Niall Ferguson
Professor of History, Harvard University

Whom would you like to interview?

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If you forced his hand, probably Stalin.

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.


Question: Whom would you like to interview, and what would you ask? 

Ferguson: I hate interviewing people because they very rarely level with you.  And so although it would be interesting to sit down with Joseph Stalin and say, “Why on earth did you delude yourself about Nazi plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and nearly destroy your own country?” I don’t think he would tell me the truth. 

On balance, as an historian, I’ve always chosen the dead over the living for the very good reason that their letters and diaries are far preferable to what they might have told me in an interview. 

So if you forced my hand, I would probably elect to spend some time with Stalin, even though he was probably the most frightening man of the 20th century.  Most people who spent time with him were filled with fear throughout.  Still it would be a fascinating experience. 

Recorded on: October 15, 2008