The war historian of the people

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW - ANTHONY BEEVOR:  IT IS A NICE place to write of horror. Antony Beevor’s London home is terraced, the garden neat. The house is narrow and tall, the stairs zig-zagging up through the floors. Outside the sun shines, the breeze rustles the trees and commuters stream across the top of the street and towards the local Tube station. Inside, Beevor works in a busy, large room at the front of the house, moving between a desktop, a laptop and piles of reference books.

Either here or at his house in Kent, he writes of war. Of its reality, its depravity, its overwhelming scale, of what it does to the mind and the body, of what it does to a population, of the crises it poses to soldiers and civilians. And he does so with a pace and clarity that has brought him extraordinary success. Perhaps this is because, while he writes of horror, what he is really best at describing is humanity.

On the far wall is a bookshelf, full of military histories. Except that when you pay some attention to it you realise that the military histories are his works – Stalingrad; Berlin: The Downfall, 1945; The Battle for Spain– translated into at least a couple of dozen languages.

They are in French, German, Spanish. There’s one that looks as if it might be Japanese. The publishers send him five copies of each version. He doesn’t know what to do with them all. “I mean, I don’t have any Lithuanian friends.”

He wears jeans and a shirt and smokes a couple of cigarettes over the course of the interview. “Do you mind?” he asks. He is unfailingly courteous. It is four decades since he left the British army, but he still has something of the officer about him. Assertive and with an almost stereotypically officer-class accent, he is open, self-effacing and excellent company as he rattles out the sentences.

He never experienced war at first hand. As a lieutenant, he was posted in west Berlin for a time in the 1960s, but his greatest excitement came, as a cadet on exercise, when a flare exploded in his face as he was charging up a hill. “I think I started running in the opposite direction,” he recalls. “I don’t think it was out of terror at all, but out of disorientation.”

A more administrative role became too tedious for him to take so he was a civilian again at 24. He decided to become a novelist. “Talk about the innocence and arrogance of youth. Just because my mother’s side of the family had all been writers that I should be a writer too was, shall we say, optimistic to put it mildly. But the curious combination of military experience and writing novels, although many of them didn’t do terribly well, was actually, I suppose, the perfect preparation in its way. But it was totally unpredictable at the time.”

ON THE DAY we meet, his latest book, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, has just gone to the top of the Amazon.co.uk rankings. On the bookshelves at Heathrow, it could be found sitting just behind Alexander McCall Smith but just ahead of Jeremy Clarkson. This, remember, is a military history. Divisions and regiments and maps with sweeping arrows and all that. But he’s made military history a best-selling genre in a way that was almost unthinkable even towards the end of the 1990s. In fact, when he was working on his groundbreaking history of Stalingrad, someone at his publishers suggested it might shift 10,000 copies.

The marketing folk in the room guffawed in unison – 6,000, maybe. But 10,000? Don’t be daft. Stalingradwent on to sell well over a million copies.

Beevor followed that with Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, which described the awesome scale of the second World War while examining its terrible details. In all, he has sold over four million books.

“I remember in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the second World War. A huge number of books were published and they all failed to sell,” he recalls. “Well, you can imagine how depressed I was. I was already in the Russian archives working on Stalingrad thinking: ‘Oh Christ, well if that’s the end of the second World War as a subject, what am I going to do?’”

It’s only now that he can recognise the undercurrent of change that was running through that decade, a post-Cold War “revolution that we can’t quite assess yet”, but that he would tap into almost by accident.

“People were interested in the history of the individual. And that’s partly because, in the past, history had been written in collective terms. “I’d been working towards it in previous books, but it was only in Stalingrad that I saw the importance of integrating the history of above with the history from below, because only then could you convey the true effects of the decisions made by Stalin or Hitler or whatever. Not just the soldiers, but the civilians caught up in it.

