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

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Norman Stone, R.I.P.

World War I historian Norman Stone died in June at age 78. He was one of the distinguished historians I was able to meet since I've been chronicling the events of 1914–1918. I've tried to read as many of Norman's obituaries as I could track down. Here are some of the best excerpts I've found that, I hope collectively capture the spirit of man with whom I once spent an evening drinking and chatting with in Istanbul.

Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was a historian and writer whose colorful personality, outspokenness and political views created sharply polarized opinions of his lifestyle and work output. A one-time speech-writer for Margaret Thatcher, his views on the Armenian genocide and other matters aroused considerable hostility.

Stone was born in Glasgow in 1941, the son of Mary, a teacher, and Norman, a lawyer who was killed the following year while flying a Spitfire on a training exercise. He attended the fee-paying Glasgow Academy on a scholarship. On going up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1959 he had intended to study languages but soon switched to history, the subject in which he graduated with a first.
Marcus Williamson, The Independent, 30 June 2019

Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was a great historian and the most gifted teacher of his generation. He was also a mischievous wit, with an acerbic tongue that could deflate the pompous and the pretentious in a sentence or two, delivered in mellifluous Glaswegian. . . He never lost his sensual love of history and music, especially the final scene of "Don Giovanni," which had a mystical significance for him. Like the Don, Norman was a sinner who did not hold out much hope of redemption, but he believed above all in humanity.
Daniel Johnson, The Article, 19 June 2019

At a time when malice and rudeness were highly prized by some right-wing Cambridge dons, Stone outdid them all in the abuse he hurled at anyone he disapproved of, including feminists (“rancid”), Oxford dons (“a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has-beens”), students (“smelly and inattentive”), David Cameron and John Major (“transitional nobodies”), Edward Heath (“a flabby-faced coward”) and many more.

. . . In 1975 he published the book that made his reputation: The Eastern Front 1914–1917, which won him the Wolfson history prize and numerous laudatory reviews. This was a scintillating narrative based on a wide range of sources in several languages, including both Russian and German, admirably succinct and clearly argued. It did a great deal to redress the imbalance of the British historiography of the war, which had up to this point focused almost exclusively on the western front.

It argued powerfully that administrative chaos and poor military and political leadership were more important in causing the Russian defeat than economic weakness. However, its approach was self-confessedly old-fashioned, with its concentration on grand strategy, political and military leaders, to the neglect of the experience and morale of the ordinary soldier, factors that feature strongly in more recent accounts.
Richard J. Evans, The Guardian, 25 June 2019

I was fascinated by his mastery of the Eastern Front during the First World War, on which he had written the definitive book. Norman had unique access to the original documents, because he had learned three of the local languages whilst imprisoned in the Soviet Bloc for attempting to smuggle the girlfriend of a friend of his over the Iron Curtain in the boot of his car.

Our meetings became a real pleasure, as he teased me about my political views, taught me what history was all about, and also how to survive extraordinarily long drinking sessions without falling down the stairs on the way back to my College rooms.

. . . We have met – off and on – many times over the ensuing 40 years.  Wise, irreverent, waspish, funny and always fizzing like a freshly opened bottle of champagne (usually served in a half-pint tankard), there has never been anybody like Norman. The universe is a lesser place now that he has gone.
Andrew Mitchell, The Article, 26 June 2019

If you would like to read about my encounter with this most interesting historian, read:

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