One day I took the train to see historian Antony Beevor in rural Kent. On the drive to his place from Bekesbourne Station, through country lanes, we passed ‘Oswalds’, the house where Joseph Conrad had once lived. We discussed politics, Brexit and what must have led Conrad to this part of the world.

Arnhem by Antony Beevor

I’d spent a week reading nothing but Beevor’s military histories.This activity leads to a mistrust of the world, especially the landscapes I saw on the car journey from Bekesbourne. It’s difficult to submerge yourself in Beevor’s work and then visit the peaceful countryside. The fields bearing crops seem to be waiting to be churned by artillery fire. Each house looks like it could collapse into a version of those on the ruined streets of Stalingrad. ‘Look at all those walls,’ I thought from the passenger seat when we slowed to drive through a village, ‘unpocked by bullets.’ Beevor’s books make it clear that when destruction comes, little remains untouched. No part of the world, no matter how civilized it calls itself, is free from the potential of murder and violence. During our conversation we’d go on to speak about both icy Stalingrad and devastated Berlin, and all the pain and murder each city witnessed during the Second World War, but for the time being we drove through pleasant land.

Beevor’s books are not only valued amongst historians and readers of military history. Stalingrad became that rare title to cross over into pop culture. In the first series of the comedy Peep Show, hapless Mark Corrigan draws from his copy of Stalingrad to aid him in a horrendously bad attempt at picking up his next-door neighbour:

Mark You know, the Red Army shot 16,000 of their own men at Stalingrad.
Toni OK.
Mark And, of course, the majority of the Wehrmacht had no winter clothing.
Toni I know how they feel.You buy classic but classic keeps changing.
Mark See, by the winter of ‘42, the whole city was surrounded by the massed Sixth Army. It was pressing and pressing. The Russians couldn’t hold on much longer. Many wanted to submit.
Toni Mark, I don’t just bang anyone, yeah?
Mark No. No, of course not. What I mean is that the German supply lines were stretched. Zhukov countered and the siege was broken. And that’s all the story of Stalingrad.

For a while Stalingrad became the go-to present for anyone with a mild interest in history. If you wanted to know about warfare, here was the title.

At Beevor’s home, we sat in his front room and spoke for a couple of hours. I told him I was interested in his research, in the stories behind the books and in how he was able to examine these places – Stalingrad, Berlin, Arnhem, the Dardennes, Normandy – and then somehow return with his faith in humanity not entirely diminished. Beevor sat on the couch across from me and led me back to the middle of the last century, but also to the crucial years in the 1990s when Russia was open, however briefly, to historians. He spoke of warfare, but also of the great transnational friendships he’d forged during his working life. Afterwards, with the bleakness of the twentieth century behind us, we opened the door. Outside the window I could see the fields were still untouched. The world was unchurned for the time being. We ate a lunch of fresh pesto and pasta with his wife, the biographer Artemis Cooper, and on the way back Beevor slowed his vehicle down so I could get a look at Conrad’s old villa, which seemed from a distance like a very pleasant place for the man who wrote Heart of Darkness.

Antony Beevor

I started off by writing novels, political thrillers. I hope they have been completely forgotten. I’m horrified if occasionally somebody turns up with an old copy and asks for an autograph. But it was a huge help having started in that particular way.

Five Dials

With fiction?

Antony Beevor

Because it influenced the way I was going to write later. Obviously, the historical work does not have a single invented thing in it. You can’t, not surprisingly. But you convey what you’re writing about in a more visual, tactile sense. You are looking to recreate what it was like at the time, whether it’s the weather, the topography, the atmosphere, all drawn from different accounts, especially personal contemporary accounts.

Five Dials

What was the most important book of military history for you when you started out?

Antony Beevor

The first major book – not a big book in the terms of size but a very important one – was The Face of Battle by John Keegan. It upended military history, which had been written in the past by retired officers. They’d try to impose the staff officer’s view of the battle eld.They were always over-simplified and over-clarified and never actually reflected the chaos and the feelings and the fear of the soldiers at the front.

