No other leading British historian of the Cold War could draw, as Norman Stone did, on the experience of spending three months in a communist jail. As a research student in Vienna in the early 1960s, he was imprisoned in Bratislava after being caught trying to smuggle a Hungarian dissident across the Czech-Austrian border in his car boot. The man was in love with a girl Stone had met and he had tried to reunite them; the Daily Express dubbed Stone the “Tartan Pimpernel”.
At his best, as in his first book The Eastern Front 1914-17, the multilinguist displayed a mastery of sources in several languages, a flair for technical and economic detail and a shrewd eye for the underlying reality of events, personalities and trends.
He was also fearlessly iconoclastic, whether in his attack on the professional and private reputation of the celebrated historian EH Carr or in insisting that the 1915-17 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was not genocide.
As a fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Jesus College and Trinity College at Cambridge in the 1960s and 1970s and then Worcester College, Oxford in the 1980s and 1990s, Stone made a point of creating a young school of right-wing historians in his own image, including Orlando Figes, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, who recalled: “I was told you have to wear a gown to supervision, but the first thing Norman said was, ‘Take that bloody stupid gown off.’ ”
At the end of one academic year, Stone listed his students as “weedy”, “quite weedy”, “very weedy”. They would timorously enter his office for supervision to be greeted with the fumes of several recently stubbed-out cigarettes mixed with the aroma of a double espresso that would help him through the day after heroic alcohol consumption the night before.
“I want a long detailed analysis,” he told one student, asked to assess why the First World War went on so long. “You can start with the 100-odd volumes of the official British war history.”
A Thatcher Favorite
He was, most unapologetically, a man of the right in an academic field that was populated with leftwingers. As such he was the favourite historian of Margaret Thatcher and especially useful to her as an adviser on foreign policy and a speechwriter during her premiership. In turn, he admired her because: “Nobody is interested in John Major or David Cameron, or any of these transitional nobodies. Mrs T stood up and turned this country around.”
He was among the coterie of historians that Thatcher invited to Chequers for a seminar on German reunification. With wartime memories still strong, she feared the enlarged Germany would become a “Fourth Reich”. Stone sought to reassure her, arguing that in taking over East Germany, West Germany was only getting “six Liverpools”.
Chequers was a relatively agreeable environment for Stone from what he viewed as the oppressive atmosphere of Oxford, where, according to his former student Petronella Wyatt, he “loathed the place as petty and provincial and for its adherence to the Marxist-determinist view of history”. It did not help that he had a “horrible little office” and had to share a bathroom with a feminist philosopher.
At the end of one academic year, Stone listed his students as “weedy”, “quite weedy”, “very weedy”.
Stone also celebrated Charles de Gaulle and General Pinochet and gave vent to pet hates such as the welfare state, men with beards and the smoking ban — he did once give up smoking but it turned him, he said in his gravelly Glaswegian brogue, into an “ugly drunk”. Edward Heath was his bête noire. Stone dismissed him as a “flabby-faced coward” along with another former prime minister Sir Anthony Eden. Sir Anthony, he said, was like a former Guards officer who, “through force of circumstance, must earn a living selling vacuum cleaners. Heath was the same, although an NCO.”
Stone’s waspish views made him a lucrative second career in newspapers and television, which enabled him to supplement what he regarded as a paltry £27,000-a-year academic salary. He reckoned that in the decade after 1985 his media work brought in £500,000.
When working on one of his columns at The Sunday Times, his editor would place a bottle of whisky out of his reach with the promise that he could get his hands on it when he finished his column. Stone would finish his piece with alacrity.
His enemies deprecated his later academic output as thin and weakened by prejudice, particularly his Cold War history, The Atlantic and its Enemies. For his part, Stone grew disillusioned with British academia and — perhaps appropriately — at the dawning of the New Labour government in 1997, he began a self-imposed exile in Turkey. He held a chair in international relations at Bilkent University near Ankara, where he felt his talents were given appropriate financial reward.
A chain-smoker who once had to leave a party for a cigarette despite wearing five Nicorette patches, he knew he would fit in as soon as he touched down; as he walked through the airport he saw six policemen “grimly smoking away” beneath a sign saying No Smoking. As a lifelong challenger of convention, he felt an instant bond.
His editor would place a bottle of whisky out of his reach with the promise that he could get his hands on it when he finished his column.
Stone would finish his piece with alacrity.
He was born in Kelvinside, Glasgow, in 1941. The next year his father, a Spitfire pilot, was killed in a training accident and he was raised by his mother, a teacher, Presbyterian and Labour voter. She was tough and he was devoted to her. “Family closes round,” he recalled years later, “so I wasn’t conscious of anything. But the point came in my late thirties when I began to realise what damage it had done. Not having your daddy is a very bad thing. If I read about women bringing up children on their own, deliberately making babies, I get very angry indeed. I think, ‘Why don’t they just buy a dolly?’ ”
With financial support from the charity set up by his father’s squadron, he attended Glasgow Academy. Brought to history by a zest for the military side, he also developed an early interest in central Europe. Although he won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in modern languages, he switched to history after a few weeks.
His ability as a linguist started at school with French, German and Spanish. He learnt Hungarian while a research student in Vienna, taught himself Russian during a lectureship at Cambridge and later added Polish, Italian and Serbo-Croat.
