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the Gauntlet

Holger Herwig's history of the hostile

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From travels in Germany through to prolific writing, deep-sea diving and movie premiers, Dr. Holger H. Herwig has led a fascinating academic career.

Originally trained in German social history, Herwig received his BA from the University of British Columbia and then went to study at the State University of New York, where he was awarded both his MA and PHD. Herwig has taught at the University of Calgary since 1989--as soon as the U of C received a PHD program in military history--following a 17-year stint at Vanderbilt in Tennessee.

Herwig--who has published 16 books to date--was awarded a Canada Research Chair in 2001, which was recently renewed for an additional seven years. CRCs are distinguished research positions given to those at the top of their field.

"[The Canada Research Chair] was arranged through then-dean of the faculty of Social Sciences Dr. Stephen Randall," said Herwig. "A person can't apply for a Canada Research Chair, you have to be recommended by your university. The initiative for that came from Randall."

Since meeting fellow U of C professor David Bercuson--who largely influenced Herwig's entry into the military and twentieth century field--the two have teamed up on a number of books. From these, Herwig and Bercuson have worked with the History Channel to produce three documentaries. The highlight, though, came in 2002, when James Cameron--writer/director of many films including the Terminator franchise and the legendary Titanic--took their book Deadly Seas: The Destruction of the Bismarck and turned it into a documentary for Discovery Channel.

"He invited my wife and me to Washington, to the Smithsonian for the world premier," said Herwig. "That, without question, is the highlight of my career."

While filming the documentary, Cameron took Herwig and Bercuson on a voyage to the mid-Atlantic, where they dove down 4,800 metres to view the wreck of the Bismarck.

"[It was] scary, really scary," said Herwig. "Thirteen hours down and back up, no toilet on board. It was one of those Russian Mir submersibles. There are only five of them in the world that can go to that kind of depth and two are on this Russian vessel: the Keldysh."

Reaching this level of success has not made Herwig complacent. He is currently working on four different books. Two of the books he is writing by himself, one on the German U-boat campaign in the Caribbean, the other on the battle of the Marne. Herwig explained that the inspiration for a book is only a small part of the work. For three, month-long trips each year, his research takes him to Freiburg, Germany, where the country's military archives are located.

"[It's] a delightful place between the black forest and the vineyards of Alsace and the Swiss border, the southernmost, westernmost corner of Germany--great wines, great Austrian cuisine," said Herwig.

Herwig explained that his book research begins by reading as many printed works on the subject as are available, everything from government documents to memoirs. This allows him to develop the questions he needs to answer before going to Freiburg, where his work with the primary sources begins. A lot of the material is found in war diaries from the commanders involved. For the Caribbean U-boat book, Herwig has looked at not only the U-boat commanders' war diaries, but also at newspaper stories from the time and reports from Allied commanders.

"There's no sense simply writing everything up from the perspective of German U-boats," he said. "We need to know what the convoy captains are doing, what the individual warship captains are doing, et cetera. That's the kind of thing you look at, because every airplane [and] every ship has an after-action report, a war diary or log. These are all available to look at."

The difficulty with primary sources is that there are often conflicting reports.

"Part of the problem is they're eyewitness reports," said Herwig. "You're looking out at two o'clock in the morning at a brightly burning tanker, you look around, you're not sure what you see. Then, three weeks after you've done that, you're back in France at the submarine bases and you're writing up your war diary. Memory plays tricks. If you're lucky and survive the war, 10 years later, you're writing your memoirs and again, you're trying to recollect what you did."

In order to counteract this problem, Herwig looks at all available sources and compares them. These include reports from all the U-boats that were fighting in the area and the radio signals that they sent while doing so. Herwig also explained that when writing a book, it is important to combine narrative and analysis. Doing so allows the reader to consider what it was like being involved in that period, as well as what the events meant in a larger historical context.

Herwig noted that, along with the enormous ways technology has affected how research is conducted since he began, one of the major movements has been towards more group-oriented work. Herwig demonstrates this himself, as two of his current projects are co-edited.

"One is with Richard Hamilton at Ohio State [University]," said Herwig. "I'm publishing a book on the war plans of 1914. With [fellow U of C professor and Canada Research Chair] Mickie Keren, I'm doing a book on war and memory. How do we remember wars? How do we honour those who fought in wars? This goes all the way from memorials, graves, statues, to current-day computer games and comic books."

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