When I started to write military history, I was well aware I needed to integrate the history from above and the history from below. It was only when I got to the Stalingrad book I realized how essential it was. It was the only way of showing how the lives of civilians and soldiers were totally dominated. They had no control over their own fate.

Five Dials

In the preface to Stalingrad you mention how important timing has been for you as a historian. A window was opened when you were there in Moscow in 1995 to research the book.

Antony Beevor

I was phenomenally lucky because even when I started on the book, Pikoya, the Russian minister of the archives hadn’t yet forced the military to open their archives. I was never con dent I was going to get anything particularly great. And then we heard that they were opening the military archives as a result of pressure from this minister. That was when we started our negotiations. But they still weren’t going to let us in straight away.

Five Dials

What sort of help did you receive along the way?

Antony Beevor

I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for the wonderful Lyuba Vinogradova, with whom I’ve worked with for the last twenty-four years. She was doing her doctorate in plant biology. She started to work for me.

I knew I could read a little bit of Russian but there was just so much material that even university Russian wasn’t good enough. Unless you can speed-read and decipher the squiggles in Cyrillic in the margins you’re certainly not going to cover the ground.

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor

With Lyuba it was fantastic. One could see straight away that she had absolutely the right instinct, the nose. The nose is terribly important. You also need a magpie mind.You’ve got to be able to speed-read, to be able to fasten on the vital things. She immediately had that instinct. Others were too conscientious. There is so much material you’ve got to cover, that you mustn’t be overly conscientious.

Before we went into the archives, we went down to Volgograd together. We started talking to the women who had been there at the time, as well as some of the old veterans. Not only did Lyuba have the right instinct in terms of empathizing with the old people and so forth, she also had a wonderful secret weapon. She had a slight stammer. This enchanted everybody. Even the crusty old dragons in the archives and the old colonels in the military archives said, ‘Labushka! Labushka!’ You can imagine. They immediately became terribly fatherly. And motherly, in the case of the women dragons.

There were still some old loyal Communists who were appalled at the whole situation. There was one dragon lady. She had no less than three portraits of Lenin in her office.

Five Dials

You’ve got to put something on the walls.

Antony Beevor

Some things don’t change.

Five Dials

And what was she like?

Antony Beevor

You can imagine. Very gruff. A fairly large lady with dyed black hair, who hated the idea of foreigners being in her archive.

It wasn’t so much the Director who had the power; it was quite often the Deputy Director in the old Soviet sense – the number two with the strength.

I remember while we were working in one archive, Lyuba was getting nervous because I was angry. We were told we were allowed ten files a day, which is not a huge amount. Five, or six, or seven of them were being refused even though they were marked as open in the catalogue. We want to see the Deputy Director. So I said, ‘We are only allowed ten files a day, and for some reason five or six of them are being blocked. If they’re closed, why isn’t it marked in the catalogue?’

Back came the reply: ‘That would make the catalogue look untidy.’

Lyuba was beseeching me, saying, ‘Don’t cause trouble, Antony. Don’t cause trouble.’

Five Dials

This seems to be one of the unsung attributes of a historian: the ability to deal with the personalities of the various gatekeepers.

Antony Beevor

That was quite often where the stress came from. Not knowing how things were going to work out. It was not a high-wire act in the sense of personal danger or anything like that. But still.

Five Dials

What were your days in Moscow like with Lyuba? Did you stay in a hotel?

Antony Beevor

I slept on the sofa in Lyuba and her mother’s apartment in north Moscow. Then we would take the metro at about four in the morning, certainly by five, because the journey took about three hours to get down to Podolsk, which is south of Moscow. It had been a closed secret city, completely forbidden to foreigners because of all the military establishments. Podolsk is where TsAMO is based, the central archives of the Russian ministry of defence.

It took five months before we even got in, as we were negotiating with the general staff in the ministry of defence. They controlled the archives.

There was a wonderful moment when a colonel said to us, ‘We have a simple rule in our archives. You tell us the subject. We choose the files.’

