Faculty Q&A: Adam Hochschild on How History is Written

Nancy Murr

Adam Hochschild is an acclaimed historian and a long-time writing teacher at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award and is a three-time winner of the Gold Medal for Nonfiction of the California Book Awards. He is teaching "Behind the Scenes for History Lovers" with us this winter. 

In your upcoming course, you're going to discuss how you came to write four of your best-selling books. Do you have a favorite among them or is that akin to asking if you have a favorite child?

I think of the four books I’ll talk about, my favorite is To End All Wars, which is about the First World War. It certainly took more out of me than any of the others. I worked on it for six years. The subject had been a long-time obsession of mine. I think I found a way of talking about it in a way very few people had done before. I framed it not just as a war between two sides but as a war between two kinds of people — those who felt that fighting was a noble and necessary crusade and those who felt it was absolute madness and would remake the world for the worse in every way. And I focused on that struggle in one particular country — Great Britain.

Why Britain?

Because it had, in many ways, the most vocal and interesting anti-war movement with some remarkable people in it, like the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Edmund Dene Morel, the crusading journalist whom I wrote about in King Leopold’s Ghost – both of whom went to prison. Plus, the British are just so eccentric. One of my favorite characters in the book was a guy who was an anti-war activist, and his previous job had been as a circus lion tamer. Now, in the United States, you'd find circus lion tamers and you'd find anti-war activists, but you would never find somebody who was both. 

I heard you on NPR recently talking about Congo and your book King Leopold's Ghost. As a historian, are you at all surprised by what’s happening in Congo today with the terrible human cost of cobalt mining? 

No, I'm not. I think we shouldn't be surprised that so much of Africa is having so many troubles today. Roughly 80-90% of the continent was colonized by European powers, and the aim of the colonial system was to extract as much wealth as possible and to govern from Europe.

With few exceptions — the British colonies got a little bit better towards the end of colonial rule  — there was no attempt to build democratic institutions where people would learn to govern themselves. And the Congo was really the most spectacular example, because it was enormously wealthy — a huge territory in the middle of the continent. 

As late as the beginning of 1959, the Belgians were thinking, “Well, maybe independence in 30 years.” And there actually was a 30-year plan for that, but then the territory was shaken by huge demonstrations. 

Finally, in mid-1960, the Belgians agreed to have the territory become independent, which was happening all over Africa. But there was no preparation. For example, there were fewer than three dozen Congolese who had University degrees. Quite deliberately, the Belgians had constructed a good primary education system, educating people up through eighth grade, because it's more efficient to have workers who are literate. But they had made almost no preparation for educating people beyond that point. And when you have that kind of situation in a country that's as big as the United States east of the Mississippi, and that still had many foreign corporations – Belgian, British, American — hungry for its natural resources, it was a recipe for trouble. Five years later, there was a military coup, and Mobutu Sese Seko took power with the full support of the United States. He ruled for 30 or so years and exploited his country even more ruthlessly than the Belgians had. 

It’s been a very unhappy scene. I've been there a couple times in recent years, and seen it firsthand. 

What motivates your choice of subjects? 

In the case of King Leopold's Ghost, it was when I came across several things. One was an extraordinary statistic about the huge loss of life during the period of colonial rule. And then a scene with which I begin the book that happens in the late 1890s: There's a young Englishman who is employed by a shipping company which has a monopoly on all cargo traffic between the Congo and Belgium. Because he's bilingual in English and French, his company sends him to the Belgian Port of Antwerp every couple of weeks to check on the ships coming from Congo, tally up the cargo, and then supervise the loading so they can sail back. He begins to notice that these ships are arriving in Belgium filled to the hatch covers with enormously valuable cargoes of ivory and rubber, but when they turn around and sail back to Africa, they don't carry any trading goods to be exchanged for this stuff – no merchandise. They're carrying soldiers, firearms, and ammunition. 

Standing on that dockside in Antwerp, he realized he was looking at evidence of a slave labor system of some sort, thousands of miles away. And the man, Edmund Dene Morel, turned himself into the great British investigative journalist of his time. He worked tirelessly for a dozen years to put this story on the world’s front pages. And why a hundred people haven't written books about him, I do not know. But I was off and running as soon as I saw that scene which he writes about. I've been to that dockside at Antwerp, I tried to find the place where he was standing. 

Sometimes the motivation is more personal. I got interested in the Spanish Civil War which I write about in Spain in our Hearts because I knew several veterans, American volunteers, who fought there. They had amazing stories.

Sounds like you've always loved history, particularly the characters and stories.

Yes. I think we have to know what's happened in the past in order to understand the present. You can't understand Africa today without knowing about colonialism. You can't understand much of what's happening in Europe today without knowing about the First World War. 

What’s your favorite part of the process? The research? The writing?

My favorite part is doing the research, which I could do just endlessly. Because you're listening to people's voices from the past. You're looking for letters, diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts of things, and that's so interesting. I could just keep doing that forever. Then the hard part is writing the first draft. And then by the time you get to the third or fourth draft, then it becomes fun again, because it's like polishing something whose shape is already there. If I could just do the research, get somebody else to write the first couple of drafts, and just come in and polish the last one, that would be the ideal.

How has research changed now that so many resources are available online? 

It all depends on the subject matter. If something had happened in the 18th century, some materials will be online, but you're probably going to have to be going through actual archives, which is a very interesting process. 

There's a great pleasure in taking a hundred-year-old letter out of its envelope and opening it up and reading handwritten stuff. And nobody's ever going to digitize all of those things – for famous people, yes, but otherwise not. 

I remember when I was researching Bury the Chains at the Quaker Library in London, looking at a little leather-bound pocket notebook that a traveling abolitionist organizer had had with him on a trip to Scotland in 1793. He had noted down each day the conditions of the roads that his stagecoach traveled over, the people he met and some of the things they told him, and whether he felt his arguments were having an impact on them. It's wonderful fun to look at a document like that and think, you know, ‘I'm holding in my hand the same thing that somebody was writing in more than 200 years ago.’ That's a huge thrill, and the internet will never replace that.

Are there books you've written that you wished you’d tackled differently?

I would like to rewrite every single book. No question about that. I keep thinking of things I would do slightly differently, none of them in a huge major way, but little things. Not so much additional information I find, but I just think ‘I could have expressed this better’, ‘I could have organized this more suspensefully’  — that kind of thing. Hopefully, as a writer, you get a little bit better at what you do as you get older, and then you realize, ‘Whoa, that me of 40 years ago could have done this better back then’.