’re seldom aware of the deceptions we create. And sometimes, other people’s deceptions catch up with us.
Try to remember that, next time you cite history to make a point. How far has your purpose shaped what you’re seeing? And what have you left out in the rush to see a history that suits you?
“Follow the money.” It’s not a new idea in understanding motivation, but it’s an important one.
The Golden Age of Piracy (a real thing that happened between around 1650 and 1730) was all about following the money. I don’t just mean guys with guns chasing guys with gold, though there was a chunk of that. I’m talking about the bigger economic picture.
I’m talking about why the Golden Age happened, and why it happened when it did.
When Peace Means Unemployment
The Golden Age of piracy had three main phases, and two of them began when wars ended*.
In 1648, and again in 1714, wars ended in Europe. I’m not talking small wars that were only horrible for people in the local area. I’m talking huge wars that drew in nearly all the nations of Europe – specifically the 30 Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession. These were sprawling conflicts at land and sea between nations with far more guns than sense. They employed a lot of people, turning them into soldiers and sailors.
So yay for employment prospects, at least?
Well, yes and no. Because military employment in a continent-spanning war isn’t a sustainable career. Such massive conflagrations of human life are mercifully limited. Sooner or later, the combatants run out of resources or the will to fight. The war ends. The poor populations who’ve seen their homelands torn apart start picking up the pieces. And the governments start laying off troops, because they don’t need massive armies and navies any more, and they’ve spent all their spare cash on cannonballs and coffins.
Yargh For Opportunity!
Imagine you’re an English sailor in 1715. For the best part of a decade, you’ve been fighting at sea. It’s what you know best. It’s what you’re comfortable with. It’s pretty much the only way you can see of making a living.
But now your nation won’t employ you, so you need to go freelance. And just across the Atlantic is your opportunity. Because in the Caribbean, the governments have less control, and there are places were a seafaring bandit can hide out. Piracy starts looking pretty appealing.
Then you get there, and sure there are a lot of people in the same boat as you, literally and metaphorically. But that’s not a problem because trade is picking up. The end of the war means safer travel, which means more commerce. There are all these ships loaded with cash and luxury goods. You’ve lost your job, and suddenly the rich merchants and ship owners are making out like bandits. Well screw them, you’re a proper bandit, and you’re going to take your share.
Your big, watery share of pieces of eight.**
Need and Opportunity
In both cases, there was a big upswing in piracy. Big name pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny strutted their stuff. For years, the seas of the Carribean weren’t safe, because this was the best way some folks could see to make a living.
This is what leads so much of human behaviour – a need and the opportunity to address it.
It’s also why economics, the social science of meeting material needs, is so important in understanding motives. The flow of money and opportunities shifted, so people did too.
In the FantasyCon panel on fantasy economics, the panellists talked a lot about real examples like this. They show how economics isn’t just about exchange rates. It’s about human behaviour. And whether you’re trying to understand history or create a fantasy world, human behaviour is what matters. So it’s worth paying attention to the economics.
Follow the money. Even if it’s pieces of eight.
* The other phase also had economic drivers, as opportunities in the Caribbean started to dry up.
** Pieces of eight were high quality Spanish silver coins which became a popular global currency.
My dad recently gave me a huge stack of magazines about the Second World War. They were published in the 1960s and cover most of the main events over thousands of pages. As Dad suggested, they’re a potentially valuable resource for me as a history writer. The fact that they were published so soon after the war helps, as much of the writing is based on recollections of people who were there.
But that proximity can also be a problem for history. The closer we are to an event, the harder it is to be objective. Feelings still run strong, biases are still relevant. And there’s the hidden information. The incredible work of Polish and British analysts in decrypting the German Enigma code was vital to the Second World War, but wasn’t made public for decades. These 1960s accounts were written without knowledge of this intelligence work.
Judging history, or even current events, is a balancing act. Proximity to events can provide vital insight. But sometimes distance is needed to see a bigger picture of the truth.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that stories don’t matter or that the arts aren’t important, point them at Napoleon Bonaparte.
During his meteoric rise from republican army officer to ruler of France, Napoleon was always telling a story. It was the story of his triumphs.
He sent reports home from campaign before anyone else could, portraying his actions in the best possible light. He commissioned pamphlets and paintings. He made sure that everybody knew that he was the best. His campaign in Egypt was a disaster in which he ended up leaving his battered army behind, but he spun it as a triumph. This was a large part of how he gained power.
As First Consul and later Emperor, Napoleon continued this trend. He backed newspapers. He sponsored art competitions. He filled the salons of Paris with depictions of his greatness, tying France’s successes firmly to his own. Many of the most famous paintings of the period were commissioned by him, and they all make him look triumphant. Even as he over-stretched and a foreign coalition closed in, France believed in him.
You could say similar things about Donald Trump. Despite bankruptcies and court cases, he has told a story of himself as a success. Enough people believe it to make him president of the USA.
Stories matter. Art matters. They shape the way we view the world.
As someone who writes about history, the question comes up from time to time – if you had the chance, when in the past would you travel back to? For me, it depends on my time machine.
If I could travel back as an invisible observer, safe from the consequences of what was happening around me, then I’d probably travel back to the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. I’ve spent a lot of time studying that battle, and I’d be fascinated to see it, but there’s no way I’d want to participate in such a pointless waste of life.
If I could travel back and take part but not change time then I’d want to go somewhere interesting but not too uncomfortable. Maybe Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, a coffee house in enlightenment London, or the Paris student quarter in the leadup to the protests of 1968.
If I could change the past… That feels too big. What if I went back and changed something that stopped me and my friends from existing? What if I trod on a butterfly and as a result George R R Martin never wrote Game of Thrones? What if I accidentally burned down the police box that inspired Doctor Who?