Eventually we’d get down there by 8:30 a.m., when it opened. The trouble was we only had a limited period of time. Also, I would find that the strain in researching in Moscow was such that I could do two to three weeks and then I’d have to have a break and come back.

Five Dials

The strain because of the social elements or because of the overwhelming weight of the text?

Antony Beevor

The very fact of having to work so hard and so fast. But also sometimes having to play games.

Five Dials

What sort of games?

Antony Beevor

The Russians always have this slight confusion – a mixture of paranoia and naivety. I remember the first day we went to Podolsk and were finally allowed in.They had selected the material for us to read, marking the pages we were allowed to look at. Everything else was forbidden. So, for that first morning we were under surveillance. We actually had to work on the opposite side of the desk from the deputy director of the archive.

Five Dials

He was watching you at work?

Antony Beevor

He was watching us. And then, in the middle of the morning, this other colonel arrived. He was clearly GRU because he spoke perfect English and had obviously learned that abroad. He asked if I was looking for (he switches to a Russian accent) ‘negative material’. I had to try to give a deliberately boring treatise on the duty of objectivity of a historian, which had no effect whatsoever, as you might imagine.

He then sent us off for lunch saying, ‘you can leave your bags and papers here’, and they went through them.

Later that afternoon we were suddenly put in the lecture hall unsupervised with all the files, so we could pick and choose. We were extremely lucky. We were able to look at material which was forbidden.

There we would sit, side by side, and Lyuba would be speed-reading through and I would say, ‘Hang on. What about that?’ And she would say, ‘No, no. But this.’ And immediately focus in. That way one could work far faster than one would ever be able to do otherwise.

Five Dials

These were the scribblings and the cues a native speaker would pick up?

Antony Beevor

You needed to be a native speaker, but also you would need to be able to understand some of the, well, in-jokes is probably wrong, but some of the references which a foreigner wouldn’t pick up on. Lyuba herself was learning, learning, learning the whole time.

We had to be very careful indeed, but it was the opportunity. I’d always thought that this was where the commissar’s files, the political department’s files were, and I always guessed that that was going to be where the good stuff would be. And it was. You can imagine my feeling of euphoria that evening thinking, ‘Are we really going to be able to carry on doing this?’

We had got away with it for just over a week before they then started to get very nervous and suspicious. But that was the vital period, because we managed to get through all the files of the Stalingrad front political department during that particular period.

It was absolute gold because it was unvarnished. You had the real heroism and the scandals as well, which started to give one a pretty good impression of what it had been like. And that was aligned with the personal accounts and the diaries, letters, and so on.

The letters were never very useful in a sense, except in a very general way, because they tended to be terribly formulaic: ‘Hello mama, hello papa, I am well, I’m ready to die for the motherland.’

But then we managed to find the NKVD file on censorship, which quoted some of the more outrageous things from these letters. Those who were caught out, including these incredibly naive Ukrainian boys, for example, one of whom had said, ‘I’ve heard from my family’ – even though the family members were on the other side of the German lines – ‘and they say the Germans aren’t so nasty; they’re really getting on very well with them.’ Unsurprisingly, this guy was immediately seized by the NKVD.

That first night I was staying with a Canadian diplomat called Chris Alexander. When I arrived he said, ‘By the way, do you want to ring your wife in London?’ So I rang her and said, ‘I cannot believe it! We’ve actually got the stuff which I never thought we’d see.’ I suddenly saw signs from Chris saying ‘Shut up!’ I’d forgotten that even in the new Russia, diplomats’ telephones were likely to be bugged.

Afterwards Chris said, ‘Listen, when we go out to dinner, don’t talk about what you’re finding in the archives or how you’re finding it.’

They did start to get suspicious later on. The GRU colonel, having heard that we were spending too long on certain things, suddenly started to get aggressive and said,‘We demand to see all your notebooks.’ And, thank God, I’d been very, very careful. I’d always used those wire-bound notebooks because you can rip out the pages without it being obvious something is missing.

