Adam Hochschild, a longtime supporter of the Nieman Foundation’s narrative program, published a new book last month, “To End All Wars.” A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild lives in San Francisco and teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also written several narrative books about history, ranging from the abolition of slavery in England to King Leopold II’s devastation of the Congo more than a century ago. We talked with Hochschild by phone about his latest book and some of the narrative strategies he used to tell the story. The following excerpts from our discussion have been lightly edited for clarity.
You have a history of writing about historical issues related to human rights and dissent. When did you decide to write about the pacifist movement in World War I?
I had always been interested by these people. The first time I began learning about them was when I was a teenager. Bertrand Russell was a big hero of mine, and I read a biography of him that described how he went to jail for his opposition to the war. Somehow that moved me and stuck with me and remained there in my memory as I learned a little more history and realized how terrible this war was, and how brave someone had to be to defy the patriotic hysteria in the air.
The more I learned about how the First World War really did shape the 20th century and remake our world for the worse in every conceivable way, the more I got fascinated by the people who refused to fight or who spoke out against the war – like Russell and E. D. Morel, the crusading journalist who was a hero of King Leopold’s Ghost, who were beyond draft age but who nonetheless spoke out very clearly and went to prison for doing so. Of course they existed in all of the warring countries. But for various reasons there were a lot more of them in England than anywhere else. So that’s where I decided to focus.
Could you discuss a little how you identified Charlotte Despard and John French as two of your main characters for this book?
I knew that there were two types of people I wanted to have in the book. One was the pacifists and war resisters, people who refused to fight, or people who spoke out against the war and of course almost all of them suffered in one way or another for it. I wanted to have them in the book, but I also wanted to have the generals, the cabinet ministers, the people who actually fought the war, and the propagandists who were part of the crusade, who helped shape public opinion and felt the war was noble and necessary and had to be fought. For the longest time I knew that these were the two character types that interested me, but I could not figure out how to get them into the same book.
I didn’t want to do a series of portraits, first one type, then the other, because that’s kind of boring. I think what makes people read history – or at least one thing that makes them read history – is if you can talk about a period of time or a movement or a phenomenon through a group of people who are connected to each other in one way or another.
Then one day I was reading about Charlotte Despard, ardent pacifist, a radical who joined every progressive cause of the day, a big backer of independence for Ireland and independence for India, went to jail four times in the battle for women’s suffrage, spoke out very loudly against the war, wrote a pamphlet that sold 100,000 copies. In this very dull scholarly article I was reading, the writer in one sentence, in passing, said something like, “Of course these activities were deeply upsetting to her brother.” And the writer mentioned his name, Sir John French, which of course I recognized – he was British commander in chief on the Western Front! I thought, “This is a relationship that I can really have some fun exploring.”
The moment I saw this, I thought, “Divided families – that’s the way to do this book.” I knew that I could find divided families because in Britain, because there were more than 20,000 men of military age who refused to go into the army. Many of them as a matter of principle also refused the alternative service that was offered to conscientious objectors, driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 went to prison. I knew those people had to have friends, brothers, family members who felt differently than they did. My job was to find divided families and to tell the book through them.
Your sympathy for the pacifists’ cause becomes apparent in the course of the book. Did you have to work to maintain sympathy for those who fought, in terms of keeping them human?
It’s funny. On a personal level, there are at least one or two of the warmongers whom I would much more enjoy spending time with than some of the pacifists. Among the pacifists, Charlotte Despard was totally indiscriminate in the causes she embraced, including, unfortunately, the Russian Revolution, which she was totally star-struck by. She thought that paradise had appeared in Soviet Russia. I’m not sure how interesting a person she would have been to hang out with.
On the other hand, her brother, the field marshal, seems to have had a great deal of charm, a real common touch, an ebullience and enthusiasm that would have made him a much more enjoyable dinner companion than his sister.
I think you do have to have a certain human sympathy with your characters even when their politics are not your own. In this story, the two young men whose deaths I talk most about are George Cecil – grandson of a former prime minister and the son of one of my major characters – and young John Kipling. Both sets of parents were totally in favor of the war but were absolutely devastated by their sons’ deaths. How can you not empathize with that? Poor Rudyard Kipling was so distraught that he got British fighter pilots to fly over the German lines and drop leaflets asking people to get in touch if they knew anything about where his son’s body might be found. A poignant, poignant story. You can’t help but sympathize with someone who’s bereft or grieving.
You have these large characters – Kipling, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Conan Doyle – who make appearances in your book, sometimes more than once. How do you balance the celebrity cameos to energize rather than upset the applecart of your narrative?
