French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. John Horne

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

The first spotlight of 2015 features John Horne, Professor of Modern European History and Director of the Centre for War Studies at Trinity College Dublin. On Wednesday 14 January Professor Horne will be giving the fifth Douglas Johnson memorial lecture, entitled ‘Myth or Model? The French Revolution in the Great War’. All are very welcome – please see the SSFH website for more details.

John Horne: pre-1945 ‘was only the day before yesterday but in order to understand and explain it, you have to mentally reconstruct it as if it was the early modern period’

In one sentence, what is your research about?

Reconstructing the experiences of ordinary people in the past, especially in extraordinary periods such as war and revolution, when old ideas and words no longer capture new realities.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

For history tout court, it was feeling at an early age what I would call historical vertigo, that is the sense that people in the past who were so different from me in my present had walked exactly the ground I stood on – and if only I tried hard enough, I might manage to recapture their vanished presence. Why France in particular? Because no other history I could think of seemed so dramatic and so different to that of the England and Australia I grew up in.

If you could travel back to any historical period or moment, when would it be?

Probably the French Revolution… not that I think that ‘bliss it was in that dawn to be alive’ but it would be fascinating to experience a period lived at such an accelerated historical tempo, among people convinced they were making the world anew. But I would like a return ticket, please.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

Jean Jaurès and Georges Clemenceau, exploring over a leisurely dinner the issues they famously debated in 1906 – collectivism, democracy, power, strikes, liberty – in two utterly contrasting intellectual registers and rhetorical styles. I would ask Jaurès to choose the menu rather than Clemenceau and hope for a good cassoulet with saucisse de Toulouse and some excellent wines from the Tarn. Since both politicians had a strong aesthetic sense, I would suggest that Monet and Matisse join us for coffee and cigars so we could all discuss modernity in art instead of politics.

Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?

Well anything I say will sound pretentious because logically I can only aspire to write my own books, and those I might have liked to write are thus a measure of my limitations. But if the test is a book that I go back to, taking it up with renewed pleasure, it is perhaps Richard Cobb’s The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1789-1820 (1970) for the wonderful footnotes in which characters walk straight out of the archives and for the combination of brilliant insight and mastery of detail. It reminds me of the boundless pleasure of sitting all day in an archive reading… and since Cobb taught me (like so many others) I can still hear his voice urging me to counteract my schematic tendencies and look for the wrinkles in the evidence!

Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?

Far too many! But among them are Julia Kristeva’s remarkable essays in Pulsions du temps (I recently heard her speak at the BNF and find her writing on language, gender and psychology exhilarating), Homer’s Iliad which I have just re-read (as an historian of the First World War, I find it extraordinary that the founding epic of ‘western’ literature should be an account of siege warfare three thousand years ago) and Palace Walk, the first in the trilogy of novels by Naguib Mahfouz on Egypt in the period of the Great War.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

If you have made it this far, stick to your vision and if history is so important that you just can’t live without it (which is how it has always seemed to me), be prepared if necessary to make the lateral moves (museums, film, radio, teaching) in order to stay in the field. If you are fortunate enough to have a post as an academic historian, you need no advice from me. But I have always enjoyed the privilege of the intellectual freedom that it brings – only you can decide what the exciting new projects are and where they will take you. The excitement is all.

A few quick-fire questions: choose between…

Tocqueville or Marx?

Marx when I was 20, Tocqueville now (am I beginning to sound like Clemenceau?). Tocqueville is ultimately about the gap between the intention and the outcome, which is history’s only real ‘lesson’.

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Archives départementales, definitely, much as I love both the AN and the military archives at Vincennes. Back to Richard Cobb’s intuitions…

Monograph or journal article?

Monograph… it is more autobiographical, has more of yourself in it. But I also love the amount you can say in a tight journal article.

Politics or culture?

Politics when I was 20, culture now (which includes politics!)

Pick a century?

Has to be the 20th century – because of the earlier point about extreme periods of war and revolution. Not that it has a monopoly on these, of course, but the world pre-1945 seems to me, as one of the post-war generation, to be deeply enigmatic. It was only the day before yesterday but in order to understand and explain it, you have to mentally reconstruct it as if it was the early modern period.

Éclair or saucisson?

Éclair when I was 20! Saucisson now, though if you could make it saucisse instead, I’d appreciate it. Back to Jaurès and that cassoulet…


Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you’d like to take part, or suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know!


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