I said, ‘Of course you can see them. Most of them are back in the apartment where I’m staying.’ I certainly didn’t say I was staying with a western diplomat. ‘I can bring them in,’ I said, ‘You’re allowing us until the end of the week,’ and so forth. ‘Why don’t I bring them all in then, and your interpreters can look at them.’

What I had guessed was correct. They didn’t have any interpreters down at Podolsk. Because of the length of the journey each day, it was unfeasible for them to come back and forth to check the stuff. They accepted my suggestion. They’d look at the whole damn lot at the end.

But when I started to see that there was so little material which came from the permitted pages, I started to get slightly worried. I almost started wondering, ‘Do I have to start writing letters of praise to Comrade Stalin myself?’ In the end it was all right. I’d ripped out all the pages of the really interesting, good stuff, which was from the banned bits.

Five Dials

And put them where?

Antony Beevor

I kept them all in a folder. They were all in Chris’s flat. That was a huge relief. On the very last day, Chris said, ‘Listen, they can find out when you’re flying back. We’ll go into the Canadian embassy and we’ll photocopy all your notes, because at Sheremetyevo airport they can confiscate every single piece of paper you’ve got, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it.’

So I said, ‘Thank you!’ We went in, we photocopied all my notes, and he kept a whole batch at the embassy. He could have got them out if the worst came to the worst. As it happened, I went with a light heart and a light step towards the exit where they went through your bags, mainly checking to see whether you were taking out icons or caviar. I was able to go with a clean conscience, if you like.

Five Dials

That must have been a great flight home.

Antony Beevor

Absolutely. I kept on coming back because there were a lot of other important archives. But that was, as I say, where the real gold was.

Five Dials

Has the window closed? What is it like now?

Antony Beevor

There are one or two archives which are still open. For example, there’s RGASPI, the Party archive, which is very important. It’s the Russian State Archive for Social Political History. But the military archives are closed. Especially Podolsk. I think it was closed in 1999. It was before Putin came in, but already there was pressure. There were protests in the Duma by Communist Deputies and others, saying, ‘Why are foreign historians allowed to traduce the Soviet Union by having free access to our archives?’

A wonderful Swedish historian called Lennart Samuelsson got in touch with me and said, ‘I don’t know if you realize that the FSB have now installed computers to be able to check on the files taken out by foreign historians.’

For me, there were no computers at all. None of the catalogues were computerized. They hadn’t yet managed to cross-reference. Catherine Merridale, who wrote an excellent book called Ivan’s War, was the one who then tipped me off. She wasn’t allowed into Podolsk. By then the barrier had come down.

It wasn’t as if closing the military archives was brought in by Putin. It was that change of feeling, this reaction against the liberalization of the nineties following the fall of the Soviet Union. This was when the pendulum was really swinging back in a big way.

Five Dials

Do you think Putin, in the years since then, has bene ted from this idea of controlling the narrative, not allowing westerners to frame Russian military history?

Antony Beevor

There are still places where you can get good stuff. Tim Snyder is a good example. He got it from the Ukrainian archives. You’ve got to be quite clever in the way that gets you round the obstacles.

People often ask, ‘Are there still huge secrets to discover?’ I think, on the whole, we’ve got a pretty good idea, but there’s always going be extra material, good explanations for things we’re not quite certain about. And, of course, there’s a huge amount of more human detail.

What’s truly worrying is the way that the paper – such poor wartime-quality paper – is crumbling to pieces. However carefully you turned over the pages, you’d see brown dust and crumbs accumulating, no matter how painstakingly you did it. The big paradox was that the documents which survived were those where the Russians had got large quantities of German maps. They’d cut them up. They’d used the backs for their paper. Those were very good quality and were surviving very well.

Five Dials

So German paper keeps Russian history. Speaking of that relationship, I’d like to ask about the progression of your work. Did your Russian book lead organically to Berlin?

Antony Beevor

There is never any logical progression, I’m afraid.

Five Dials

But in the intro to Berlin you quote a Red Army officer who taunts a group of German prisoners in the ruins of Stalingrad and says, ‘That’s how Berlin is going to look.’ I wondered if there were other organic links like that. In this case a link through retribution.