Generally, I tried in the book to focus on people whose lives were not familiar to most readers, especially most American readers. So that’s why in focusing on people like Despard, French, the Hobhouse family, and Alfred Milner, I hope I was bringing something fresh to American readers, even those who are familiar with the First World War. But I wanted to have a few well-known figures in there as well. Like Winston Churchill, for instance, who invariably pops up in the middle of any great historical event that happened during his lifetime, and who always has something marvelously quotable to say.
There have been a lot of good books written about the First World War. I think some of the best in recent years have been done in fiction. Pat Barker has done some extraordinary writing.
Yes, wonderful. But I stayed away from the people she talked about, because she’s written about them so beautifully that there’s nothing more to add. Those people are familiar to readers now. I’d rather introduce people to characters they don’t know about, like my wonderful lion tamer John S. Clarke, for example. You couldn’t invent somebody like this. He’d been the youngest lion tamer in Great Britain when he was a teenager, then went into radical politics, opposed the war, went underground, and published this clandestine newspaper. And then in his old age, whenever he got bored with politics, he went back into the ring and was the oldest lion tamer in Great Britain. I take great pleasure in introducing somebody like that to readers.
You have a war of several years, with activities on at least three continents. And so much of the war was this static thing in which people were continuously dying, but not much larger change was going on. How did you work to keep the narrative pacing so that those long static years on the battlefield didn’t slow the book down?
Even though it was indeed static, and the front line on the Western Front really didn’t really move in a big way in more than three years, when these great battles started, like the Battle of Loos, where John Kipling was killed, and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, everybody expected and hoped that this was going to be the big breakthrough. You can use that to build a certain tension and suspense. You can quote peoples’ letters, saying, “This is going to be the smashing blow that will win the war.” You can build the suspense and not reveal right away that it isn’t how things turned out.
But there were so many other things going on that I felt I could use to generate some suspense and narrative tension. For example, just in the weeks before the terrible Battle of the Somme began, there was the group of some 50 British conscientious objectors who were forcibly taken to France and threatened with death. Their friends and family and supporters in England had no idea whether they had already been shot, whether they would be shot, whether they would be saved.
Anytime in real life where there’s a period of days or weeks when people don’t know something desperately important like that, a writer can very easily use it to generate suspense in the narrative. There were so many things like that that I felt allowed me to build narrative tension. Similarly, when the Russian Revolution, or revolutions, the February Revolution and the October Revolution, happened, in each case it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the pacifists and war resisters, because they hoped it would finally be the thing that would end the war. So I show that enthusiasm without of course immediately revealing that it didn’t end the war, although the reader probably knows that to begin with.
Did you always approach writing nonfiction using narrative devices from fiction, or did you have a conversion on the road to Damascus?
I have always liked the idea of trying to write as interestingly as I could, in a way that would hold people’s attention. And I think that anybody who does that very quickly sees that he or she needs to steal techniques from the novelists, because they know how to do this better than anybody. Someone writing a news story for a newspaper or a piece of reportage for a magazine will always get some people to read what they write because even the most poorly written story, if it’s got information you want, you might read it. But novelists have a higher standard, I think, because they have to make readers care about people that they don’t know and aren’t interested in to start with. So there’s much more to be learned from studying them.
I can think of one episode on that road to Damascus. My third book, “The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin,” was about how people in Russia were dealing with the Stalinist period. It had become possible in the late 1980s to dig up the buried bodies, to read the forbidden books, to think about what had happened. The book contains a long series of interviews with people across the country and was structured as a journey to the far northeast corner of Siberia, where the worst of the Gulag concentration camps were. It was a reasonable structure for a book; a narrative based around a journey is certainly an ancient way of telling a story.
But you think another approach might have worked better?
Near the end of that journey, I suddenly realized that I should have done it differently. That realization came when I went to a place in Siberia where a river had overflowed its banks and disclosed a mass grave. The mass grave was under the site of a secret police prison from the 1930s. And the village was still full of people who knew men and women who had been arrested then, and now their bodies had been disclosed by this overflow of the river.
I interviewed two people from the village whose fathers had been shot in this prison and were in the mass grave and another woman whose father had been the secret police commander of the prison. These people knew each other. And I realized, “Wait a minute. I should have done this whole book based on this town.” In one small town, I could have told the entire story of Russia experiencing this horrible self-inflicted genocide in the 1930s and then dealing with it today, could have told it all through a network of people who knew each other in this particular place.
Unfortunately, this discovery came at the end of six months of research, and I knew I was not going to be able to persuade my tolerant and forgiving family to continue to live in Russia for another six months. And I didn’t want to throw away six months of research. So I told the story the way I had first designed it. But the idea of talking about a piece of history through an interconnected network of people in one place stuck with me, and that’s what I ended up doing in my three subsequent books.
For more on craft from Adam Hochschild, see our four-part series taken from a talk he gave at Vanderbilt University earlier this year.