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Historical Novels And Learning From The Past, by Paul Dowswell

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m very keen to spark an interest for the past in the teenagers I write for. The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I’m convinced this is one of the most important arguments for teaching history – either in a classroom or indirectly in historical fiction.

The invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 is a classic example: every single invasion of this place has resulted in disaster for the invaders – be they Imperial Britain, Soviet Russia or the United States. I think with horror of the young neo-Nazis in Greece, Poland, Russia and Germany and can’t begin to understand how the grandchildren of citizens who suffered so cruelly under this most repugnant of regimes can even begin to think this is a good way of running a country.

I’m a writer rather than a trained teacher, so I can’t bring any pedagogic rigour to this discussion, but I do know a lot of kids are bored with history – and they tell me this when I visit their classroom. I’m puzzled by this because I know history teachers put a massive amount of effort into making the subject exciting. I also know most kids will happily watch a movie about World War Two, or Ancient Rome, or Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London. History is everywhere in entertainment for children and young adults – cinema, TV drama, theatre, video games, and novels…

I love history because I think it can be as strange as fantasy or science fiction but it really happened. Hitler and the Nazis, to take one example, have inspired all sorts of fantasy and science fiction stories – Dr Who’s greatest enemy, the Daleks, were directly inspired by the Nazis, as were Darth Vader’s Stormtroopers in the Star Wars films.

History is full of epic, fascinating stories: everything from the Ancient Egyptian myths to the witchcraft trials in Colonial America, or the forced imposition of new political ideologies on whole societies such as in Soviet Russia… What’s so amazing is that people believed in and supported these things at the time.

Harking back to my opening point, I believe, very strongly, that we need to look to history to remind us of the consequences of political and religious bigotry, intolerance and fanaticism: the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s disastrous management of the Chinese economy, the witchcraft craze in Medieval Europe… I hope these kinds of terrible events will never happen again but I suspect they will, in one form or another. Even in my recent lifetime we’ve witnessed ghastly massacres in former-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and bizarre religious fascism in Afghanistan.

Freedom of thought is a vital aspect of human health, happiness and progress. Hitler, Stalin, the Inquisition and the Taliban were and are all forces directly opposed to it. What they all have in common is an absolute belief that theirs is the only true way of thinking about the world. This is a terrifying viewpoint at the best of times and it becomes very dangerous when it’s allied with absolute power.

All of us who write historical fiction are writing to entertain our readers. However, I also hope that Young Adult novels like mine (Auslander, Sektion 20 and The Cabinet of Curiosities), the wealth of brilliant books on the Nazi Era (from Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Morris Gleitzman’s series), and the abundance of other titles dealing with the grim history of human oppression, will help to innoculate readers against the perils of political and religious fanaticism.


Paul Dowswell’s author website:

Paul Dowswel’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

AuslanderSektion 20The Cabinet of CuriositiesPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor     The SacrificeThe Salt RoadThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. This fascinating post, reminds me of another book “The Pied Piper” by Neville Shute that I read in my early teens. This book had a profound effect on me and I still remember it clearly 40 years later. This was probably one of the books that influenced me to read more about the past. Thank you for a very interesting article/post.

    May 17, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    I agree with many of the points. History itself is far stranger than most fiction could ever hope to be. I do differ, though, with the author’s argument that we only look to history to prevent the bad stuff from happening again. We should also be inspired by history for all the good and positive changes over our history and people who brought those changes about.

    May 17, 2013
    • Paul didn’t write that we only look to history to prevent the bad stuff happening again. He wrote: “I’m convinced this is one of the most important arguments for teaching history – either in a classroom or indirectly in historical fiction.” The underlying point is that knowledge of history helps avoid the bad stuff, which people want to do when they value the good stuff.

      Although there is an emphasis on learning about how things have gone wrong in the past and avoiding such things being repeated, the aim of the article was not to comprehensively cover all the ways in which familiarity with history can be beneficial. I’m sure that Paul would also appreciate the value of being inspired by good things from history.

      May 18, 2013
  3. Hi Carol and dhhanni. Thank you for your comments.

    And thanks Steve – absolutely.

    I’m a little wary of the ‘good stuff’ too – because that can be clouded in myth and used for dubious political purpose. On a fairly mild level I’m thinking of the glorification of ‘Victorian Values’ during the Thatcher era. I marvel at the achievements of the Victorians, not least the beautiful houses they built in their hundreds of thousands, but this was also an era of massive hypocrisy, especially among ‘the great and the good’. On a darker note, Hitler and Mussolini drew on idealised depictions of Medieval Germanic Warriors and Ancient Rome to give a noble sheen to their own brutal regimes.

    May 18, 2013

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