Antony Beevor

Berlin by Antony Beevor

Berlin by Antony Beevor

What would have been ideal, in retrospect, would have been writing the books in chronological order, but that is certainly not the case. There was a logic. You’re quite right about Stalingrad then turning to Berlin, because of this idea that the two were so closely linked, both in the Russian and in the German mind.

It was a hell of a strain, Berlin. In fact, partly because there was so much more material, certainly more archives to cover. I was under such stress. There was pressure to finish. But I did. You’ve got to stop being pathetic and get up and get on with it. But it was a hell of a strain on that one. Also, there was the horror of the material. There is this problem. How do you actually deal with the danger of the pornography of war?

Five Dials

In Berlin you were dealing with source material recounting horrible behaviour. How do you do that with sensitivity?

Antony Beevor

I was incredibly lucky, because Catherine Merridale, who I admire enormously, was preparing to do her book Ivan’s War. And I explained to her about the material on the mass rapes, because I was still trying to get it straight in my mind. In fact, it wasn’t at that stage terribly clear in my mind, but it was starting to become clearer.

When you take, say, Susan Brownmiller’s great book, Against Their Will – which is an urtext, if you like, on rape in warfare – it’s defined. Very much rape is defined as, not an act of sex, but an act of power or an act of violence, or whatever it might be.

Then I started to realize that that was partly true, but it wasn’t 100 per cent true. It was absolutely true when they hit East Prussia. It was just an act of violence more than anything else. But by the time they got to Berlin, they were trying to choose the most attractive girls. They were picking them out carefully.

Five Dials

What was the Russian reaction to how you portrayed this behaviour of the Red Army?

Antony Beevor

I underestimated that, I have to say. I had already been condemned by the Russian ambassador, and this is before he’d even read a word.

The Telegraph wanted to do a two-page spread on what was going to be in Berlin. They asked me to contribute. I said, ‘No way. I don’t want to have controversy six months in front of the book being released.’ So, they went and basically guessed at what I was writing. It was outrageous.

I couldn’t fight it legally. I insisted on being able to write a letter in protest, which they had to publish. The Russian ambassador had written a letter saying that this was libel, slander and blasphemy against the Red Army. I insisted on having my letter published, complaining bitterly at the speculation that had been put into this article, which I refused to have anything to do with.

After my letter, I got a telephone call from the Russian ambassador, Grigori Karasin, now Lavrov’s Deputy, saying, ‘Antony, it’s Grigori. We must have lunch together, just the two of us. A vodka lunch.’ I promise you, this is true. I promise you, these are his words.You can imagine I certainly won’t want to forget that.

In a very nervous state I went to the Russian residence. He gave me a little tour. It was a vodka lunch, one bottle each: Stolichnaya, but not the very big ones. Fortunately, I had had a pint of full-cream milk just beforehand so as to absorb the alcohol. But it was during this lunch, Karasin said, ‘You’ve got to understand that the victory is sacred.’ And I suddenly twigged, therefore, of course, that even for those who had been in the gulag, even for anti-Stalinists, the victory of May 1945, over the ‘Fascist beast’, was the one thing which every Russian could actually feel proud about. And, of course, the mass rapes completely undermined that, and that was why there was going to be a visceral rejection, even by those who hadn’t been involved in any of the rapes.

I’m referring, for example, to Professor Rzhezhevsky, who was the President of the Association of Second World War Historians, an Academician and the Chief Historian in the Academy of Sciences. He had actually been a huge admirer of Stalingrad, and then started sending me material on all the rest of it. But when the Berlin book came out, he immediately turned against me, saying that this was, again, lies and slander.

So, I really did find myself in a shitstorm. And, since then, about five years ago, Sergey Shoygu, the Minister of Defence, brought in this law, saying anybody who denigrates the Red Army – which at one point he said was equivalent to Holocaust denial – is liable for up to five years’ imprisonment. That’s a reason why I don’t go back. It’s just not worth the risk of going back to Russia. It’s just so unpredictable. So unpredictable.

