HOW THE WORLD WE LIVE IN WAS CREATED. The historian, novelist and TV presenter Simon Sebag Montefiore has been reading extensively during lockdown. He recommends some delightful books and offers his perspective on Trump’s failed putsch.
LISTEN TO THIS INTERVIEW HERE.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, what were you doing during this long past year of coronavirus?
I have been reading manically, and writing various secretive projects. I’ve been lying low, sometimes in the country, sometimes in London.
You enjoy travelling, but last year were you unable to?
I went to Sicily, but otherwise I’ve been living like a monk in a monastery in an apocalyptic era.
Did you read more than normal?
Much more. Even though it’s been a terrible time for writers to launch books, there have been a lot of great books.
Is it a very good time for people to read books?
There has been a renaissance of reading. People have been buying a lot of books.
What do you miss?
I miss hotels, cafes and bookshops. I love hotels, because they are mysterious. What’s everyone doing there? Some people are making political deals and conspiracies, other people are meeting lovers, and other people are alone.
Did you enjoy researching the Russian archives for the story of the Romanov dynasty?
I used to take a real delight in being in the very peculiar Russian archives. There are dynasties of archivists – all the archivists are the children of archivists – and there’s that very strange institutional feeling of Russian bureaucracy. You can buy lunch in the canteen for about a dollar and have quite good soup.
“I am very interested in power and how power works, how it flows and how it’s used, and how it changes people.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
Simon Sebag Montefiore, which books that you read recently did you enjoy most?
Three books have given me great joy, the best royal biographies I’ve ever read. Philip Mansel’s King of the World on Louis XIV is a masterwork. He really understands the court and character of Louis XIV, who was highly intelligent and enormously energetic, almost the perfect absolute monarch. With an amazing constitution, when he had the most agonizing three or four hour operation on an anal fistula he said nothing and just put up with it. He was as strong as an ox.
And the other two?
Geoffrey Parker, a brilliant historian of Spain, has written one biography of King Philip II and one biography of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V – they are father and son. They are outstanding, fascinating about the detail of these people and the lives they led, and how extraordinary it was to rule these strange monarchies held together by one person.
Are you very interested in monarchy?
I am very interested in power and how power works, how it flows and how it’s used, and how it changes people. One of the strange things about power is that it’s very corrosive. It’s very exhausting. It gradually destroys people and coarsens them, and often sows in them the seeds of their own self-destruction. For example, the new biography of Hitler in two volumes by Volker Ullrich is fascinating.
I don’t find Queen Victoria terribly compelling. The British monarchy don’t have any direct power. I am interested in people like Disraeli and Gladstone and Palmerston and Peel, and leaders like Walpole and Cromwell. Cromwell was the most successful and the most gifted monarch in 17th century England, even though he wasn’t formally a king.
Talleyrand is a hero of mine. He is so urbane, so pragmatic, so worldly. Corrupt even by the standards of the late 18th and early 19th century, but so talented. He must be the only foreign minister who betrayed his own country to a foreign power when he offered to serve Tsar Alexander I against his own head of state, Napoleon. Metternich dominated Europe for 30 years and I love his love letters. He was wonderfully egocentric and vain, and a very successful lover.
Are there politicians with such charisma anymore?
Brezhnev thought very highly of Henry Kissinger, and repeatedly said that he thought Kissinger was a really smart, tough, clever guy. They had a lot of banter together. I dined with Kissinger a few times, and he was always fascinating about people he’d met and the life he’d led. He was one of the most powerful American statesmen of the 20th century.
Why did you write The Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar?
Stalin was the most successful single statesman of the 20th century. He took power in a country in ruins, restored order, and industrialized it with massive success; and, of course, with totally unacceptable costs and a system of bloodletting as a political tool. But he industrialized that country, so that in the war it easily out-produced Nazi Germany. Then he managed to seize Eastern Europe, which the Romanov tsars always dreamed of but never came close to doing. When Truman and America got the nuclear bomb, Stalin managed to get it thanks to his spies and his scientists. He died leaving Russia as a nuclear industrial superpower.
“We were fortunate during his rule that Trump lacked a total programme of ideology other than his own narcissism and dynastic venality.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore, do you worry that today democracy is losing ground to populism?
Democracy only works if most of its participants are committed to its rules and institutions. Trump was elected as a so-called populist, in power he showed himself an aspiring if failed tsar; but in his rejection of the election itself, he has revealed himself. ‘Populism’ is the election of people that the establishment or the elite in any country regard as unacceptable; populism can represent the disaffected sections of society in a democracy BUT – and there is a big but – the leader and followers have to buy into the ideals of democracy: respect for opponents, respect for the truth, respect for the will of the people, their institutions and their representatives, the integrity of elections and the handover of power. Succession is always the biggest test of any system, the moment of highest tension and danger. The two biggest perils are attacks on truth – particularly on the integrity of elections – and the orderly handover of power. Warnings of danger are the deployment of violent language which make its use acceptable. We knew Donald Trump did not respect democracy, but people tolerated him because he was elected by a fair election – and they rightly respected that. Democracies don’t always elect whom we would like: when Napoleon III was elected president then emperor, Marx and Engels complained the people were suffering from what they called “false consciousness”. But Trump always aspired to be an autocrat, a tsar or sultan, Putin or Erdoğan. When he rejected the election, we moved into lethal territory – the big lie of the stolen election. When he encouraged the putschists to march on Congress, he truly crossed the line.