“And I think people were fascinated looking back at the idea of an age when people had no control over their own fate. Because we’re living in a peaceful, health-and-safety environment. I think that there’s this notion, particularly among the young: what would I have done in those circumstances? Would I have had the courage to survive. If I had survived would I have broken down psychologically like so many soldiers? Or would I also have had the moral strength to refuse to shoot prisoners if I’d been ordered. So it started to pose all sorts of questions in an age when these questions are very rarely posed.”

Stalingrad’s success was, he says, “literally astonishing”. Now, he gets great pleasure when people come up to him at signings to tell him that their son is studying history at university because of the book.

And he gets particular satisfaction in how his readership is not the predictable demographic for his genre. “I suppose the other thing, which only became apparent later, was the number of women readers. So the old military history ghetto walls are breaking down.” On a small table by his writing desk is a French version of the book.

Interestingly, the “ bataille de Normandie” subtitle is far more prominent on the French copy. In the English-speaking world, D-Day is the selling point. Today is its 65th anniversary. Barack Obama will be among those in Normandy to mark the occassion. It is seen by the West as the pivotal moment in that war. “Iconic, I think, is the word they use.”

We’ve become so familiar with D-Day that it’s hard not to wonder is there’s anything left that can be said. Then you read the book, and you realise that the problem is that we think we know everything about it.

“The trouble with too many books since is that they have relied too much, in my view, on interviews with veterans made long, long after the event. Not that it’s ever a question of saying the veterans were lying or anything like that. But we know how fallible human memory is. Also, they, actually having taken part, have read every book on the subject and have tended then to filter their memories to what they’ve read since. And that’s why I think, although they’re useful details, it’s not a good basis or foundation to structure a lot of the history that has been written.”

His impetus came from the US military archives, with its many boxes of interviews with soldiers, conducted shortly after the event rather than many years afterwards, when a certain distortion may have set in. He gives an example of the way that a couple of soldiers described the shells screaming overhead as like flying freight cars, but which later became a common way of describing it. An image takes hold. A collective memory takes root. It’s not just something that happens with individuals, but within entire populations.

He blames Stephen Spielberg, for instance, for finally cementing the Hollywood idea that D-Day was an American event. “The intriguing thing was that Spielberg was very much part of the Vietnam generation, which was a moral quagmire. And I think he was attracted by this notion of the war – this is right and Americans were definitely wearing the white hats and the Germans the black hats.”

He has little time either for the American notion of the Greatest Generation, coined over the past decade as part of an ancestor worship carried on by their sons. “Funny enough the personal memories written closer to the time were in a curious way less sanitised. I’m not suggesting that they put in everything, because they didn’t want to upset their families, but national myth-making can become a very powerful thing. It may not be overtly political, but it can be a form of national propaganda that actually is sort of commercial rather than political, if you know what I mean. And a book that in any way attacked or criticised the Greatest Generation in America would not do terribly well in the bookshops.”

That sanitisation has meant forgetting the brutality of war, of how ordinary people act in extraordinary circumstances. As well as moments of staggering heroism, his book details the brothels that appeared in the invasion’s wake; the execution of prisoners; the mutilation of corpses; the panic of soldiers; the distrust of civilians; the weakness of leaders; and the consequences of their decisions. Already, it has led to a minor fuss over an interview in which Beevor described the bombing of Caen as “close to a war crime“, a controversy about which he sighs and declares to be nothing but “bank-holiday journalism”.

HE IS WELL ACQUAINTED with the way countries and their people preciously protect their versions of certain events. Stalingradportrayed a Red Army that won partly because Stalin was willing to be as brutal with his own people as he was with the Nazis, but Russian veterans appreciated Beevor’s account. They were less happy with Berlin, in which the mass rape of women by the Red Army as they marched into Germany – perhaps two million women raped – make for the most devastating passages of all.

That contributed ultimately to recent moves by the Russian government to criminalise those who “belittle” the Soviet Union’s role in liberating Europe.