Five Dials

Arnhem opens in a different time and place: Holland, 1944, with the image of shire horses pulling the wagons of the German 719th; and there’s this line about how Germany at that stage was now fighting a poor man’s war. Is there a unique challenge to write about a confident army as opposed to writing about a poor man’s army?

Antony Beevor

It entirely depends on the material on both sides. I love that image because I’ve come across it in some degree before, especially in the Ardennes; this feeling that they were fighting the poor man’s war by that particular stage. Of course, it was true.

But I was also trying to show the total hypocrisy of German Nazi propaganda. There was the idea that somehow it was unfair to use superior weapons against them though they’d, of course, been using them against everybody else who was so much weaker.

There was the arrogance of the Nazi occupation of Holland and the belief that the Dutch should have remained loyal to them when they had violated Dutch neutrality. They had looted the country. And then, that it should be treason for the Dutch to help the Allies when the invasion comes. Again, it’s this total confusion of cause and effect, which I think is rather important in understanding the right-wing German mentality.

Five Dials

Does the source material change, though, if you had an organized, confident army where everything is functioning well?

Antony Beevor

Berlin was difficult at times because, of course, by then they were in retreat, they might have lost their typewriters and they didn’t have bureaucratic backup.They didn’t have what they did in the more confident, successful days. But, on the whole, this was compensated for by many more people keeping diaries as they saw the war reaching a climax.

There’s no doubt about it, the best diary writers in the Second World War were women: in Italy, Iris Origo; in Germany, Ursula von Kardor and the anonymous diary of a Berlin woman; and so forth.

Often in Russia, too, the women were much more reliable observers because they were not trying to make themselves feel big, like some of the men.

I remember a conversation in Moscow with [historian] Anne Applebaum, when Anne said, ‘Is it just because I’m a woman? But when I’m interviewing gulag survivors, they say, “Sit down. Don’t interrupt. I’ll tell you what happened.’’’ And I said, ‘No, I promise you, I get the same sort of thing from Red Army soldiers.’

It was only afterwards, when taking the Metro back to Lyuba’s at one night, that I realized the truth, which was that the men had been so humiliated under the Soviet system. Now, here they were, telling foreign historians what happened. Also, it was the men who read all the official histories and then filtered their memories through what they’d then read. ‘Ah, I remember Zhukov! Zhukov was…’ You can imagine all that sort of stuff. But it was still worth doing some of the interviews in those days, because you would get explanations of things which sometimes were not clear in the archives.

But as far as reliability went, women were, without any doubt, far, far better. They’d kept their eyes open and their mouths shut at the time. They weren’t like the men, who were now trying to re-establish their position in history.

Five Dials

At the end of the war, the official sources decreased and the amount of diaries increased. Is that because people get a sense that they’re in history?

Antony Beevor

They know they are. Arnhem is a very good example of this. At the very end of August, there was a Minister in the Government in Exile in London who broadcast to Holland through the BBC, saying ‘Liberation is coming. Keep a diary.’ And that explains the quantity.

I had Angelique Hook, a Dutch researcher and helper, for Arnhem. We started working through the Dutch archives, NIOD in Amsterdam, which is a major Second World War archive. The material there is fantastic. I can read a little bit of Dutch, because of its similarity to German, but I would never dare do a translation or anything like that. It was enough for me to be able to skim a few diaries, while she was skimming others. But, also, it was a good way for her to get used to some of the sort of material to look for and all the rest of it. Rather like with Lyuba, as I say, right from the first moment she knew exactly what to go for. But with Angelique she was more nervous and far too conscientious, recording absolutely everything. I said, ‘You’re never going to have time. Look how many thousands of diaries they’ve got in this archive alone.’

Then we went to the Arnhem archives: the one in Nijmegen, the one in Eindhoven – all of these were not as large as NIOD, but they were still quite large. They all had local diaries of people.

Usually you can tell on the first page whether a diary is going to be good or not. You can tell from somebody’s observations how reliable you think they’re likely to be. You can pick it up quickly.

Five Dials

I’m always impressed by the quality of some of the prose in these diaries.

