Geoffrey Wawro is not your everyday talk-show host. A specialist in Austrian and Prussian military history and an expert in the German wars of unification, he is a historian and strategist at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. But Sunday mornings Wawro hosts the History Channel's book show Hardcover History, interviewing scholars and policy makers about their most recent literary ventures.
Four years ago, after finishing his second book, Warfare and Society in Europe: 1792Ð1914, Wawro was looking for new ways to use the insights he'd gleaned into culture, society, and politics. The Naval War College offered him a post in its Center for Naval Warfare Studies, which he accepted, but he still sought a wider reach. "I wanted to take the work that I'd done and the understanding I'd gained," he says, "and try to apply it to contemporary and future problems."
Serendipitously, he received an e-mail from a former student saying she'd landed a job at the History Channel. He jokingly e-mailed her back, asking if she could get him on the air. She asked him to send his r}sum}: the station needed someone to talk about German naval history, analyzing the veracity of the film U-571 for an episode of History vs. Hollywood. Afterward the producers offered him a screen test for a book-review show they were developing. "It was dumb luck," he says.
Wawro's guests have included popular historians like the late Stephen Ambrose, as well as policy makers such as Jimmy Carter, Warren Christopher, and Henry Kissinger. "When I interviewed Jimmy Carter I was in the midst of a project on Iran," Wawro says, "and
I was able to talk to him informally about it - just unbeatable insights from the source. Real inside baseball stuff." Talking with Carter, Wawro looked like a history buff who couldn't believe he'd lucked into this great gig.
But when he interviewed renowned British historian and statesman Roy Jenkins - a member of Parliament and a biographer of Winston Churchill - on the subject of revisionist military histories, the two thrust and parried. "As a historian, you want to get in there and start citing monographs, but it's not appropriate on a show like this to start an academic knife fight," Wawro says. "In the end, people don't want to hear my academic cavils, they want to hear my guests."
His nightmare, he says, is the guest with nothing to say. And the problem isn't ghostwriters, or academics who can't tell a story. "It's people who aren't real historians," Wawro says. "They got a good advance and just scribbled out a book. They didn't steep themselves in the history, so it doesn't stick with them. I did my research on the Austro-Prussian war ten years ago, and I can still tell you if someone coughed in the battle of Kaniggr`tz."
Jake Miller is a freelance writer in Boston.