Fulham, and in his improbably well appointed house Antony Beevor is talking about Nazis. Beevor is a stocky, brockish man with a rich melliflous voice. He is intensely relaxed. His manner when describing history is identical to the style of his books. I.e., fabulous detachment creepily conveying some seriously horrible things. ‘Horrors. I’d find it would hit me two or three days later, usually in the middle of the night or something like that.’ He and his researcher were trawling through archives, ‘and we suddenly came across this report, which was about the mass rape of the young Russian women and girls who’d been taken back to Germany as slave labour. They thought they were about to be liberated by the Red Army – and then found themselves liberated by the Red Army. And that shook Luba more than anything, she had to spend that night with her mother.’
If you have read this far and don’t know who Antony Beevor is, then well done. I pity you, but well done all the same. He is IMO probably the best military historian of his generation. His books on Stalingrad, D-Day and the conquest of Berlin have shifted millions. They have also inspired millions – of young chaps like myself, avidly guzzling the latest ‘one’ from the comfort of our militaria bedecked boudoirs. Despite this the whole military history thing was complete luck.
‘Careers are very very strange things. I joined the army for a rather curious reason, it was partly because when I was very small I had something called Perthes disease which meant I was on crutches. Obviously got a sort of terrible inferiority complex and a chip on my shoulder, and wanted to prove myself. The military history came later, because I started off writing novels, which needless to say, there was no way that one could actually survive on it. After a number of years with novels, one publisher said “listen, why don’t you use your military experience, why don’t you write military history”. And they pushed me into my first book on the Spanish Civil War. The point was that that pushed me into military history. And needless to say, publishers will always pay rather a lot more for their own ideas than for your ideas. It was rather a question of survival. And then of course I started getting a taste for it, and that was sort of how it developed. Certainly you couldn’t describe that as a structured career.’
Beevor’s books have a trait. Which is, that while he does all the usual stuff about corps and divisions and generals and statesmen, he also shows how their action affected the lives of the ordinary. ‘The whole point’, he says, ‘was whether you could actually get at the material that would show what it was like for the people caught on both sides and in the middle’. How did he get that material? There was a lot in the archives. But that proved problematic. ‘What was amazing was that however much one studied Russian there was just so much material there, that unless you could speedread or decipher the squiggles in the margins you were never going to get the proper material or the right material out of there. You’d be bashing your head against a brick wall.’ Solution: interviews. The principal participants were primarily alive. ‘At that stage it was still possible to interview people who were survivors. Women were much better than others, it’s quite interesting. The real problem was that the men had been so humilitated, in the way they had no control over their own fate. They were sort of re-imposing control, retrospectively, by telling their story. With the women, it was not that at all. The women had just kept their mouths open and their eyes shut.’
But that wasn’t all. Beevor also interviewed many more senior commanders. They often lived an astonishingly long time – Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, didn’t fall of his perch until 1986 – and as such those in close proximity to the Fuhrer were open, ish, to share their memories. Obviously the problem with that is that they would usually have been witness to evil ongoings. But, as Beevor cautions, ‘I’ve interviewed a few, for example the SS telephonist Rochus Misch, who had been in the bunker. Now he’d been in the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler [panzer division], and the reason he was the telephonist is because he’d had fairly bad wounds and had been given that as an easy job.
‘But I wasn’t going to go into what he had been involved in on the Eastern Front, because I was trying to find out what he’d been doing in the bunker. If I’d gone into the Eastern Front business he’d have clammed up straightaway. You’ve just got to know for the core material if you like. You just want them to tell the story as if you were their grandson or something like that. There were some disturbing moments. I mean of course one or two members of the staff of Paulus at Stalingrad, for example, the way that Russian prisoners kept within the encirclement were given no food at all and reduced to cannibalism, and the degree when they said ‘I know nothing of this’, you start wondering who was responsible. I don’t think it was Paulus directly, it was more likely his Chief of Staff Schmidt giving those sorts of orders, knowing perfectly well what Hitler would say if they released those Russian prisoners because they didn’t have enough food to give them. And yet this was the most appalling of crimes.’
This inevitably creates an insuperable gulf for historians. They can read as much as they want. They can talk as much as they want. But whilst we can issue platitudes about horrors and crimes, we cannot even begin to comprehend the nature of what it would be like being, say, a German soldier trapped at Stalingrad, or a Jew at Auschwitz. Beevor acknowledges this. ‘Well I’m not suggesting the historian should sort of work yourself into the role. I think that if you have immersed yourself sufficiently in the documentation it still has its effects. I mean for months afterwards, and it still very occasionally hits me, every six months or something, I look at a plate of food and think what that would have meant to however many people in Stalingrad. And then, you know, the horrors visited on civilians caught in the middle. And it’s not all that long ago. People are still alive!’
Still alive and, barely believably, still talking the same old crapulence. In fact Beevor shows me some stuff he’s been sent from antisemitic lunatics. This is a rather good one, educating us in the conspiracy of VAT, Europe, sexual deviance (‘they’re often very frustrated’ twinkles Beevor) and, inevitably, Jews. Despite the weridos, however, Beevor is optimistic about future atrocities. He thinks that it probably won’t happen again. But then again, it was not so very long ago.