What attracted me to the Department of International History in 1994 was the uniqueness that still distinguishes it. In the wider world of historical studies since the ‘sixties the discipline founded by Thucydides the Athenian – the analytical study of international politics and warfare – has become an unloved minority pursuit. Worse still, much of the profession has come to view efforts to know the causes of things [Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas] as a sign of irredeemable intellectual backwardness. But not here; we are not slaves to fashion.
My overriding historical objective, pursued from my graduate-student days, has been to understand the cultural, political, economic, and military-organizational roots of the cumulative radicalization toward genocide and national suicide of the two “western” dictatorships, Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany.
My first book, on why and how Benito Mussolini plunged Italy into the Second World War and led it to catastrophic defeat, rested on two years’ work with notebook and 35mm camera in Italian, German, British, and United States archives. It attacked with élan a variety of quasi-apologetic interpretations of the Fascist regime and its many wars – Renzo De Felice and his protégés in Italy and the many German historians who stoutly denied the validity of comparison, from a bizarre inverted national pride, between the Italian dictatorship and its even more murderous ally. It applied to the Italian dictatorship, with a twist, approaches already proven in the German case. And it took seriously both the military evidence and the central, fundamental, constitutive role of war in both regimes – a position still not universally shared, especially in Italy and among cultural historians.
The resulting insights into the dialectical interaction of domestic and foreign policy in the two cases, and the military-organizational cultures that had shaped both the cadres of the Fascist and National Socialist movements and the strategic options available to the dictators, set me to planning a comparative history of the two regimes. It sought to tease out causation in each case by matching up the many striking parallels and equally striking disparities. Numerous preliminary studies from the mid-1980s onward clarified, among other issues, how the distinctive Prusso-German invention of “mission tactics” – the demand for thinking aggressiveness and action without awaiting orders – intersected with Hitler’s social promises to achieve the suicidal dynamism denied both to the Italian dictatorship and to Germany’s adversaries.
The project’s first volume – To the Threshold of Power – appeared in 2007-08. It sketched the national backgrounds – societies, polities, and national mythologies – and the crises that made the dictatorships possible and determined what sort of dictatorships they could be. The second volume – in progress – will carry the analysis of the regimes from their tentative beginnings through violent expansion to common ruin in 1943-45.
I have likewise pursued over the years a related but more general interest: the history and theory of strategy, and have co-edited and contributed to two widely translated essay collections: The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, and The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 – works that appear to have attracted particular attention in East Asia, for reasons obvious to anyone who follows contemporary events.
Education: 1967: Harvard College (B.A. magna cum laude in History); 1968: Infantry Officer Candidate School, Fort Benning, GA (commissioned 2LT, Infantry); 1972: Yale University (M.A. in History); 1977: Yale University (Ph.D. in History)
Previous University Teaching: The University of Rochester, US, 1975-94: instructor to full professor and department chairman.
Professor MacGregor Knox was Stevenson Professor of International History from 1994 to 2010.