Four burning questions for Richard Overy, Cundill Prize finalist

Richard Overy is a finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for his book, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. Overy took some time to answer Four Burning Questions from the Reporter in advance of the Nov. 20 ceremony to announce the winning title.
Richard Overy, author of The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945.
Richard Overy, author of The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945.

Richard Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter (UK), after teaching first at Cambridge, then for twenty-five years at King’s College, London. A finalist for the Cundill Prize for Historical Literature for his book, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Member of the European Academy for Sciences and Arts. He is currently the Chair of the Research Board at the RAF Museum in London. His next book is a general history of World War II, due to be published in late 2017. The Cundill Prize, now in its seventh year, features a $75, 000 U.S. grand prize, the most lucrative international award for a nonfiction book. The winning title will be announced on Nov. 20. Overy took some time to answer Four Burning Questions from the Reporter in advance of the Nov. 20 ceremony.

Please describe what level of dedication it takes to produce such a comprehensive piece of historical literature? What type of regime do you follow?

To produce a book of more than 800 pages requires a strict regime of research and writing. The fun part is the archive research because this is often a real voyage of discovery, even in records already used by other historians, where it is always possible to find a new perspective or information that was missed. Historical research does not always require a set of untouched records, though in the case of this book there were also important collections that I used which had not been looked at before – the National Archive of Malta perhaps the best example. The most important part of writing any major history book is the thinking time and the planning. This can often seem a frustrating and confusing experience as ideas bounce around formlessly, but it is essential to good historical writing. In the end the ideas calm down, a plan takes shape and the writing can start. I have always regarded this as the most fruitful and significant part of the act of creating. Once the planning is done, the archive material and secondary literature fall into place. Discipline is necessary at every stage. I write fast – perhaps 12-15 pages a day – and can work for 12 hours at a stretch. I have always found it easier to write while teaching. Having many things to do helps to focus the mind on the job in hand, whether that is lecturing or writing the next section of the book. With every book, but particularly with a big book, I reach a point rather like the ‘wall’ that marathon runners talk about, where you think you will never finish and begin to question the point of the enterprise. Since this happens to me almost every time I write, I realize that it must be a necessary process, one perhaps that all writers go through. In the end you get past the wall and on to the finishing line.

What first sparked your interest in the Blitz and this particular period in history? 

My interest in the bombing war was not the result of a particular experience or ambition, though my mother lived and worked in London during the Blitz, and never stopped talking about it for the rest of her life. I am attracted to the big historical questions of the last century, from wars to dictatorship, to genocide. With the passage of time, the destruction of European cities and the death of 600,000 civilians from the air seem an extraordinary phenomenon and one that needs a full historical explanation. It is also a phenomenon not just confined to Britain and Germany – which is how it is often presented – but involved hundreds of thousands of dead in France, Italy, the Low Countries and the Soviet Union. Civilian bombing, even where it was not the deliberate intention, represented a break with traditions of modern warfare, in which some form of civilian immunity was assumed. Yet the discourse of ‘total war,’ well-known in the inter-war years, seemed to legitimize war against whole societies. During the war bombing campaigns quickly escalated into what was effectively indiscriminate bombing and explaining that process of escalation is important not just for this war, but for almost all the wars of the twentieth century, and perhaps for wars in the future. In that sense the book is a warning. It proved easier than anyone could have imagined to move from the 1930s, when bombing civilians was regarded as a terrorist crime, to dropping two atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Morality in war becomes relative, a consequence that should give us all pause for thought.

What do you hope readers of The Bombing War will come away with when they read it?

Readers should come away from the book with a great many things to think about and a desire to learn more. Some of the reviews of the book have called it a book for peace, which in a sense it is. I hope that readers will reflect on the key themes that arise from the bombing war and apply them to some of the recent and current conflicts around the world, where air power is still exercised as if it could somehow solve the deeper political issues that provoked violence in the first place. I would also like readers to recognize that even under the bombs communities managed to survive despite the widespread belief that urban society was bound to collapse from panic and demoralization once bombs began to fall. The capacity of civilians to organize for their own defence and to find the moral and material strength to survive the bombing says a great deal about the human spirit, just as it demonstrates the futility of trying to break civilian communities by ruthless bombardment from the air.

How important is the Cundill Prize and literary awards in general? What kind of effect would winning one have on your work?

The Cundill Prize has already established a solid international reputation as a showcase for the writing of serious history. For the finalists and winners the prize is welcome recognition that their work as professional historians is worthwhile and internationally valued. It is important that the prize is dedicated to rewarding books that are not only original and carefully researched, but are also accessible to a wider reading public. Academic historians in particular are often accused of writing obscure, dense, jargon-laden text. The very large number of entries considered each year by the Cundill Prize demonstrates by contrast that historical scholarship can maintain its core values while at the same time communicating to a wider public audience and encouraging that audience to engage with the issues it raises. For any historian, the Prize is not only an important mark of esteem but a signal to the world at large that history-writing is not just a hobby but an activity that involves the same level of commitment, scrupulous scholarship and imagination as any other area of scientific and cultural endeavor.

To learn more about the Cundill prize, go here.

To read a Q&A with David Van Reybrouck, another Cundill Prize finalist, go here.

To read a Q&A with Gary Bass, another Cundill Prize finalist, go here.