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The many provocations of Norman Stone

The historian talks to Jonathan Derbyshire.

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)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis