Interview with Peter Calvocoressi

By Adelson, Roger | The Historian, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Interview with Peter Calvocoressi


Adelson, Roger, The Historian


Born in 1912 in Karachi, a port city of British India now part of Pakistan, Calvocoressi became a King's scholar at Eton, earned a first in history at Balliol College, oxford, and was called to the bar in 1935. He assessed intelligence from German high-grade ciphers and passed it to operational commands during World War II and collected evidence for the trials of major war criminals in Nuremberg. He has written extensively as a contemporary historian and journalist, managed and directed publishing companies, lectured on international relations, and been prominent in international organizations. He and his wife, Barbara Eden, were married in 1938 and have two sons. The Calvocoressis live in Bath, England, where this interview was conducted in July 1992 by Roger Adelson.

THE HISTORIAN: For nearly a half-century you have written about the contemporary world. Is that history?

CALVOCORESSI: What I write the Germans call Zeitgeschichte, which may be translated as the history of our own times, following Alte, Neuere, and Neueste Geschichte, which English-speakers call ancient, modern, and recent history The opening up of history to the social sciences has meant that the recent past now interests more people and comes under greater public scrutiny. I believe that contemporary historians have an important role to play in that process. Some critics say we cannot be objective about our own times and that we do not have access to enough documentation, but I believe that our judgments about recent decades can be just as good as those about earlier centuries. The human species is peculiar because of our capacity to have and transmit ideas. I am interested in the evolution of such ideas up to and including our own day, Particularly when they come into conflict with a culture that rejects them. Such clashes are very serious since they often become irrational and violent. My works on World War 11 and world politics since 1945, along with my studies of Africa, the Middle East, Britain, and Europe, have to some extent been concerned with ideological conflicts. I have written about Nazi subversion of Western civilization, tensions between Islam and the West, as well as various struggles in Africa. These have seemed much more important than the cold war, which I have long regarded as more of a conflict over power than ideas.

THE HISTORIAN: Could you tell us about your family background?

CALVOCORESSI: I am a Greek but my surname combines the Italian Calvo with the Greek Coressi. Both the families of my father and my mother came from the same Greek island named Chios - one of the larger Aegean islands within swimming distance of the coast of what is now Turkey. This island's medieval and modem history is one of independence, commerce, and prosperity until the Turkish massacre of 1822 during the Greek wars of independence against the Ottoman Empire, when some three quarters of the Chiots were killed, enslaved, or forced into flight. The massacre of Chios sent a shock throughout Europe not equaled until the Armenian massacres. For example, a nineteenth-century painter in Bath covered thirty feet of his drawing room with a fresco on the tragedy of Chios. A few years before that terrible event, some of my mother's family set up in London a branch of Ralli Brothers, which became headquarters for the spectacularly successful merchant firm that started in Chios and the Black Sea area during the eighteenth century and continued its trading worldwide until after World War II. My mother was a Ralli and my father worked for Ralli Brothers in Karachi, where I was born. When I was three months old, my family moved to England, which has been my home now for almost eighty years.

THE HISTORIAN: What was it like as a child being Greek in England?

CALVOCORESSI: My first ten years were in Liverpool, where my life was similar to those children who were born into prosperous merchant families in Edwardian England.

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