Ben Macintyre: ‘The Brits have been on the wrong side of history many times in the past’

The historian on his new book on Colditz, and Britain’s second World War obsession

Colditz is a very well known story. Why have you written a new book about it?

It is a question I asked myself before taking on the project. There are 73 books on Colditz counting all the French, Polish and reprints. Many of them are much the same book. They all tend to follow the same pattern until recently. The last book that was published on Colditz is 20 years old now.

The ones that were published were always telling the same story of brave British soldiers winning the war again. The reality is that the real story of Colditz has never been told. That myth is central to it. It’s about escapes. It’s about a great deal of courage. It’s about much more interesting things such as class and race and sex and disloyalty and traitors. The short answer is that, yes, there are lots of books on Colditz, but there is no modern book on Colditz. That was my starting point.

In your book you make clear that only officers were allowed to escape and private soldiers were not allowed to do so. What does the story of Colditz tell you about the British class system?


They imported it wholesale from outside into inside the castle. Bear in mind that a lot of these men were young soldiers captured early in the war. Many of them were fresh out of public school. This was an officers’ camp. It was predominantly men of the upper and upper middle-classes in Britain.

One of the discoveries, which I had no idea about before I started researching it because they had been excluded from the story, is that there were ordinary soldiers in Colditz as well. There were privates who were there to serve the officers. You have this absolutely massive class chasm going through the middle of Colditz that nobody writes about. At one stage the orderlies, who were not allowed to escape, went on strike and refused to continue working.

Should we reassess Douglas Bader as a war hero given what we learn about him in your book?

I have a very ambivalent view of Douglas Bader. He was in many ways an extraordinarily brave and brilliant man who raised millions for charities. Because of his disability, because he lost both his legs, he became an extraordinary poster boy for people who struggled with adversity in life. He went from being disabled to an extraordinary fighter pilot.

The only problem with Douglas Bader was that he was a complete bastard and many of the people who work with him did not consider him to be a hero. They found him to be completely intolerable. He was snobbish, he was rude, he was manipulative. He was not above making up his own story too. People like Douglas Bader are a combination of things. It is quite possible to be extremely brave and an extremely unpleasant person, and that was true of Douglas Bader.

There is a perception in Ireland that the British public is only interested in the second World War and know very little about their history otherwise. Is that perception fair?

There is a grain of truth in that. We are obsessed with the second World War. It is still a subject of fascination for me. I’m delighted, of course, because it means we can still sell a lot of books. In some ways the second World War is a subject that the British cleave to because it was the last war that we were involved in where it seemed there was a clear moral justification for it. The Brits were on the right side of it. The Brits have been on the wrong side of history many times in the past. For many people, the second World War is a reassuring place to be in Britain. That said, our history is very complicated. There is also an appetite for seeing the second World War through a more modern lens.

Your father Angus Macintyre was a historian of note who was very interested in Irish history. Can you tell us about him?

He was Irish. His mother was from Co Kildare. My father was brought up in Naas, Co Kildare. My father left Australia at the age of five with his Anglo-Irish mother and was brought up in Ireland until the age of 18, when he went to university. My father had a strange accent. It was part Australian and part Irish. Ireland was deeply embedded in his genes and in his interests. His first book was about Daniel O’Connell. He studied and taught Irish history for many years at Oxford. Ireland was absolutely part of his soul. He was very interested in the Troubles. His father had been Presbyterian. He had that strange experience of being brought up a Protestant in a very Catholic family. His guardian, who was his uncle, was a knight of Malta. He understood the sectarian divide from a personal perspective.

How many of your books have been made into films at this stage?

One at this stage, Operation Mincemeat, but, in that strange way that you wait for a bus for 35 years and the buses come along in droves, there are two more television series coming out this year. There is a television series on the SAS based on my book Rogue Heroes, about the founding of the SAS. That is coming out in October on BBC One. It is made by Steven Knight who wrote Peaky Blinders. It has got that incredible energy to it that the Peaky Blinders stuff has.

Later in the year, there is another six part TV series on ITV with Damien Lewis and Guy Pierce and that’s the Kim Philby story based on my book (A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal). They are also starting work on the Oleg Gordievsky story (The Spy and the Traitor), which is about the KGB spy who escaped from Moscow. There is yet another one in production, which will be The Colditz Story. It is going to TV. Weirdly, it is all suddenly happening. My head is spinning.

I’m sure your bank balance is too.

It’s a little healthier than it was, put it that way. One has to be philosophical about things. Over the years I have walked up and down the hill every time. It blows very hot and cold, the world of film. I used to fantasise about casting these things 20 years ago, but I gave that up.

Your book Operation Mincemeat was recently made into a film with Colin Firth, How much control did you have over the finished film?

