Decoding the Past to Understand the Present

An interview with World War Two historian Sir Antony Beevor.
Anthony Beevor-6823
Antony Beevor. (aerodrome/Gareth Smit)

Sir Antony Beevor, a former army officer with the 11th Hussars, studied at Winchester and at the British Army’s prestigious military academy, Sandhurst. He has written four novels and 11 historical works —  many of which deal with aspects of World War Two — such as Crete, Berlin and D-Day. Over eight million of his books have been sold around the world in more than 32 different translations, making Beevor one of the world’s bestselling military historians. He has also received a slew of awards — Stalingrad alone, scooped up Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature after it was published in 1998. His magesterial account of World War Two, The Second World War, was published in 2012.

What did the words “World War Two” mean for you as a child?

My first contact with it was, in a way, a physical contact — we had a chest with clothes in that was called a dressing up box; at the bottom of it, what should I find but my father’s 9mm Browning pistol from the Second World War. I was thrilled — I was only about six-years-old. My mother was absolutely freaked. She immediately took it round and handed it in at the police station. My father was in Special Operations Executive [an espionage agency] — he was a senior SOE officer in Italy in the Second World War on Field Marshal Alexander’s staff. I remember the way that people’s lives were defined after the war by whether they’d had a “good war” or not. And those who had had a good war did in a way often did very well out of it — there was a tremendous mafia between those who had learnt who to trust out of their colleagues in the war — and they were all giving each other jobs and so forth.

You started out writing novels. How has this influenced your historical books?

I mean, I read novels first and that I suppose had a certain influence on the way I wanted to write history even though of course there was nothing imagined or made-up in the history —  but it was much more the way of the reader’s experience … I feel very strongly that you should write for yourself, you shouldn’t try and write for anyone else. You should try and write the sort of book that you like and if other people happen to like it too then that’s great.

How has having studied under the acclaimed military historian John Keegan influenced your own work?

He was incredibly kind and helpful. And he was also quite provocative in the way that he would quite often emphasise to us, rather arrogant young officer cadets why we should look at things afresh or from a totally different angle.

John was a tremendous influence in many ways, mainly because of his book The Face of Battle was the start of the revolution in military history. It had always been written in the past by staff officers or former generals or whatever who tried to impose a form of control over the battle from above which had actually never really existed in reality. Military history had always been written in collective terms; it was the collective version of history. John blew that one apart with The Face of Battle. I was lucky because I was already struggling, partly because of John’s influence already with the Crete book but much more deliberately then with the Stalingrad book, trying to integrate history from above with history from below. And I’d always been dubious about that fashion for oral history which I didn’t think was a proper book in many ways — a collection of letters or interviews or diaries or whatever — because it lacked the context and I think you needed to have the two.

In an interview with the FT you mentioned that you turned to writing as a means of alleviating the boredom of military life. Tell me more about that.

I had Perthes disease which meant I was on crutches [as a child]. Of course I got bullied and that’s obviously where I decided I wanted to become a soldier. But you know you never acknowledge that to yourself and it was only after five years in the army — and I had a wonderful time in the regiment; they were a really nice lot — but then I had to do this really boring job in north Wales and so I thought, with the innocence and arrogance of youth, why not try writing a novel? And then of course in that first novel I suddenly realised that actually the reason why I joined the army was because I had a physical chip on my shoulder. That was why I then felt I’m not going to stay on after discovering that — why not try being a writer?

Do you think the time spent being a solider has had a bearing on your approach?

Of course it has. I think it’s helped enormously. I’m not trying to say that only former soldiers can write military history. What is essential is to be able to put yourself in the boots of the soldiers so that you can understand why they behaved in the way they did. The first duty of the war historian is to understand. What I was rather shocked by was the way that particularly from the 90s onwards military history suddenly also became such a controversial subject that it attracted in outsiders, particularly in the academic world — sociologists and so forth who tried to impose an ideological grid on a subject they didn’t really understand. You’ve got to understand why an army which is far from being a cold, calculating machine which it’s so often portrayed as is actually a very emotive organisation.

There is a huge amount of suffering, cruelty and carnage in the books you have written. How do you personally cope with dealing with such grisly content during your research?