Antony Beevor

And also when you get ones that are slightly amusing.

I was amazed to find in NIOD the diary of a paratroop officer at Arnhem, which must have been written down day by day. I was astonished because it was totally illegal to keep a diary on the front line. The number of these diaries that were kept at Arnhem – partly recorded because they thought this was going to be the last operation of the war.

There’s a guy who was one of the Pathfinders. The British Pathfinders in Holland were the ones who dropped first to set up the landing zones. At least 10 per cent of them were German or Austrian Jews, who’d been interned in England, which was certainly a good twenty out of this strong company. Many of them went into the Commandos. They had to have dog tags with Church of England written on and they were given English names, which quite often they held on to after the war. These guys were screaming insults at the Germans. The Germans didn’t know what was happening. ‘Who are these Germans shouting at us from the British lines?’

Five Dials

I notice in Paris you described the street warfare. We’re accustomed to hearing about trench warfare. It’s a change to hear of fighting where people are applauding troops from the balconies of Paris; and there’s also the image of people going off to lunch and coming back.

Antony Beevor

You’ve got to have a sense of normality, but also you want to have a sense of the absurd; and let’s face it, you’re going to find tragedy in war, and all the rest of it, but also, slightly, to alleviate the horror and the suffering, you’ve got to find the odd amusing thing, because quite often there are some very funny things which happen in war, not surprisingly. You’ve got to provide the occasional bit of light relief to the reader.

In Arnhem the British, of course, are always trying to joke and never take war seriously. And there was another reason for the humour; it was also showing the difference between the British, the Americans, the Poles and the Dutch. The British would treat every battle as a party. ‘Well, one more party to go . . .’ Things like that. And this British mentality of never really taking things terribly seriously: it was rather ungentlemanly to do that, which, funnily enough, was picked up on by the soldiers too, who were compulsive jokers.

The Germans couldn’t quite understand the humour. There’s another one. One of the gliders is shot down. I got this out of a Dutch newspaper of the time. There’s a German officer who cannot understand why this British glider, which has been shot down, has scrawled on the side, ‘Is this journey really necessary?’ – which was one of the wartime slogans to civilians trying to persuade them not to travel. The Germans read it, scratching their heads, trying to work out if this was a special code or something like that?

Five Dials

To be fair, the Germans had, as you’ve detailed a couple of times, this dark, dark humour. The first paragraph in Berlin is full of bleak humour.

Antony Beevor

But that’s Berliner humour. Berliner humour was always very dark, and, interestingly, the Berliners were the least Nazi of the lot.

Five Dials

What was the coffin joke? ‘This Christmas give a coffin . . .’

Antony Beevor

Yes, ‘Be practical. Give a coffin.’

Five Dials

Were there other cases of German humour?

Antony Beevor

This wonderful American poet, Simpson, he couldn’t get over the very strange, dark German humour. He came across a little trench dug out in the shape of a coffin, with a cross at the end and an American helmet on top with a bullet hole through it, saying ‘Welcome, 101st Airborne Division’. He said, ‘They’re ghastly. The Krauts are a funny lot. Just all of the effort which has gone into this one joke.’

Five Dials

There seemed to be a difference in humour between the Germans on the Eastern Front and on the Western Front. In Stalingrad you mention returning soldiers carrying a handout for life back in Germany, which roughly said, ‘All dogs don’t have mines attached to them, so don’t shoot every dog you see.’

Antony Beevor

That was a samizdat. That was a joke. There were some quite good anti-regime jokes, but this particular one was not so much anti-regime as just pure German cynicism.

Five Dials

‘If you come across a locked door, use a key instead of a grenade through the window.’ It’s another example of how soldiers react to pressure.

Antony Beevor

Going to back to Arnhem, what was also interesting were the different notions of, say, patriotism. In the case of the Americans, they basically wanted to get the war over as quickly as possible and go home, but, if possible, make quite a lot of money on the way. Going into Holland? Well, that’s a country of diamonds, so let’s take our bazookas and see what safes we can liberate on the way.

