Book Festival: Rana Mitter | Norman Stone
Edinburgh International Book Festival Scotsman review: Rana Mitter and Norman Stone, reviewed by Susan Mansfield
Here’s something not many people in Europe know: the Second World War began in 1937. Or it did if you live in China, which was locked in a bitter conflict with Japan from 1937-45, in which between 12 million and 14 million Chinese died. History, of course, always depends on your perspective, and Rana Mitter, professor of the history and culture of China at Oxford, opened up a fresh perspective on events we thought we knew.
There is a variety of reasons why the “Chinese face” of the Second World War is little known. On the heels of the war, Mao’s Communist party crushed Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists, burying his role as a war leader. Many ordinary Chinese – particularly in his capital, Chongxing, which was relentlessly shelled by the Japanese over a period of years – were neither able to celebrate their victory nor commemorate their dead.
It is only in the last decade that Chinese archives from the period, including Chiang Kai-Shek’s diaries, have become available to scholars, and Mitter was among the first to study them. He is a dynamic and illuminating speaker who was able to open up, in conversation with fellow historian Trevor Royle, a chapter of 20th century history almost unknown to many in the West.
The implications of this are vast, not only because it paved the way for the Communist triumph against a nationalist party “hollowed out” by war, but for the way in which it shaped the alliances which were forged across the world. China, our ally in 1945, five years later had been transformed into our Cold War enemy. The implications continue today as “unfinished business” between China and Japan influences world events, particular as China grows ever more powerful and flexes its own muscles in south-east Asia.
Later, Scots-born historian Norman Stone, a professor at Bilkent University in Turkey and an expert in 20th century European history, brought the focus back to Europe. A former foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, he was revealing on the way in which the events of the Second World War shaped her thinking. A great admirer of Churchill, she harboured a distrust of Germany, though she accurately observed the country’s eagerness (after two wars in which they had been the aggressor) to support the European agenda.
While his anecdotes were illuminating – a meeting between Thatcher and Chancellor Kohl in which the German leader was so dull that the Prime Minister began to swap anecdotes with his interpretor – Stone spent perhaps a fraction longer than was comfortable defending Thatcher’s 1980s achievements.
Originally published in The Scotsman