Military historian and TV presenter Dan Snow has just brought out a new iPad app that tells the story of the Second World War. MHM Editor Neil Faulkner talked to him about the project and his approach to military history.
What is the idea behind the new app?
We wanted to do something that really made use of what the iPad can do. So this couldn’t be a book. It’s not just a lot of text and some pictures that you could publish in book format. Essentially it’s a timeline that you can whizz along with your hands, but you can zoom in on particular events, filling the whole screen with the detail – maps, pictures, video clips.
To give an example, we’ve got strategic level maps that show the fronts moving over time, so you can take a particular month and year and see at a glance the progress on the Eastern Front, in North Africa, in the Pacific island-hopping, and so on. So this really is a very flexible way of looking at the whole of the Second World War.
It’s been out for a month or so, but there has been no great publicity blitz. If people like it, they will tell their friends about it and it will sell by word of mouth. I think they will like it because we’ve put a huge amount of effort into it. But it has to live or die on its merits.
You are really an 18th century specialist, so why did you choose the Second World War as the subject for the app?
Well, it would be great to do the history of the Anglo-French clash during the long 18th century, and maybe that will be something for the future. But we wanted to roll out this new idea of doing a timeline as an iPad app, so it seemed best to go for the subject around which there is the greatest interest and the one for which we have the richest material available.
Let’s talk a bit more about the 18th century. Why has that always been your main interest?
It was partly accident. I studied traditional history at Oxford, and I had two excellent tutors for this period. And I suppose it’s always had a romantic appeal – going back to boyhood impressions from reading Treasure Island, visiting HMS Victory, and looking at pictures of musket-carrying redcoats going into action.
But now, of course, I realise that ‘the long 18th century’ is all about the birth of the modern world. Britain was the centre of everything – the financial revolution, modern representative democracy, free-market capitalism, the building of empire.
It’s encapsulated by something Bismarck is supposed to have said late in life when asked what was the single most important thing about the last 1,000 years. The fact that North America speaks English, he replied. He knew that seismic struggles of empire were to come – and when they did, America would be on the same side as Britain.
Why was this? Because of what happened in the 18th century. That’s when it was decided. That’s when North America became English-speaking. Just think of the significance of it. Just think of US lawyers today poring over a US Constitution which is essentially a British document.
How did you come to be both a military historian and a TV presenter?
I’ve been very lucky indeed. From the age of zero, I’ve had phenomenal support from my family. I heard a lot of history stories as a child. My grandpa was in the Canadian Navy during the war, working on the North Atlantic convoys, and he used to tell stories. I also had an aunt who was a historian and she wrote books about political history at the time of the First World War. And my dad has always been ultra-keen on military history.
He was basically a political journalist, of course, but as ITN’s diplomatic correspondent he covered Cyprus,Vietnam, the Middle East, and this meant that his amateur interest in military history became mixed with his professional work, because he really wanted the background and context.
Then about ten years ago, the BBC suggested a father-and-son team presenting a military history documentary. My dad said no at first, but he later agreed when it was specifically suggested that we should do something for the 60th anniversary of El Alamein.
That’s how it started. I was going to do a PhD, but the TV opportunity came up, and since then I’ve been doing TV, radio, and books.
Military history has a rather right-wing ‘boys’ toys’ aura. How do you respond that?
I have no obsession with hardware and the technical side of things. I’m not especially interested in planes, cars, gadgets, and so on. I’m only interested in military gear in the Clausewitzian sense of how it affects what happens on the battlefield. And the fact is that combat is an enormous part of human experience and history.
War has profoundly influenced everything around us – in the case of Britain, the fact we speak English, that London is the capital, and that we are an island of nations. Everything has been shaped by military history.
And you see humanity at its most extreme, where every human response is magnified manifold, from great bravery and self-sacrifice through to brutality, torture, mass murder, every imaginable atrocity.
Take Omaha Beach, where I’ve just been working. Think about what happened here. You have groups of 19-year-olds being disgorged onto a beach in line with a faulty plan – just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong – and they are sent there to fight other 19-year-olds with whom they have no argument. Who sends them? Old men who have argued with each other. And what is the result? Blood and slaughter and young men scarred for life.
Or take the Eastern Front, where every time the Germans entered a Ukrainian village, they committed atrocities that would be headline news around the world if it happened now. But they were doing this stuff routinely every day.
How could anyone not be interested in trying to understand this? How could anyone not be fascinated?
You sound anti-war. Are you?
I feel myself getting more anti-war over time. As an 18th century specialist, contact with the Second World War has this effect. It was so relentlessly terrible. Especially, I feel, the Nazis’ refusal to give up, even when it was obvious they had lost the war. Perhaps their greatest crime was the years of nihilist warfare they imposed upon the world after it was clear that carrying on was futile.
I meet the guys who were there – like the Omaha veterans – and they are really damaged. So yes, I’m anti-war. But I also agree with the idea that he who wants peace should prepare for war – because the one thing worse than war is the unrestricted use of violence by an aggressive power.