What do you think will happen in the Republican Party?
We were fortunate during his rule that Trump lacked a total programme of ideology other than his own narcissism and dynastic venality. He lacked a real grievance – in fact he had been eerily lucky all his life – rich father, avoiding bankruptcy, then winning that election. This week’s putsch failed miserably. Trump and his henchmen – those for example who left the Capitol undefended and who planned the coup – should be prosecuted to make clear that democracy is worth defending and will defend itself. The Republicans need to expel those who subverted the election or the party will somehow split: it is a very serious matter if large sections of the GOP (the Grand Old Party – a traditional nickname for the Republican Party) in effect reject democracy.
What does President-elect Joe Biden face?
The challenge for Biden is to unite the nation without losing from the wider democracy too many of the 70 million who voted for Trump – though the irreconcilable militiamen and conspiratorial insurrectionists who reject democracy should now be watched very carefully. The coup – an unforgettable spectacular of live television history – looks like a pantomime putsch, but what worries me is that now Trump (and his successors in the project of undermining democracy) represent a very real thread of American history, a very unpleasant and harsh one, racist and unforgiving, and they now have a spectacular drama to enter the mythology of a frightening and rising movement. Every movement needs its moment of theatrical martyrdom, its high drama, its seminal act, however preposterous…. It looks like it is over. But this could just be beginning.
Is it a problem that most democratic countries do not have politicians with charisma?
Too much charisma isn’t a good thing. Really powerful, charismatic rulers become dictators. One of the features of democracies is that charismatic, dominant leaders are few and far between.
What particular political problems has the pandemic created?
Pandemics and natural disasters show the limits of modern governments. The citizens in Western democracies expect total comfort and security and safety from their governments. This cannot be sustained. The expectations are dangerous, because disappointed expectations lead to revolution. This difference between the limits of government and the expectations of government is actually the real danger, not populism.
“Nothing stays still in history.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore, what about the rise of China?
I’ve loved reading a very good book on China called The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and its People by Michael Wood. It’s full of poetry and unexpected facts. He’s managed to make the whole history of China fascinating and there is not a dull page in the whole book. I really recommend it to everybody to understand China.
What about understanding Putin?
There’s a very good book called Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West by Catherine Belton.
What else have you enjoyed reading?
Another absolutely fascinating book is called Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, the rebel slave who created Haiti in a revolution that terrified the slave owners of England and America.
Why should one read the biography of someone else?
First of all, they tell you about the how the world that we live in was created. They’re also great novels in a way, of character rises and falls of drama. They have to be entertainment as well as scholarship.
What about books on Europe?
I really recommend a brilliant book by Joseph Henrich called The Weirdest People in the World. We historians have taken Western Europe and culture as typical of the world, when in fact our cultures and mentalities are exceptional. Europe developed in a peculiar particular way, with ferocious competition between city states, small kingdoms and duchies, and no single power managed to gain control. This encouraged the development of independent institutions and independent freedoms which were different from anything else in the rest of the world.
Is Europe still fragmenting?
Spain could easily break up, but I think France and Germany will remain. Northern Italy could, but most likely is Scotland at the moment. Nothing stays still in history. That’s why it’s fun to be a historian or to read history and to watch the world.
As a historian and a scholar of many regimes, are we heading for war?
Everyone knows that the rising power of China could lead to a war. I hope that the future leaders of the great superpowers would be wise enough not to fight in a direct manner. And are nation states obsolete? Would future generations even fight for them? I don’t feel that the younger generations would ever serve the state and fight for these freedoms. I wonder if anyone would ever fight those mass wars again. In earlier times and into the 20th century and right through the Cold War, people were willing to fight for their nation or their system.
You don’t think they will anymore?
I think now they’ll fight for their identity, which is a different idea. Identitarian wars are civil wars, while ideological and national wars are fought between states. In the future there’s going to be civil strife, and ultimately civil wars, within what we think of as peaceful Western and European countries. That’s my prediction.
What are you going to do next?
I’m going to write a lot more. I’m not sure what history I’m going to do yet, various things are percolating. I want to write more fiction, and TV screenplays, which I’ve been writing in lockdown.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, who else would you like to write about?
I’ve always wanted to write a biography of Guy de Maupassant. He’s a genius, and I recommend to all your readers that they should read all of Maupassant, both his novels like Bel-Ami and the short stories.