The author of acclaimed histories of Belgian colonial atrocities ("King Leopold's Ghost"), Stalinist terror in Russia ("The Unquiet Ghost"), the British anti-slavery movement ("Bury the Chains") and much more, Adam Hochschild teaches narrative writing at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is "Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939."
Your previous book, "To End All Wars," drove home the pointlessness of World War I, and it's hard not to come away from it feeling like a pacifist. But "Spain in Our Hearts" tells the story of a war that seems anything but pointless: a democratically elected government struggling against Fascist forces backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Did that contrast between a "bad" war and a "good" war inform your writing? Have your own perspectives changed regarding pacifism, nonviolence and the concept of a just war in the course of exploring these histories?
I don't think I've ever been a complete pacifist — always about a 90 percent pacifist. That is, I think neither side is worth risking your life for in about 90 percent of all wars. The First World War is definitely in that category: It remade the world for the worse in every conceivable way. But in the Spanish Civil War, I wish the Spanish Republic, whatever its faults, had won. Spain's people would have been spared a 36-year dictatorship — and Hitler would not have had a de facto ally in the larger war to come. I admire the courage of those, both Spanish and foreigners, who fought for the Republic.
Your books are compelling in part because you give such weight to the emotional lives of your subjects and you craft such seamless narratives between human stories and macro-level events. How do you achieve that balance? Do you generally know when an anecdote is going to be included in your book when you first read the primary source material?
Sometimes, yes, I do come across a revealing personal detail about someone and my radar goes off and I know this quote or anecdote or whatever is going to make it into my book. But often you don't see the revealingness, so to speak, of some detail until you get to know the person well. In large part, I choose the members of a book's cast of characters based on the richness of information they left behind: letters, diaries, reports by people who knew them. All the time, I wish I had more information. Everyone should do future historians a favor and keep a diary!
So much of your work involves framing particularly dark chapters of history through the story of dissenters and crusaders. What draws you to those figures? Do you see common threads running through their stories? Are there shared personality traits or formative experiences that pushed them onto that path?
I'm attracted to writing about times and places when people felt themselves engaged in a moral or political struggle. Sometimes you can see what are the early experiences that led someone to take a strong moral stand. Other times, it's a complete mystery, and I find myself wishing for a diary or set of early letters that isn't there.
As a historian, how do you navigate the tension between faithfully representing events with a detached, objective eye and editorializing about the stark moral dimensions of your subject material? Has that tension evolved over time for you as a writer?
As a historian you're not allowed to make anything up. So, I have to faithfully represent events, and if I say a character felt something at a particular time, I can only do so if he or she wrote it down, or told someone. But to me there's not really a tension between being faithful to the facts this way and showing the moral dimensions of history. Some things are so terrible — slavery, the worst of colonialism, Fascism, Stalinism — that the moral quality speaks for itself. It's the same thing when people act courageously. You don't have to editorialize. Facts speak for themselves.
I am intrigued by the international perspective of the leftists you profile in both of your last two books. Whether it's British and German socialists finding solidarity in opposing WWI or Americans fighting Franco in Spain, there was a zealous internationalism in the early 20th century that seems to be lacking today. The contemporary American left's singular focus on domestic issues gives rise to what is effectively a mild form of isolationism. That's understandable, given a history of catastrophic interventions from Vietnam to Iraq — but when you look at mass murder in places like, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it also seems unconscionable to shrug and say, "Well, we can't be the world's policeman." What's to be done? What should we advocate for when it comes to atrocities happening outside of our national borders? And when, if ever, should we literally fight?
Good question. I'm definitely against America — or anyone else — assuming the right to be the world's policeman. But I do think there are good things that can be done internationally. I respect greatly the work of some international nongovernmental organizations, like Human Rights Watch and Partners in Health. And I think the United States, and other countries, can sometimes help, in a modest way, by supporting regimes that are trying to do something decent and by not funneling huge amounts of aid and arms to tyrannical or oppressive governments. We have such a long string of dictatorships we supported for decades in the name of anti-Communism, and we now have a similarly unsavory list of allies — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and more — in the name of fighting terror.
Hochschild will appear at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 16, at the MacArthur Museum.