Antony Beevor is one of Britain’s most popular and eminent historians and has published widely on the history of Twentieth Century warfare. He is broadly recognised as revolutionising the genre of history writing and has secured No. 1 Bestseller spots internationally for his publications. In 1998 he published the ground-breaking novel Stalingrad, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthordon Prize for literature. This was followed by The Mystery of Olga Chekova in 2004, which examined the complex lives of the Chekov and Knipper families in Russia and Germany between the 1917 Revolution and the Second World War. Other titles include Berlin: The Downfall, The Battle For Spain and his newest publication The Second World War.
Russian Art and Culture Editor Theodora Clarke met Antony to discuss the popularity of his books, his interest in Soviet history and the role of the historian today.
Theodora Clarke: Let’s talk about your book The Mystery of Olga Chekova. What was it that attracted you to her story?
Antony Beevor: Well it came out during my research on the Berlin book, and funnily enough it was [the mother of my Russian translator] Galya Vinogradova who suddenly said ‘Do you know the story of Olga Chekova, particularly at the end of the war?’ We only had the vaguest idea, so I asked [my research assistant and translator] Lyuba Vinogradova to go to the Chekov House museum. She found there that they had a huge number of papers which she hadn’t expected to find about Chekova’s return to Moscow in 1945 after the Red Army reached Berlin. So I was really intrigued by the whole story and also particularly because I couldn’t face doing another major battle which was partly because of the horror of the material [from the Berlin book]. The idea actually of doing a book that was something totally different, and in this particular case about the family and above all the Russian-German relationship, particularly interested me. The Knippers and the Chekovs, they couldn’t have been more different and yet there was a sort of mutual fascination. I wondered whether it would actually say quite a bit about the Russian-German relationship in so many ways.
TC: The thing I found really interesting in the book was that the Moscow art theatre featured so prominently. You write about Stanislavsky and many major artists of the 1920s. What was it, do you think, about the Moscow art theatre that made it such a hub for all the cultural intellectuals in Russia at that date?
AB: It was the only theatre, because of its reputation, which was really not supressed after the revolution. Lunacharsky and others realised it was something to be preserved rather than destroyed, even though, of course, there were many within the Bolshevik party who felt this was Bourgeois sentimentalism of Chekov and so forth. They were not admirers of Chekov, so you had very mixed feelings within the party at that particular time towards him. As a result the fate of the Moscow art theatre was wrapped up in that debate and struggle. But what was intriguing was to find the whole question of the families and of the brother Lev Knipper, who’d been a White Guard in the Civil war which had a huge effect on the rest of his life. For Olga, she wanted to get out of Soviet Russia and got to Berlin, where of course she claimed that she had been trained by Stanislavsky and others, which was totally incorrect. But she was a brilliant bluffer and as a result managed to get these German film parts. And she was a great survivor. But the irony was that she was more or less of German origin in Berlin but with very Russian names (having married Chekov’s nephew Mikhail) and then being almost worshipped by Hitler. So it was all of these paradoxes which really fascinated me.
TC: One of the things I noticed when I was looking through all of your books is that there is a very strong focus on personal letters and diaries. It seems to me that you are very much focused on archival research. How important is that primary material to all of your writing?
AB: I think it’s vital. The main thing is some people, and I did to a certain degree, interview survivors, eye witnesses and so forth but one has to be very careful about it. You can still get wonderful nuggets and you can also get explanations of things you cannot quite understand in the archive. While working on Stalingrad, Anne Appelbaum, an old friend of mine was working on Gulag: A History. I remember during one discussion Anne said, ‘does it happen to you, or is it just because I am a woman but when I’m interviewing male survivors of the Gulag they simply say “don’t interrupt, sit down. I’ll tell you what happened”’ and I said to a certain degree that’s my problem too. We both agreed that Russian women were far better eyewitnesses than Russian men. It was only later, when travelling back on the Metro, it suddenly struck me that certainly in the case of the Red Army men they had been so humiliated by their officers in the way that their uniforms were stripped off the corpses to be passed on to other men for example, that when it came to recounting their experiences 60 or 70 years later, they were actually trying to reassert control. For the women that wasn’t an issue. They kept their eyes open and their mouths shut at the time and they weren’t trying to prove anything in their interviews. In the case of the men, they’d read the official accounts, the official histories and they had filtered their experiences through what they’d read and that of course is immediately a distorting prism. So that’s why one has to be very careful. Although I’m not saying that you should rule out interviews entirely, but you have to be extremely careful. The real material is when you know you’ve got stuff you can rely on.
For the Stalingrad book we first went to the Ministry of Defence to negotiate and the Colonel in charge said we have a simple rule in our archives, you tell us the subject, we choose the files! There was no point saying that’s not how it works in any other archives, so I said yes and told him what I found in the German archives where the most interesting reports were those by the German doctors and priests attached to particular divisions at Stalingrad. But the political officers’ report, from the political department, I thought would be very interesting and that actually was where all the gold was.
TC: How do you deal with that volume of material? Many of our readers are researchers or PhD students, who are in that writing and research process. Do you do all the writing after doing the research?