The vital thing was to try and maintain an emotional detachment while you’re getting the material down — so that you’ve got it correctly and accurately. But then it would hit you, usually a couple of nights later I found — it would come back and haunt me, usually sometimes waking up in the middle of the night. And it was impossible for literally several years afterwards; it very occasionally still hits me if we’re looking into a plate of food and thinking how much that would’ve meant to 10 people at Stalingrad and not just one person. When you actually write you cannot really judge what you’ve written — and that’s just true of every writer; you’re too close to it in many ways, and particularly when it’s on such controversial material — you are conscious of the danger of the pornography of war. I did leave out some things because either they were so horrific that even I couldn’t face them, and I certainly couldn’t face putting them down in print for other people to read, but at the same time in a way you shouldn’t duck it. [Soviet journalist] Vasily Grossman said after writer about Treblinka [a Nazi extermination camp] said, “It is the duty of the writer to record this, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to read it.” But at the same time you’ve got to be careful.

Can you speak about the history as a form of literature — the art of writing a story fashioned from a huge chunk of research?

Leaving aside the art for the moment, I think there is the very important debate that certain Continental countries, particularly Germany and Scandinavia take a very academic view trying to describe history as a science. Well, history cannot be a science — it’s preposterous that. History is a branch of literature. Even if one recorded everything you would still not be able to get to a total truth. What matters is really a question of the scholarship and the writing and it’s the fusion of those two; the scholarship has to be absolutely right and impeccable, and also, I hope original — there’s no point in doing these books unless you’re going to be coming up with new material. The actual writing has to be not literary in a self-conscious sense, but, the purity of the prose and the clarity of the thought have got to go together. The analysis should be incorporated in the narrative. You don’t have to have a greatly analytical section and all the rest of it, but you should be able to provoke the thought processes of the reader well enough so that they see the different issues and the different choices available at that particular time without you actually losing the narrative momentum.

Your previous books have dealt with many episodes or aspects of World War Two history. Was that useful when writing The Second World War?

Enormously. Inevitably when one is trying to bring together all of these different conflicts — which were very different conflicts; that’s why the point of the book in many ways was to show how it was an amalgamation of conflicts rather than a single war itself — requires much more top-down history rather than bottom-up. It would’ve been nice to have included many more personal experiences to illustrate all of that but I did want to keep it [within a certain length]. But in terms of the research when people ask, “How long did it take you?” I can quite genuinely say it goes back over the last 25 years or so of work on the subject because it wasn’t just a question of recycling previous material or anything like that from earlier books — it was in many cases because after the book has come out you then get so many personal stories sent to you, or information from various archives.

Would the book have been different had you written it 20 years ago — has more information come to light in recent times?

Yes, a lot more. I found that in particular with the D-Day book for example, that many of those who were involved in the war didn’t talk about it to their children or their families afterwards. And it was actually only when they started to die, in the 1990s and 2000s in bigger numbers that either before they died, they, or, after they died, their families, would then start handing over their papers, their private diaries and so forth, to archives. And suddenly a huge amount of personal experience material became available. And that was a vast, vast bonus.

When did you decide you wanted to write The Second World War?

It had been hanging over me a little bit — I didn’t know when I was going to do it: do I wait till my dotage? And it was very much pressure from publishers very keen on the idea. But it was also because I needed to do it for myself to understand how it all fitted together. I was appallingly ignorant about the Sino-Japanese war, for example. You’ve got to understand how it all fits in and how the theatres on different sides of the world affected each other.

Why is it so important that we read about World War Two?

We’ve got to understand the world today. If you want to understand and the tensions in the Far East between China and Japan over the South China Sea, you’ve got to understand the Sino-Japanese War. You’ve got to understand China’s bitterness and anger against the West for not having properly supported it properly in the war against Japan — China has been treated in the past so appallingly by Western powers, particularly Britain — and why there is total determination in China not just to beat the West at their own game, but probably to humiliate the West in the future.

There are dangers, as I’ve often said, about the obsession with the Second World War, both by the media and by politicians, and the way that false historical parallels are made when they want to sound grandiose. The Second World War has become this dominant reference point for every major problem — so we do need to understand it, if only to realise where [politicians] are going wrong and where they are actually making major, strategically disastrous mistakes.

First published in Wanted magazine’s March 2014 edition.

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