Destruction of Kippenheim synagogue, November 10, 1938
With a new book coming out in April, I wanted to share some thoughts on the art of historical narrative. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I believe that the methods of fiction can be applied to non-fiction with one very large caveat: you can’t make anything up. The number one lesson that I take away from the writers I admire--whether they are novelists or historians--is to immerse the reader as deeply as possible in the story that I am telling and the times I am writing about.
I am a traditionalist when it comes to the principles of story-telling. I prefer to read (and write) history books with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The plot should unfold naturally and sequentially, building to a culminating point in the narrative, when the dilemmas confronting your characters are somehow resolved, either happily or tragically. Subtle foreshadowing (viz. the gun on the wall in the first act of a Chekhov play) is permissible, but the author must never get ahead of the story he or she is telling.
It seems hardly coincidental that the most successful of our modern-day historians are also accomplished writers who know how to construct a powerful narrative. My personal role models include David McCullough and Edmund Morris (for his three-part Theodore Roosevelt biography, not the partly-fictionalized biography of Ronald Reagan). Both McCullough and Morris are adept at keeping their stories moving forward, weaving necessary background into the narrative without slowing it down.
The trouble with history, of course, is that we typically know how the story ends, in contrast to novels, where the suspense is maintained until the very last moment. There is no mystery about who won World War II or what happened to the Soviet Union. To draw on the plot of one of my previous books, One Minute to Midnight, we know very well that the world did not come to an end in October 1962. You might think this would remove much of the suspense from the story of the Cuban missile crisis but this was not the case in my experience. The excitement derives not from how the story ends, but from the twists and turns along the way.
One of my favorite historians, Barbara Tuchman, described this phenomenon well in her essay, In Search of History. Initially, she worried “a good deal” about the “the problem of keeping up suspense in a narrative whose outcome is known.” After a while, she discovered that the problem resolved itself. “If one writes as of the time, without using the benefit of hindsight, resisting always the temptation to refer to events still ahead, the suspense will build itself up naturally.” She cites the example of Marshal Joffre hesitating before the Battle of the Marne in 1914, when the French army prevented the Germans from marching on Paris. Even though the result of the battle is well known, the suspense becomes “almost unbearable, because one knows that if he had made the wrong decision, you and I might not be here today.”
Another good example is Frederick Forsyth’s thriller novel, The Day of the Jackal, which describes the attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle. Anyone even vaguely familiar with modern French history knows very well that the plot fails and General de Gaulle survives. Nevertheless, Forsyth engrosses us so completely in his meticulous descriptions of the assassin’s preparations that we keep turning the pages to find out what goes wrong.
In addition to maintaining suspense, the narrative method sidesteps the curse of omniscient hindsight, an affliction of many historians. This is particularly acute with shattering events such as the Holocaust that have colored our entire understanding of 20th century history. We should resist the temptation to project out current-day knowledge backwards when examining the choices made by politicians before the annihilation of six million Jews. While we can certainly criticize the failure of Franklin Roosevelt and other American leaders to do more to assist refugees fleeing from Hitler, it is unfair to paint them as complicit in events that had not yet taken place.
The nineteenth century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, once observed that history is “lived forwards” but “understood backwards.” Historians like to find order, logic, and inevitability in events that sometimes defy coherent and logical explanation. One way to correct this bias is to relate historical events as they happened, from the point of view of the people who lived through them. By telling the story forwards (as experienced) rather than backwards (as now understood), we can re-create its cliff-hanging excitement and unpredictability. We also gain new insights into the actions and motivations of the principal players.
That, at least, has been the philosophy that has guided me through the writing of six non-fiction books. In my latest book, The Unwanted, I tell the story of a group of German Jews attempting to flee Nazi persecution. The opening scene describes the shattering events of Kristallnacht, on November 10, 1938, in a village on the edge of the Black Forest. (See photograph above.) This is the moment when the Jews of Kippenheim realize that there is no alternative to emigration from Germany if they are to survive. Their preferred destination is the United States, although they are willing to settle for other places of refuge.
In keeping with Barbara Tuchman’s advice, I resist the temptation to jump forward to events that have not yet happened. Instead I recount, as accurately and vividly as possible, the various obstacles they encounter and their frantic efforts to overcome them. Intertwined with the story of the refugees is the story of U.S. immigration policy under Roosevelt.The tension builds naturally as the families with whom we become acquainted in the opening chapter organize their attempted escapes from Europe. Some of them make it to the promised land across the ocean. Others end up in Auschwitz, their applications for American visas “still pending.” I hope you find the story as alternately inspiring, heart-breaking, and exciting as I did, when I researched and wrote it.
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.