The answer is, with that one, is that I was very closely involved in the making of Operation Mincemeat. John Madden (the director) was keen to have my views on it. I went on set many times and I advised on the script. I was much less involved in the SAS project. I have been deeply involved in the Kim Philby project. I am not one of those perfectionists that expects television and movies to be somehow utterly faithful to history. Even documentaries, as we know, are not particularly faithful renditions of history. I’m pretty sanguine about the imaginative requirements of drama. They are meant to be stories.

Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage?

One of my very early books was about an American explorer who was the model for the Man Who Would Be King in the Rudyard Kipling story, which took me deep into the heart of Afghanistan. He was an American Quaker who had himself crowned king in the northern part of the Hindu Kush. My first book (Forgotten Fatherland – the search for Elisabeth Nietzsche) was a sort of a pilgrimage as I went in search of Frederick Nietzsche’s sister in Paraguay, who had set up this bizarre proto-Nazi colony in the middle of the jungle in Paraguay called Neuva Germania. That was a literal pilgrimage.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

I wish I could claim this was mine. I got this from David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, who was a close friend of mine. He said to me very early on when doing these stories: “Fiction or non-fiction, you need to have jeopardy on every page.” You have got to want to turn the page. You have got to keep these things moving. The key question, he always said, is: “What is at stake? What are you inviting the reader to care about?” Is it that this character will get out of Colditz? Is it that Britain will win the war? You can make jeopardy even when you know what is going to happen. Operation Mincemeat is a good example. Ninety-nine per cent of people know what is going to happen, but there is a jeopardy is seeing how something works. You can make suspense out of non-suspense. With these non-fiction stories, it is easy to go down a rabbit hole. The truth is that it doesn’t do it for the reader. The readers are looking for investment. You are writing narrative non-fiction. The emphasis there is on narrative.

Which of your books are your proudest of and why?

I owe a big debt to Agent Zigzag (2007), which was the first book I wrote about espionage. I wasn’t planning to write about espionage. It was simply an accident, really. The declassified files set me off on this journey. I have now written eight books on spying. It has become my fascination and my obsession.

What figure in history do you admire most?

I am always fascinated by ordinary people who do the right thing almost in spite of themselves. The Churchills and the Napoleons of the world are all fascinating, but they are not my kind of people. In the Colditz book, it was a Scottish Jewish dentist called Julius Green who turned out to be a brilliant spy. He was modest, funny and cheerful.

As supreme ruler, which law do you pass or abolish?

It is time to get rid of official secrecy. I would say that because it suits me really well.

Which current TV series would you recommend?

I am currently watching a rather brilliant series with Jeff Bridges. It is an American series called An Old Man. It is not released here yet officially but it is an amazing tale and it is a wonderful story of skulduggery. I am reading Antony Beevor on Russia. I love that. I love the History Matters podcast and I follow them fairly often.

What public event affected you most?

When I was first in America as a reporter, I covered the Waco siege in 1995. I spent nearly two months in Texas in a motel as that extraordinary story unfolded. It really affected me. By the end of it, it felt like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. You could take these events that are so unlikely and turn them into a narrative. That affected my writing very considerably. There are certain stories that lend themselves to being novels, but you don’t have to make a single thing up.

What is the most remarkable place you have visited?

New Germany in Paraguay. Nietzsche took 16 German families with her and they are still there since the 1880s. They are a lost white tribe in the middle of South America. That was the weirdest place I have ever been.

Your most treasured possession.

I have my father’s old fountain pen. He was a great influence on me and he died tragically young. It reminds that in some way he is either laughing or he is helping me out on these things. That’s the one that I would be heartbroken to lose.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

I have a first edition of Wind and the Willows. It’s a perfectly ordinary looking book, but this particular copy belonged to my great-grandfather.

What writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

John le Carre. I’m missing him greatly. I think James Joyce would be fun, but I think he would rather dominate things. I have met Margaret Atwood and I think she would be terrifically good fun at a dinner party. Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe would be great together. They could sort out once and for all who wrote what. We’ll get the earl of Oxford too.

The best and worst things about where you live now.

I have just moved to a new house in Islington. My house backs on to the canal, which I absolutely love. It is a wonderful place to write. It’s very quiet except when the wretched green parakeets come in first thing in the morning and they chatter in the tree just outside my window.

What is your favourite quotation?

Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Your favourite fictional character?

I would like to have two. Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty.

A book to make you laugh?

It is very politically incorrect but Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop still makes me laugh. I read it once a year. “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” Every time I think my writing is getting a bit too lush and a bit too purple, I take another look at Scoop.

A book that might move you to tears?

I was very moved by a Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicholson. It is one of the only non-fiction narratives about a love affair. I found Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father to be very moving. I’ve never read a political biography quite like that. It’s honesty and integrity were profoundly poignant.

Ben Macintyre’s latest book, Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle (Viking, £25), is out now.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times