“It’s total denial,” gasps Beevor. “But one needs to understand where that denial comes from. For Germany, it was an aberration of 12 years. In the case of the Soviet Union, you’re talking about just over 70 years, and for any society to face up to the true implications, not just to who died in the famines or the gulags, but the millions and millions more whose families and lives were wrecked by the brutality of the Soviet system, is very hard. If there’s one bright moment they can hang on to it’s 1945 and the defeat of Nazism, the liberation of central Europe and the rest of it, and that’s why I’m not entirely surprised by this reaction. Either you face up to the fact or you deny it completely and that’s what they’re doing now. And it’s deeply depressing, but it’s understandable in its way.”

The writing of that book brought him to the brink of a personal collapse. “ Berlinand Stalingradwere a much greater stress because of the Russian archives. You were playing ‘paper scissors stone’ in the Russian archives – they didn’t know what you were after and at the same time they were trying to block you. You had to play very complicated games and it was truly exhausting. And the conditions as well, living away from home. And by the time you get back your brain is so full you don’t know what to do with it.

“Also, of course, there was the horror of the material. The material on Berlinwas just as horrifying as the material on Stalingrad– in many ways it was even more horrifying, because of cruelty to women, civilians and so forth. But the worst problem was, because nobody expected Stalingradto do anything, there wasn’t any pressure from the publisher. By the time Stalingradhad taken off, a year and a half before publication, they were hounding me about the jacket, they wanted me to talk to the sales force and all the rest of it when I hadn’t even finished the book and didn’t know if I was going to finish the book on time. A combination of that and the depressing element of the material meant I was getting close to a nervous breakdown. In fact, I was in tears in the editor’s office. One will never forget the look of horror on the editor’s face: ‘My God he’s going to crack up, are we ever going to get the book on time?’”

There was a period of several months after researching the battle of Stalingrad when he couldn’t look at a plate of food without wondering how many people it would have fed during that battle. He still gets such flashes now. It was worse, he says, for his Russian translator, Luba Vinogradova, who would be immediately affected by the accounts they were reading. Once translated, Beevor would note them and move on for fear that the Russians would stop giving him access. A few days later, those first-hand accounts would often creep back into his mind and haunt him in the early hours.

GIVEN THE SCALE of the suffering Beevor lays out, I ask if he’s religious. He’s not, but he is impressed by how, in the concentration camps, those with strong beliefs were more likely to survive than those who resigned themselves to their fates. Sometimes they just had to have a determination to see their families again.

“Ironically, in warfare, those who thought about the end of the war and getting home tended to be the first to die. Because those who tended to live from moment to moment, I mean it’s a paradox, it was almost the opposite survival pattern to the concentration camps.”

It seems glib to ask if there’s one particular thing his work has taught him about humanity, but he’s ready for it. “There’s one very simple answer. The major rule is you can’t generalise. People are not predictable. I remember even when we were working on Paris After the Liberation. . . The human being is not predicable according to set criteria. And I think that’s terribly important because it shows that social engineering does not work, thank God.”

And yet he has observed the ubiquity of fear. In the military, on the battlefield, in a society. It is a motivation, he says, and a tool.

Goebbels used it to convince the German troops that defeat would mean obliteration of their families and fatherland. “Hate was the explosive and fear was the detonator.” But he is also a critic of the mass media, of news as entertainment, of thrillers such as 24 and their torture-and-ticking-bomb scenarios.

“I mean fear is adrenaline,” he says. “We know from the way some soldiers, special operations soldiers especially, become hooked on the adrenaline, or the noradrenline produced in their body through fear. And I’m sure there haven’t been enough studies done into the use of fear in mass entertainment, and hooking your audiences that way. It is addictive.”

BIOGRAPHY

Born

England, 1946

Family

Married to Artemis Cooper, with whom he wrote Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949. They have two grown-up children

Career path

An officer in the 11th Hussars, he was a tank commander and was posted for a time in Berlin during the Cold War. Left at 24 to become a novelist, and wrote four works of fiction. His The Spanish Civil War(1982) marked a successful move into history

The turning point

Stalingrad(1998) was groundbreaking; making military history a bestselling genre. Followed with the controversial Berlin: The Downfall, 1945