The many provocations of Norman Stone

The historian talks to Jonathan Derbyshire.

Norman Stone.
Norman Stone.

In the acknowledgements section to his latest book, World War Two: a Short History, Norman Stone refers to the “good collection of books on the Second World War” that he has built up over the years. One of his earliest purchases, he writes, was A J P Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, the first 100 pages of which (devoted to demonstrating the weaknesses of the European order established after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919) remain, in his view, “hugely valuable”. When I meet him at the London offices of his publisher, Stone needs no second invitation to talk about Taylor.

“I’d say those first hundred pages [of The Origins of the Second World War] are the best hundred pages he ever wrote,” he tells me. Stone, who is now 71, got to know Taylor in the late 1960s. They first met when Stone was a young research fellow at Cambridge, though the encounter didn’t go especially well. “I sent him an article I’d done and he said, ‘Come to lunch,’” he recalls. “The second Mrs Taylor was there and she was rather a difficult lady.”

He doesn’t say exactly what went wrong but the relationship recovered from that inauspicious start. “We used to talk quite a lot,” Stone says. And when, late in life, Taylor was stricken with Parkinson’s disease, Stone would visit him with his old friend, the economic historian Robert Skidelsky. “Robert and I would go to see him when his mind had gone. A sad business . . .”

Stone prefers to remember Taylor when his prodigious gifts were intact. And it is clear that he sees in the terse, epigrammatic brilliance of Taylor’s prose a model to, if not emulate, then at least imitate. “People criticised him for popularising but you’d always find something in his books – even casual halfsentences would have quite a lot of learning behind them.”

He certainly shares some of his hero’s flair for concentrated precis – in an otherwise ambivalent recent review of World War Two for the New Statesman, Richard J Evans praised Stone’s “gift for saying a lot in a small space” – though some historians have been suspicious of his fluency, as they were of Taylor’s. One such was the historian of the Soviet Union E H Carr, who in 1976 wrote an unsparing review of Stone’s first book, which dealt with the Eastern Front during the First World War. Carr called the book a “muddle” and disparaged its author’s tendency to indulge in “slapdash impressionism on major issues”.

Stone chose the posthumous publication, in 1982, of the 15th volume of Carr’s history of the USSR as the occasion on which to get his revenge. In an extravagantly vituperative review of The Twilight of the Comintern in the London Review of Books, he assailed Carr for his tenderness towards Stalin. It destroyed, Stone argued, any claim that the History of Soviet Russia might have had to being the definitive treatment of the subject.

Stone didn’t bother to pretend he wasn’t settling scores – he noted how many “good books had fallen under [Carr’s] disapproval” – but his assessment of Carr’s behaviour in the early part of the Second World War was surely just, even if it wasn’t necessarily fair. While the Nazi-Soviet pact still held, Carr had been an enthusiastic appeaser. “The patriotic atmosphere of 1940,” Stone wrote, “left him cold.”

The new book vividly evokes the atmosphere that Carr found so distasteful. Stone talks with feeling about the revolt of MPs in September 1939 when the prime minister Neville Chamberlain seemed to be suggesting that negotiation with Hitler was still possible, just as German tanks were rumbling over the Polish border. “It’s an anticipation of 1940,” he says. “The MPs just don’t want to be pushed around any more. It’s difficult to capture that mood. There’s a bit of a parallel with the Falklands War. I can remember getting into a taxi and the driver saying, ‘We’ve got to bash that man [Argentina’s General Galtieri]. I got to Trinity College and said, ‘We’ve got to bash that man!’ Academic chins hit tables! But when this country’s blood is up . . .”

Stone was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and a few years after her victory in the South Atlantic he became an adviser to her on foreign affairs. Today, he thinks Thatcher’s foreign policy stands up pretty well, especially her stance on Europe. “In the end, she was right to think the Germans would always march in step and would back the wrong things in Europe. They went along with the common currency, which she said was a bad idea.”

Although he says he continues to keep a “weather eye on the German press”, Stone is most exercised by the past, present and future of Turkey, where he has taught since leaving Oxford in 1997. He is worried by Turkish entanglement in the civil war in neighbouring Syria. “These Syrian refugees come over the border and they don’t want to use the Turkish system. They make sure their little girls and little boys are doing their Quran lessons separately. But that’s precisely the kind of thing that secular Turkey was set up to stop. This is fantastically dangerous, because it means that what ought to be a country on a European level is going to be clutched back into that dead world that Kemal Atatürk repudiated.”

The game for Kemalist secularism isn’t up quite yet, of course, and one gets the sense that Stone relishes being where the historical action is. “It’s been a good move, hasn’t it?”

“World War Two: a Short History” is published by Allen Lane (£16.99)