Day by day we march deeper into the formless morass of the 21st century and move further away from the epic landscape of the 20th. The titanic clash of ideologies and disintegration of empires that characterised the last century have had their grand histories written. The stories we want to hear now are the individual ones: the tales of ordinary people surviving – or not – the worst rip currents imaginable.
Two prominent historians of the 20th century, Sheila Fitzpatrick and Mark Mazower, have deep family connections with these extraordinary events and in their books try to do justice to the lives of loved ones. Fitzpatrick is a celebrated historian of the Soviet Union. In the dog days of that short-lived entity, her approach to telling the USSR’s history by looking at the picture on the ground and the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens, rather than the great political figures in the Kremlin and the House on the Embankment, put her at odds with Cold Warrior historians who were only interested in the easier job of documenting the evil political system that was Stalinism. The story she tells in Mischka’s War is that of her husband, the prominent theoretical physicist Michael (known also as Mischka and Mikelis) Danos, and his wandering westwards as the Second World War consumed his birthplace, Riga in Latvia.
Mark Mazower is a prizewinning scholar of 20th-century Balkan history. In What You Did Not Tell, he recounts the story of his grandfather Max, a Russian-Jewish radical who in 1909 left his birthplace, Vilna, and a large extended family behind and washed up on the shores of Hampstead Heath. There he became middle class and taught secrecy by example to Mazower’s father, the man, referred to in the title, who did not tell. This is a family history uncovered after his father’s death.
The Russian Revolution, the Second World War, the Holocaust and the bombing of Dresden provide the background to both books. Almost as astonishing as these events are the reconnections afterwards of family members who somehow managed to survive it all. This is utterly compelling material. The challenge for both these academic historians is to break free of the rigorous rules of good scholarship and the impartial writing voice to draw readers into their tales. Writing with freedom and emotion is not so easy when you have spent decades writing with precision and dispassion.
Mazower has a greater problem telling his story than Fitzpatrick. He’s inherited a Russian novel of a family background, a story whose outline could be adapted into a multi-part Netflix drama but is impossible to squeeze into 350 pages. Grandfather Max was a Bundist, as members of the Jewish socialist party in pre-revolutionary Russia were known. He belonged to the same generation as Lenin (and, Mazower is certain, rubbed shoulders with him), Martov and other central figures of the Russian Revolution. It seems likely that he learned the habits of secrecy as a courier and organiser for the group, racing around Russia in the first decade of the last century.
After making his way to England in 1909, he found employment as a travelling salesman for a typewriter manufacturer and was sent back to the Russian Empire. He was present in Russia in the chaotic years after the revolution. He later settled into silent domesticity with a Russian-Jewish wife on the Holly Lodge Estate in Highgate, between the Heath and the cemetery where Marx is buried. There were deeper family secrets, all of which seem to have been hidden by Mazower’s father and which Mazower, using his forensic skills, does his best to uncover.
Fitzpatrick’s book is an attempt to bring her beloved husband, who died in 1999, back to life. The book revolves around the story of Mischka and his mother, Olga, a formidable woman. The problem she has is that her husband was a scientist. His diaries are therefore precise and detailed, not overflowing with a sense of what it felt like to be in the middle of a firestorm, or to be moving desperately ahead of the Red Army as it swept towards the Elbe, or to simply receive communications from family in Riga as it was abandoned, and then retaken, by the Soviets.
His description of discovering a Holocaust killing field on the outskirts of Riga while cross-country skiing because he noticed changes in the topography of the track is detached and matter of fact. Didn’t he notice that most of Riga’s Jews had disappeared earlier? Where did he think they had gone in the middle of winter? His father may well have been Jewish. Didn’t that have some impact on him?
She quotes extensively from his near-contemporary account of the bombing of Dresden, which he survived by luck. When the attack began he was at a party with a girlfriend and tried to get her back to her home on the other side of the city. They got as far as a park on a little hill. He describes the fires around them with the dispassion of a bombardier looking through his gun sight.
Both these books offer compelling testimony. But in the end neither Fitzpatrick nor Mazower is able to fully orchestrate their family stories into a full symphony. Professional habits are hard to break.