This week’s author, Daniel Butler’s new book The Burden of Guilt: How Germany Shattered the Last Days of Peace is now available on both sides of the pond, so we have taken the opportunity to ask our well-established author a few questions on what made him want to write about such a crucial time in our world history, and what he has uncovered.
The book itself will reveal much about how the First World War truly began, who orchestrated it, and how accountable Imperial Germany really were in destroying over a thousand years of European civilisation.
Daniel, when did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer?
I began reading on an adult level at the age of nine, and by the time I was fifteen I understood that someday I would become an author. It wasn’t a question of “if” but rather “when.” And I knew even then that I would write history—it was already, for me, that fascinating, and I would have to share that fascination.
What is it about writing that appealed to you?
History is very vital, very much “alive” for me, and the opportunity—as well as the ability—to make it so for others, especially for people to whom history had been a dry and dusty subject in school, to do just that is irresistible.
Do you have any advice for budding military history authors wanting to get
Absolutely. First of all, make certain that you really do have something to say. By that I mean be sure that the premise of your book, and the conclusions you reach, actually ADD to the readers’ knowledge of the subject on which you are writing. Second, do your homework! There is no such thing as “too much research.” Don’t try to be “different” just for the sake of being different; avoid sensationalism—it has no place in responsible history; similarly, don’t overinflate a small detail into a major premise: too often that looks like an author is stretching for recognition and damages their credibility. Finally, write with restraint but never be afraid to show your passion for your subject, either to the readers or to a prospective publisher.
How much research did you do for the book? Can you give us some tips on this?
I did literally years of research. The First World War has always been a compelling subject for me, so I began to study it seriously when I was an undergraduate more than thirty years ago. Because of the premise of “The Burden of Guilt”—that the Great War began because of deliberate actions and policies consciously undertaken and by followed by Imperial Germany—I had to be certain that I was as close as possible, in terms of documentation, to the people who made the decisions. Which is why I did as much of my research as possible in places like the National Archives, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the Public Records Office, the Bundesarchiv, the Bibliotheque Nationale, and the Osterreich Nationalbibliothek—if there was a primary source document related to my work, I wanted to have it!
What fascinates you about revisiting the past and bringing it to life in a book?
The attraction is due in no small part to the fact that I realized somewhere early on that who we are, individually and as a nation, or even a race, is the result of our history: everything that has happened up to the present moment has shaped up, whether we realize it or not. And that holds true for individuals, communities, cities, nations, and humanity as a whole. However much we might want to focus on the future, or claim that “all that matters is the present,” it is literally impossible to escape the truth that we are the product of the past. And anyone who tries to believe otherwise or tell you any different is an idiot—and anyone who tries to ignore the past is an even bigger idiot. If we are to understand who and what we are, on whatever level from the individual on up, we can only do so by understanding the past—by understanding history.
Why did you decide to write this book? What prompted you to put this story down on paper?
Because we ARE the product of the past, and because if we are going to understand who and what we are we have to understand history, it’s imperative that we fully understand the pivotal events that gave our present world its direction. The Great War—the First World War—is THE profound event of the Twentieth Century. We are living in its aftermath in a far more real and immediate way than we are any other event of the past one hundred years—including the Second World War. Every major conflict since 1918 has had its roots in the Great War—including the present-day American occupation of Iraq. World War One was the greatest cataclysm in Western history since the fall of Rome, and in four years it swept away fifteen centuries of civilization. To me it was vital, absolutely vital, that the story be set straight, that the First World War was not some ghastly accident of politics and militarism, but rather the result of deliberate decisions taken by men who WANTED a war. Maybe—just maybe—the next time people with similar ambitions appear, we can be a little wise and deny them the authority and the opportunity to launch another such catastrophe.
How long did it take you to write it?
Ah, now that is a tale in itself! I had spent years doing the research, and apparently I had so completely immersed myself in my material, and absorbed it so thoroughly, that the writing took only nine weeks! Actually, it was an exhausting nine weeks, because during that time I did little of anything but write, eat, and sleep—and I got very little of the latter! It was almost as if the book were inside me forcing its own way out—a compulsion, if you will, to write it. Once I started, I couldn’t stop! That was a marked contrast to my usual writing style, where I will spend from six months to a year—sometimes more—on the text.
Where and when do you usually write?
I write at home, at a Starbucks near my home, at the public library, pretty much anywhere I feel the compulsion to write. Laptop computers are wonderful devices—they let me take my notes and research anywhere I go, so that I can write almost anywhere. I do my best writing in the evening and late at night, which means that when I’m actually writing a book, I’m not at all what you would consider one of those dreadfully perky “morning people”!
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
I enjoyed writing it because as I was in the process of writing, I realized that I was getting something off my chest, as it were; that I was saying something which I had felt needed to be said for decades—that the responsibility for the Great War lay squarely on Imperial Germany, her politicians as well as her military leaders. That the war was not some historical fluke, or the product of social/economic/political pressures in Europe as a whole which suddenly exploded. I had an opportunity to set the record straight, and I was able to seize it. Why should you read it? Because it throws a harsh and revealing—but ultimately invaluable—light on two fundamental truths which the Western world is only now painfully relearning: individual, personal responsibility and the consequences of actions. The First World War destroyed an entire generation because specific individuals made decisions that led directly to it—knowing all the while that was where their choices would lead. Read it to learn what can result both from rash action and inaction alike.
Who are your favorite authors, fiction and non-fiction, and why?
My favorite non-fiction authors are Winston Churchill, Walter Lord, and William Manchester, because all of them possessed a mastery of the English language which allowed them to present their subjects with an unparalleled immediacy. When you read them, you are THERE, in whatever place and time about which they are writing.
Fiction? I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I would have to say that J. R. R. Tolkein has to be one of my favorite fiction authors, again for his mastery of the language. “Middle Earth” is a real place because of it. Alistair MacLean was always a favorite of mine—he had a genuine knack for turning a phrase, and books like “HMS Ulysses,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “Where Eagles Dare,” and “Ice Station Zebra” have rarely been equaled and never surpassed. In my not-so-humble opinion, of course.
Have you read anything lately that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
No, not really. I do so much reading for research that I rarely find myself reading for pleasure these days.
How do you relax? Do you have any hobbies or interests?
“Relax”? What’s that? Seriously, I have three hobbies on which I spend far too much time and money, but they’re mine to spend, so no one can gainsay me. First is woodworking, especially building furniture—there is something profoundly satisfying about creating something beautiful and useful out of wood. Second is a passion for building model ships, though in the past few years I’ve cut back on that—I’m running out of room to put the finished ones! And lastly, my 1972 Triumph Spitfire, on which I’m constantly tinkering—but once you get little British two-seaters in your blood, you’re hooked for life!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a biography of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, titled “The Field Marshal;” and then a narrative of the 1815 Waterloo campaign, “Waterloo: The Last Field of Glory.” Hopefully they will be seeing the light of day in the next year or two!