How Does a Historian of War Sustain Any Faith in Humanity?
Five Dials in Conversation with Antony Beevor, Author of Stalingrad
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.
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 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.
For a while Stalingrad became the go-to present for anyone with a mild interest in history; it was a classic dad gift. 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 20th 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 battlefield. 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 confident 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 24 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.
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.“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: 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 catalog. 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 catalog?”
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 defense. 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 catalogs 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 benefited 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.
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 Kardorff 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 flat 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: 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 flown 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 percent 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 programs, 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.