Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, February 16, 2015

Rakı with Norman, My 2009 Interview of Historian Norman Stone

Historian Norman Stone

One of the rewards/punishments for being a magazine and website editor is that you get a lot of review copies of new titles from publishers. As I was in the last stages of preparation for my 2009 trip to Gallipoli, I received a copy of Norman Stone's concise new history titled World War One from Basic Books, his American publisher. I found it a terrific little work (not much in the military history field has so frequently surprised me or made me smile) and want to strongly recommend it to you. Reading some of the accompanying biographical information, I learned that the author was currently teaching at universities in Ankara and Istanbul. An email exchange with the publisher's marketing staff yielded his email address, and the professor and I were soon corresponding. It turned out that that academic year, he was at Bilkent University in Ankara, but he would be visiting Istanbul for a brief post-Ramadan holiday while I was passing through. We could meet for a drink and talk about his book. There were some complications, but on the evening of my first full day in Istanbul I found myself in a yellow cab heading for a rendezvous with one of the most acclaimed of all World War I authors at the bar of his elegant 19th-century hotel, the Grand London. (Its owner later bragged to me that it is used as a set in a lot of films made locally.)

Great Place to Meet a Noted Historian, No?

As we were getting acquainted, our discussions focused mostly on his new work and how pleased Norman and his publisher were about its reception. The manuscript was originally produced for a small publisher as part of a series, but that party got cold feet over the marketability of a WWI title. When mega-publisher Penguin Books heard about it, however, they jumped on it, guaranteeing a larger production run, international distribution, much more visibility on its release, and a much, much more lucrative deal for the author. Needless to say, after outstanding reviews and excellent initial sales, a large second run is being planned. We spent some more time covering the single major criticism of World War One that has surfaced: Norman's assertion that the July Crisis of 1914 was not a case study in mutually reinforcing diplomatic blunders as it's usually depicted, but a series of manipulations by a German government exploiting the Archduke's assassination to initiate a war they desired to fight before Russia got too strong for them. Norman told me that he's convinced Germany's intentions and strategy were fully revealed in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and that if they had won in the west something similar would have ensued there. After he explained this, I finally understood why he opened the work with the signing at Brest-Litovsk, which had puzzled me initially.

Norman then shared that he needed to get some food before his midnight departure for Ankara and invited me to join him for dinner. I had eaten already but was happy to tag along and accompanied him through some sort of time warp to a nearby alley that had a series of outdoor cafes strung out along its route. The crowd was international, the feel exotic. "This is as close as I'll ever get to the Casbah," I thought to myself. We worked our way to a crowded spot where he was recognized by a waiter and some of the other customers —  obviously, Norman is a regular there —  and suddenly another table and two chairs magically appeared. We sat. I was surprised to find myself lounging in the middle of a street, next to the owner of the Grand London, whom I had met earlier.

Be Very Careful With This!
Norman ordered dinner and drinks for himself and informed me that I needed to be introduced to the Turkish national drink, rakı. A bottle and two glasses quickly appeared.  Rakı is a distilled beverage made from grapes and other fruits. It has a licorice taste and —  I can now attest  — packs a wallop. This would dramatically shift our interaction from balanced discussion to basically a one-sided — albeit highly entertaining — monologue by Norman. Part of this was due to my residual jet lag, part to the impact of rakı on me. The most import factor, though, was rakı's influence on my drinking companion. I haven't mentioned it yet, but Norman is a Scotsman. In our initial chatting this was hardly a communications issue. As the rakı flowed, however, Norman's Scottish brogue became more and more pronounced, and a point was reached after an hour or so, where I could no longer understand a single word he was saying. He noticed this and quickly diagnosed my reduced responsiveness as my being exhausted from my 8,000-mile journey and very kindly packed me in a cab, paid the driver himself, and sent me safely back to my own hotel. I do remember a few things, though, and I would like to share them with the readers. (Don't forget the effects of rakı, however.)

Coverage of the break-up of the German and Austria-Hungarian empires is succinctly addressed a the spirit reminiscent of Winston Churchill's 1945 letter to President Roosevelt warning that "When the war of the giants is over the war of the pygmies will begin." Buttar describes the earlier war of the pygmies with detail on what happened to Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and finally Poland after the Great War. All these stories are better known to the world today with the demise of the Soviet bloc. For scholars on Eastern Europe this section of The Splintered Empires should be required reading.

We discovered that we have a mutual friend. When he was writing his master work, The Eastern Front, Norman visited the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Just as I would years later, he found it daunting to navigate between the library collection and the archives section. And just as I was, he was rescued by a gentle little lady named Agnes Peterson, Curator of the European Collection at the Hoover. Agnes was also the person who encouraged me to share my discoveries with fellow WWI enthusiasts, and, I guess, bears some responsibly for this Blog that you are now reading. Sadly, I had to tell Norman that our friend had died recently. Of course, we raised a toast to her memory.

Norman gave me much helpful advice about visiting the Gallipoli sites. He emphasized the importance of the failure of the naval campaign, and the fact that for any amphibious landing its easier for the land forces to get resupplied than the troops coming off the ships. I told him that I thought the greatest opportunity for success by the Allies, the Suvla Bay operation in August, was "blown" by incompetent generalship. He responded that the greatest limitation on the Allies at Helles, Anzac, or Suvla was in providing water for the advancing troops. At Suvla this factor weighed heavily on the British commander, Lt. General Stopford. The following days visiting the battlefields, I was always aware of how dry things looked and that there always seemed to be few sources of water around the Allied positions.

Some of Norman's  best tales were off the World War I topic. I heard that evening about his work as a speech writer for Margaret Thatcher and his preference for teaching Turkish students, who are receptive to learning new things, versus Oxford-Cambridge types, who come in preformed and un-receptive to new thinking, if I heard things right.

The Sort of Place We Ended Up and I Met Rakı

I wish I remembered more from that evening because I had a really great time with Professor Norman Stone. He autographed my copy of his book: "For Michael Hanlon, with many thanks for being so kind." Same to you, Norman. I'll remember our evening together every time I taste licorice for the rest of my life.


  1. Fine book; fine article

  2. Next time make sure he takes you up the Bosphorus to the after-hours joints. There's a name for them, but I'd drunk too much raki (no dot on the "i") to remember it.

  3. There is indeed no dot on the "i" in rakı. That's how it looks in Turkish orthography, which we opted out of for this word, since it could look a little too odd to the English reader. Usually, though, our RTGW style sheet calls for accurate diacritics and orthography whenever possible.