Interview: Acclaimed military historian Antony Beevor

I confess I was fairly nervous in the few moments preceding a talk by renowned author Antony Beevor, as I know next to nothing about military history and I fear it may be a struggle to keep up. This concern turns out to be unfounded. When he stands to speak, he launches into a polite but firm demonstration of the invalidity of the premise upon which the whole of the project of European unity is based.For Beevor, to cite the European Union as the main cause of peace is misleading; the introduction of democracy across nearly all of Europe has had a far more profound effect. It is difficult not be disturbed, outraged even, by the vivid picture he paints of an undemocratic Leviathan, whose various ministers have ignored the problems caused by ever-closer union for so long that the ugly spectre of right-wing nationalism has once again raised its head. After he has finished speaking, an occurrence even more entertaining than the Oktoberfest raging on in the room above our heads, I am keen to divulge more from him.

To say Beevor has a passion for Second World War history would be somewhat of an understatement. Of the numerous books he has written concerning the events of WW2, the most successful have undoubtedly been Berlin: The Downfall 1945 and Stalingrad, selling between them nearly three million copies. Stalingrad in particular has received critical acclaim, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, the Wolfson History Prize, and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. With this in mind, my initial thought is to ask him why it is Second World War history that engages him out of all the possible fields of conflict that he could have studied. “World War Two had, obviously, shaped the modern world. It was a period when moral choice was almost dominant. Everything was somehow in one way or another produced from moral choice. Moral choice, actually, is the basis of all human drama. When we find today that we’re living in a post-military society, a health and safety environment, there is very little moral choice today. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are fascinated in earlier periods.” Beevor points to a debate over the Booker prize a number of years ago, where this value of the notion of “moral choice” was held to be responsible for all the shortlisted novels having been set in the past. ”So I think it’s partly that and partly because in the post-war period, everyone’s lives had been defined by how they had behaved in the war”.

This notion of moral choice appears to be one that Beevor holds as integral to any interpretation of what the Second World War even meant, so I press him further. He recounts an example given to him by a friend when he was composing his 1994 work Paris After the Liberation: “Everybody has to survive and, you know, maybe you have to work with the Germans. For example, if you’re a waiter, you probably have to serve the Germans. You can’t expect someone to throw beer or an ashtray in their face as a gesture of resistance because it wouldn’t do you any bloody good and they’d just get shot for nothing. But you don’t need to be cosy with the Germans”. The use of the term “cosy” to class friendliness towards a hostile occupier beyond what would be necessary to survive is, for Beevor, an accurate expression of the sentiment. “I love the idea of the great moral philosophers using the word “cosy” to divine the dividing line. I think that’s absolutely right.”

One of the salient points that had been highlighted during Beevor’s talk is his contrast of the initial stated aim of the European Union; that is, the preservation of peace in Europe, with the situation as it stands now. The actual cause of said peace, in his words, had been the increasing democratisation of Europe; ironically now under threat due to the negative economic consequences of monetary without political union, and what he sees as the casual attitude to democracy that many European officials have. Given that such nationalist sentiment was last at its height in the period immediately preceding the Second World War, I pose the question to him whether any parallels exist between the current political situation and the political climate of the 1920s, for example. He, however, considers such parallels “dangerous”.

”This may sound rather rich coming from me, but I am alarmed by the way that the Second World War has become the dominant reference point for every crisis or conflict, partly through the newspapers but also because of the politicians, and it’s because either they want to sound Churchillian or Rooseveltian.” Ironically, Beevor has considered there to be a total absence of such leaders in the wake of the European crisis that he discussed at length this evening. “The newspapers like coming up with it as instant shorthand, but it’s always totally misleading and very dangerous”.

For Beevor, there’s “nothing new” about the need for “foreign inventions” to divert attention away from a country’s own internal difficulties. What strikes him as the crucial difference between the conditions today and those of the 1930s is that they “do not include two superpowers in Europe in the sense of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which created a false polarisation which was unbelievably dangerous”. This, perhaps, is one of the moral choices which he referred to, and one which he believes is far more absent now. “What’s striking today is that we’re living in an age of almost zero ideology. I’m very, very struck by how the Occupy Movement, for example, do not seem to have come up with any thoughts of an alternative society at all.”

Beevor’s narrative history Berlin: The Downfall 1945 notoriously met with opposition within Russia for its criticism of Soviet war crimes, such as the mass rapes that were carried out by the Red Army upon their entry to Berlin. Noting his emphasis on the importance of the polarisation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, I put it to him whether he thinks the far Left unjustly escaped criticism that was also directed towards the far Right. “Well, I think that fascism is so obviously ghastly that it’s almost too easy to criticise.” He is no less scathing of the communists, who in his words “were just interested in power in the way that the fascists were… I still find it absolutely staggering that you can still get not just old Marxists but also neo-Marxists somehow trying to justify appalling Soviet practices which were very seldom different to Fascist practices”. This, he believes, “reveal[s] them to be the archetypal ‘useful idiot’”.

On that note, we conclude; him having been at the Union for a considerable time already. At the end I am pleasantly surprised; having expected him to stress the importance of his particular period of history, he has stressed how interesting it is; yet, at the same time, has cautioned me against treating it as a historical be-all-and-end-all. Earlier in the evening, he bemoaned the lack of modesty in many prominent Second World War generals. This modesty, happily, is more than abundant in Antony Beevor.


PHOTO/Bjørn Erik Pedersen