All-Night Poker Games
Thanks in part to all-night poker games he gained only a 2:1 in part one, but compensated with a first in his finals. From 1962 he spent three years as a research student in Vienna and Budapest, examining archives on the Austro-Hungarian army in the run-up to 1914 for a PhD that was never completed. His adventure with the Czech border police won him brief stardom.
In 1965 he returned to Caius as a research fellow, soon marrying Nicole Aubry, whom he had met in Vienna. She was from Haiti and the niece of Papa Doc’s finance minister. Mixed marriages were still frowned upon and it took him six months to tell his mother.
In 1967, having won a state grant to learn Russian, he became a university lecturer in Russian history. In 1971 he became a fellow of Jesus College and director of studies in history. He also made strong demands on himself, though his first book, The Eastern Front 1914-1917, did not emerge until 1975. It won the Wolfson prize for history and netted £4,000, establishing him at a stroke as one of the country’s leading young historians. Meticulously researched, although Stone had no access to Russian archives, the book filled an important gap in the historiography of the First World War and remained the standard work for at least two decades.
In the mid-1970s his marriage began to break down. “It was a wonderful disaster,” he later recalled. His wife did not easily adjust to a Cambridge academic ambience or share her husband’s passions. One of their two sons, Sebastian, was autistic, adding to their problems. The other, Nick, is a bestselling thriller writer. They divorced, acrimoniously, in 1977 and he lost custody of the children.
His alcohol consumption was legendary, especially red wine. His student Niall Ferguson recalled coming into a tutorial once to find him flat drunk on the floor and Stone once appeared on radio “having drink taken”, but scorned the presenter for suggesting that it affected his expertise. On occasions it led to physical collapse and threatened to derail his career.
Stone also enjoyed an energetic sex life. One female undergraduate recalled: “He has this belief that women will never understand eastern Europe. We ended up having an affair.” He settled down in 1982 with his second wife, Christine Booker, former wife of the journalist Christopher Booker. Herself a journalist, she later became a barrister. They had a son, Rupert, who is also a journalist.
A Notably Open Marriage
His long marriage with Christine, with whom he owned a house in Oxford until her death, was a notably open one with regular ménage à deux, trois, quatre “whatever”, according to a friend.
Early in 1983 Stone launched a no-punches-pulled attack in the London Review of Books on a fellow historian, EH Carr, who died on the day of publication. Carr had won praise for a multi-volume history of the Soviet Union, but to Stone he had been an apologist for a brutal regime that had sent millions to their death in the name of modernisation. He also attacked Carr personally, labelling him a “dreadful monster” for ill-treating his wives.
His academic masters, meanwhile, argued that his media involvements and his heavy drinking meant that he was neglecting his academic duties.
Certainly, outside interests took more of his time. He became a television personality, making documentaries including one on Russia and a look at the Nazi theft of art treasures. He interviewed Albert Speer on Hitler’s cache of paintings, the day Speer died. He made videos on Russian history. He appeared in French and German TV programmes, talking freely in those languages, as few other British historians were able to do.
As a journalist he moved far and wide for copy. The communist collapse in eastern Europe was an obvious subject for his punditry. His predictions were often right. Months before the Berlin Wall came down, he saw East Germany as finished and he predicted that Mikhail Gorbachev would be back within days during the brief attempt at a neo-Stalinist coup in August 1991. He wrote and broadcast extensively on the collapse of Yugoslavia, offering a pro-Muslim line, like many others, but also a pro-Croatian one.
Meanwhile, his academic output all but dried up and for more than 20 years he published no original, book-length work. A study of the USSR’s handling of reactions to Hitler’s death was one of several aborted projects. For it, Stone burrowed in the newly opened KGB archives and satisfied himself that he had held Hitler’s skull.
A few weeks after arriving in his adopted home of Turkey he was asked why he was the only foreigner who never complained about Ankara. In his answer he managed to insult Scotland and Turkey in the same breath: “You have to understand that, in the depth of my being, I’m a Scotsman, and I feel entirely at home in an enlightenment that has failed.”
At Bilkent he ran a centre devoted to Turkish-Russian studies. He embraced Turkish life and culture with enthusiasm, although he kept his home in Oxford.
A long period of authorial silence ended in 2007 with World War One: A Short History. Shoehorning a vast subject into fewer than 200 pages, it was widely praised as a fresh and challenging treatment. But The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War (2010), although far more ambitious, was deliberately opinionated and provocative and a disappointment to those who remembered the scholarly rigour of his early books. There followed Turkey: A Short History (2011), which sought to destroy common western myths about the country. Some thought Stone was too much in thrall to his adopted land to acknowledge the darker episodes.
When in Turkey at the time of the anti-Erdogan coup, he posted on Twitter that he had been woken in bed by the noise of “the good guys’ ” aircraft going overhead. When the coup failed he rapidly moved to Budapest, where he was writing a history of Hungary.
However, part of this reason for moving was that the university in Ankara tried to ban him from drinking. When he retreated to Budapest he took with him a younger male Turkish student, who became his partner, looking after him as his health declined.
He felt at home in Hungary despite being a longstanding Eurosceptic who voted for Brexit and believed that the EU should never have allowed mass immigration.
When asked when he was happiest he answered: “When I’m smoking, reading and writing, and, er, with a glass of red wine — I’m careful these days.”
But not that careful. On being told of his death, a former (married) mistress of his said she felt devastated, but was not totally surprised as of late he “was drinking three bottles a day”.
Professor Norman Stone, historian, was born on March 8, 1941. He died in his sleep on June 18, 2019, aged 78.