The British journalist Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote a world history as a family history. In the interview he explains how he came up with it.
taz: Mr. Montefiore, you are a best-selling author and known for your historical books on Russian history. Was your motivation for writing a global history called “The World” that of an astonished child or that of a dictator who wants to rule the world?
Nice idea. But none of this is true. I wanted to tell the story of the world in such a way that you don’t have to know anything about it to understand it. That you are not intimidated by strange names and distant places.
born in London in 1965, studied history and worked, among other things, as a banker and war correspondent.
“The world. A family history of humanity”. Translated from English by: Andreas Thomsen, Hans-Peter Remmler, Thomas Stauder, Karin Laue, Jens Hagestedt and Maria Zettner. Klett Cotta, 1,536 pages, 49 euros
Your book has 1,500 pages in German. Are you confident that readers won’t be intimidated by this?
It is indeed a doorstop. But let’s not overdo it. My book is no thicker than a total of two biographies. Also written in such a way that you understand how all the different places and people in the world fit together. In a word: easy to consume.
Easily consumable is always immediately suspected in Germany. Your biography “Young Stalin” also made German historians and critics turn up their noses. Instead of historical analysis, it would be humanizing.
Yes, but this wrinkling of the nose is not a German specificity. And still big nonsense. Of course, I have the ambition to get as close to the truth as possible based on the latest scientific research. But I’m just as ambitious about writing the whole thing down as beautifully as I can.
But you also have some pretty prominent readers. Vladimir Putin is said to have benefited from your 2014 book about the Tsarist dynasty “The Romanovs” were downright thrilled.
Yes, his colleagues told me that it was only through reading that he understood how the Romanovs had annexed Ukraine and Crimea. As a thank you, he offered me the opportunity to research the Stalin archives.
The writer Stefan Zweig has written the best biography of Mary Stuart. How far is your non-fiction book from a novel about the world?
Absolutely far away. My book is beautifully written, although perhaps not as beautiful as Stefan Zweig’s. but there is no wording here like this: Her heart was pounding as she went to the ball. Unless I found a source for it, a letter, a diary entry, a witness.
You haven’t invented anything, but maybe you’ve found something?
Clear. But not in the archaeological sense. But on some things I have added a new perspective, a new thought to those that already exist.
Why did you decide to write a “family history of humanity”?
The idea of telling the story of the world through the sea or the Silk Road already existed. My book combines the scope of world history with the intimacy of biography. All people on all continents, in all times, of all origins and all religions have parents. Of course, family is a construct, a social invention. But whether there are two fathers or just one sperm donor, you are always descended from two people. So everyone is part of a family.
By which you don’t just mean the nuclear family.
No. Family can be represented are through clans, tribes, states, empires, religions, ideas and ideologies. Families always represent what is going on in society: gender relations, economics and work. You can also represent a financial company like in Germany the Krupps industrial family. To this day, many German companies are in family hands, which also has political significance. I use family as a tool to tell the big developments, be they technological, cultural, medical or migration-related.
What was the worst family you encountered?
The worse they are, the more fun it is to write about them: royal families, the Napoleons, traders like the Medici or modern dictators like the Assads’ hereditary dictatorship. But the Kims in North Korea stand out: They have nuclear weapons. No family has ever been so powerful.
Which family would you like to live with?
At the court of Caliph Harun al Rashid in Baghdad in the 9th century.
Read the chapter. But be prepared to be shocked. From the cosmopolitan culture, sexual libertinage, literature, vast knowledge of art, mathematics, philosophy, beautiful dancing girls, gay sex and much more, all showing why Baghdad was the center of the world back then.
Why did you start the book with the Sumerian princess En-hedu-anna, who lived in the 23rd century BC?
This is obvious: she was the first female poet that we know of, because she is the first female author to be published. She was also the first Metoo activist as she described being a victim of sexual violence. She was the first princess we even know of. When I read about her, I quickly realized that this character represented everything I wanted to do with this book. I wanted to be more global, more diverse, and more gender-equal than the world historians we read as children.
The problem is that after the first chapter about En-hedu-anna, I would have liked to read more about her instead of straight away about the mother of Khufu, the builder of the greatest building of all time.
Me too. But everything we know about En-hedu-anna is in my book. Unfortunately, our information is not enough to write your own biography about her.
In TV series it always says at the beginning: “What happened so far”. Would also be a good title for your book: The summary tells you what is important for the upcoming episode. How did you choose what was important?
It was a tightrope act. And I’m glad I never have to do anything like that again. Sometimes I would wake up in a sweat, thinking in my dream that I had forgotten to mention Jesus. Of course there are things and people that no world history can ignore: the steam engine or Cleopatra. European history cannot be written without the Habsburg family. Since I am a specialist in Russian history, the Romanovs had to come in too. But for example, I chose Cambodia as a country where I went deeper into the history because I was there and not because Thailand wasn’t more interesting. As for Africa, I had to choose kingdoms.
And as for Germany against Hitler.
It doesn’t work without Bismarck and Hitler. But I decided to shed more light on the Hindenburg family. Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff and von Hindenburg, field marshal during the First World War and Reich President until 1934, was responsible for the mistakes that led to the Nazi dictatorship. He installed Hitler as Chancellor, but is a comparatively neglected figure in historiography.
But a family man?
Yes, a typical German Junker, whose son, when he himself got old, conducted the negotiations and ran the business for him.
Is writing history a disillusioning job because everything was already there and nothing gets better?
No. Human history is not linear. Each era takes things from the past, processes them and adds new ones. The progress of history is not necessarily progress for humanity.
Abolishing slavery was certainly progress. In your book you call the slaves an anti-family institution. Why?
Being a slave means being removed from your family. The slaves’ families were divided, their names changed, their religion changed, and they were deported to other countries. They were given a completely new life, became part of a new family and started new families with people from all over Africa. The story of the slaves also shows the full drama of human life.
As in a drama, you have divided your book into “acts” rather than chapters. Unfortunately, every drama has an end.
The world will come to an end one day – that much is clear. We can only hope that there are many more acts waiting for us.
So your book is unfinished?
Secure. I didn’t want to run the risk of drifting into journalism. Journalism always has to judge and these judgments often turn out to be completely wrong. That’s why I ended the book on the day the Ukraine War began.