The Sceptical Realist: The Acclaimed Historian Michael Burleigh Talks to Paul Lay about His Influences, Working Methods, the Need for Historians to Engage in Public Policy and Why He Is Relieved to Be Free from Academic Bureaucracy

By Lay, Paul | History Today, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Sceptical Realist: The Acclaimed Historian Michael Burleigh Talks to Paul Lay about His Influences, Working Methods, the Need for Historians to Engage in Public Policy and Why He Is Relieved to Be Free from Academic Bureaucracy


Lay, Paul, History Today


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When I arrive at Michael Burleigh's house, barely a lofted six from the Oval Cricket Ground, he has just returned from a fishing trip to the Dominican Republic. Burleigh has a passion for fishing and for painting too--the evocative Suffolk landscapes of Patrick George are dotted around the house, as are recent efforts by David Hockney, sent by email; acts of solidarity between two unrepentant smokers. But apart from these simple pleasures, Burleigh is a man who lives to work, writing and reading six days a week, forsaking breakfast and lunch. The result is a prodigious output of acclaimed, award-winning histories which confront many of the most challenging issues of our time: euthanasia, genocide, terrorism, the nature of religion, globalisation. His latest opus, Moral Combat (HarperPress, 2010) has been as well received as any of his offerings, most criticism being reserved for its somewhat misleading subtitle, A History of World War II.

'It was supposed to be Good and Evil in World War II,' Burleigh reveals, suggesting the hidden hand of his publishers. 'There is a rather dispersed literature on moral questions raised by the Second World War, such as appeasement and the different moral universes of the aggressor nations and I thought I would just put it all in one place and not write a book that reduced the question of wartime morality solely to the issue of whether you can justify allied strategic bombing or the dropping of the atomic bomb. It looks at a whole range of subjects that are usually studied in separate places, such as collaboration and resistance. And I wanted to combine it with that thing I find incredibly difficult to do because my entire education involved not doing it, and that is to write narrative. My agent, Andrew Wylie, complains that I have great difficulty with this as I write books about ideas. Blood and Rage (HarperPress, 2008), my book on terrorism, is the exception. That is a narrative, I really enjoyed writing it, though it was intellectually challenging to get your head round the history of Indonesia, for example, which has a very complex past. The book comes highly recommended by the new prime minister, David Cameron.'

His passion for history began early. 'My parents had a place near Pevensey Castle in Sussex. My earliest memories are of Second World War pill boxes and Martello towers and Norman castles set within Roman perimeter walls. From an incredibly early age I got a sense of things changing over huge tracts of time. I had good teachers, too, at my preparatory school, the sort who had gammy legs from the war, who walked around in kilts and battledress and wore medal ribbons. They were able to animate the past. When they tailed about Vikings hitting a fat little monk over the head with an axe, that resonated with me.'

Having studied medieval and early modern history at University College London, he graduated in 1977 laden with a first and all the prizes and went straight on to a doctorate. 'My special subject was on conflicts between crown and parliament in the early 17th century and that mutated into a PhD thesis cum book on parliamentary estates in 15th-century Prussia, after I read and was impressed by books by the late Francis Carsten and the very much alive Helli Koenigsberger. Central European refugees had a big impact on me at the time, Ernst Gombrich being the most prominent among my undergraduate teachers.'

I ask Burleigh how the medievalist transformed himself into a modern historian. 'When I was doing my doctorate I spent a lot of time scouring the archives in West Berlin and there I met a German historian, around 10 years older than me, Wolfgang Wippermann, who had written a lot on German historiography. One of his interests was the way in which medieval history had been manipulated for political reasons over the last 200 years or so. I read the literature on the Teutonic Knights as far back as I could go and noticed all kinds of shifts and patterns, especially around the time of the First World War and the Weimar Republic. …

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