The Poles, on the other hand, theirs was a burning spiritual flame, their patriotism. By God, they were gonna kill every bloody German they would ever come across.The Germans were terried of the Poles. In fact, even in the hospital, when Germans found out that that there were some Polish wounded there, they were really shaking with nerves and they said, ‘Oh, no. We are fine with the British, but not the Poles …’

Five Dials

Your books are full of these small, personalizing details. But do you trust all the details you come across? When reading these archives are you ever suspicious?

Antony Beevor

You’ve got to have a good nose, because sometimes a story will be too good to be true. You know that it is. For example, on Stalingrad, I remember when I started doing my background reading, one of the great books was Letzte Briefe aus Stalingrad, which translates as Last Letters from Stalingrad. It was one of the great bestsellers of the 1950s. It was massive in Germany.

I remember while I was reading it I thought this is too good to be true. It’s fantastic. There was an account of this concert pianist whose fingers had been broken and he was never going to play again. I thought, ‘Hang on.’ I wondered if it was published by reputable publisher. Had they checked their sources? Then I found that the real name of the guy who’d put the book together and he was, in fact, the commander of the propaganda company of the Sixth Army.

Goebbels had given an order after the defeat at Stalingrad that the letters, the last letters own back, should be assembled and some day they should make a wonderful, heroic book out of them. Because Stalingrad had been the most grotesque disaster, the project was slapped down. Well, this guy then had the idea of taking some of the ideas of the letters, but then embroidering and rewriting them as genuine letters.They were probably 90 per cent fiction. I remember at the time thinking, ‘Hang on, this is wrong.’ Then as soon as I got to Freiburg, to the German archives, I found that they did have some of the genuine last letters from Stalingrad in their files.

Some of the letters printed in the book were two or three pages long. A: they were all far too literary; B: they were far too long, because they were all suffering from the most appalling frostbite in their fingers and they could hardly hold a pen; and C: they’d only been given about a half an hour’s warning before the last aircraft was about to go – if you want to write a letter it’s got to be now. And so many of them would just write a couple of lines to say goodbye and no more than that.

You could immediately see that the published letters were all total fakes. So, fortunately, that’s when your nose starts to get that much more active sniffing out the false.

Five Dials

That’s the thrill of a historian’s detective work, realizing something practical, like the cold fingers, mean a source can’t be trusted.

Let’s talk about how history is viewed these days. Obviously, there’s the American President, who seems to love the fact that he doesn’t know any history. What are your thoughts on the danger of this situation that we’re in?

Antony Beevor

I’m slightly torn and mildly embarrassed. It’s been a huge bonus for historians, the fact that radio and television try to bring in historians on almost all modern crises. What I try to do at every single opportunity is to say that history does not repeat itself.

It’s very dangerous, the way that politicians compare a figure, for instance, Saddam Hussein to Hitler. We get it all the time. And when they want to sound Churchillian or Rooseveltian, they tend to invoke the Second World War, which is always totally wrong. The circumstances are wrong, and it can be extremely misleading and dangerous.

We can certainly learn from the past, and we must learn from the past, but that doesn’t mean that things can reproduce themselves in a similar way.

I was astonished when I went to Spain after the new version of my Spanish Civil War book came out in 2005. The Spanish journalists would say, ‘Do you think we’ll get another civil war in Spain?’ Then you have to explain, ‘Hang on a second. Circumstances have rather changed. One does see one or two worrying echoes of the past. There are echoes. There are rhymes. But it doesn’t mean that the past is ever going to repeat itself.’

What is worrying is the way that people, and particularly news programmes, tend to see history as some form of predictive mechanism. It can never be that. And nobody should ever, ever, ever make that sort of mistake. Based on what has happened in the past, what do you think’s going to happen now? That’s the usual thing. One has to be very careful how one handles those things.

Five Dials

If history is not predictive, what use should we have for it right now?

Antony Beevor

We can certainly learn from the past what happens when bullies are encouraged. We can learn from it. But it doesn’t mean that anything’s going turn out in the same way.

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