AB: Oh God yes! Oh yes I think it’s one of the key bits of advice and I had to break it on my latest book The Second World War simply because if I did all the research first I would just have drowned in all the material! So I had to do that stage by stage. But in all the other books the vital thing is to have finished your research before you start writing. It’s the old advice of Hemingway and Garcia Marquez: the first paragraph you should spend about three months over to get it right – the voice, the rhythm. Once you’ve got that right then you’re fine. But if you have to keep coming back and rewriting the beginning then you’re done for. And unless you finish your research you will have to keep coming back again and rewriting parts. So yes, you’ve got to do all your research first.
This is the wonderful thing about a computer; those of you who do not remember the days of the electric typewriter and the card index and so forth, before one was able to marshal the material with a computer, it was a nightmare! I think nowadays if I didn’t have a computer any of these books would have taken two to three years longer, at least. I’m not sure even whether one would have been able to get one’s head around the material or have been able to marshal it in the same way. That’s the marvellous thing, you can have a different file for every single archive and you can then start copying it across to the skeleton chapters. The marshalling process, which obviously comes after the research (I found with most of the books it was about three years research to one year’s writing), is the vital bit because if you get that right then you can also get a certain degree of narrative momentum. So you can make sure that the material which perhaps doesn’t work in a particular place will work much better elsewhere. I remember on the Berlin book I had one hundred and ten pages in one chapter just of notes from the archive and so you’ve got to do your triage of what you want to keep in and keep out. With a computer you can construct reserve chapters to put all the material you’re not going to select straight away and then return to see whether there’s something important you have left out at the end.
TC: You’ve been credited with making military history more accessible to the general public and there is much wider readership now for that kind of genre. Critics suggest it is because you use personal stories and look at how real characters experience war on the ground. Who would you say is your greatest influence in writing in that very particular way?
AB: Well the late lamented John Keegan, whom I studied under at Sandhurst, wrote a very short but very influential book called The Face of Battle examining the experience of war from a soldier in the front line rather than the General. Military history had always been written in terms of a game played by a grandmaster moving pieces around the board, which was never the case. It was always chaotic, horrible and messy. I had been moving in that direction but it was only really with the Stalingrad book that I realised that what we had to do was to integrate history from above with history from below. It was really the only way of conveying the consequences of the decisions of Stalin or Hitler on the ordinary person. That I think was for me the most important point. But the curious thing was that in 1995 when I was starting out in the early stage of research for Stalingrad it was also the anniversary of the Second World War, yet all the books on the subject failed to sell, it was a total disaster. I thought oh God, I really picked a good time to start on such a major project! So nobody had any great expectations when the book came out. Afterwards so many journalists immediately wanted to know what was the secret…
TC: You’ve sold nearly 2 million copies of Stalingrad now which must be a record! So why was it so popular?
AB: Well I think there’s not a simple answer but a whole combination of things. Factors include social change, attitudes to history which have changed and also living in a post-military society after the end of the Cold War. History was always written in collective terms in the past, for a country or an army for example. Since that extraordinary revolution which took place in the late 80s and early 90s, which we’ll still not be able to analyse properly for a long time, we don’t know how it all interacted. The geopolitical shift at the end of the Cold War, the invention of the internet – everything was coming together and whether they were interconnected or whether it’s coincidental, it’s impossible to tell. People’s attitudes to history had changed as a result and they were much more interested in the fate of the individual rather than that collective version of history of the past. So it just happened that Stalingrad was the right book at the right time and timing is everything in life. That’s what can suddenly push a book out of its category to become more universal. For example the number of women who’ve read it has astonished me.
TC: What was the reason that you chose Stalingrad as a topic?
AB: Well I have to admit I didn’t choose it. I was actually trying to do a totally different book. In fact I had already written a book that was a social study of the British Army a few years before and I was intrigued to find social changes that were happening in Britain at the time and consequently I wanted to do a much deeper and broader study. To begin with Penguin were quite enthusiastic about the idea then I got a call from my agent saying they wanted to discuss it. So I went with sinking heart. My editor explained why – that the book would be out of date by the time it was published because as were changing so fast – and she said we’ve got another idea for you: the battle of Stalingrad. I was horrified to begin with as this would mean spending months away in the archives both in Germany and in Moscow and I had very young children at the time. The prospect was pretty daunting to say the least and I had no idea whether I’d get the sort of material I wanted. So I started making excuses but my agent suddenly kicked me hard under the table and when I got home [my wife] Artemis said you’d be an idiot if you didn’t do it. But until that first day working in the archives I had no idea that I would actually be able to find the relevant material.
TC: You’ve written several books focusing on Soviet history; what is it that attracts you to this subject?
AB: I think what interested me most was the survival of the human spirit even in the worst excesses of totalitarianism. Writing about the Soviet Union is, to a certain degree, slightly like writing about Nazi Germany. One is fascinated and appalled at the repression, the lies and the complete distortions of both humanity and of truth in every way. One can also see the way that massive social engineering will quite often produce the opposite or the most unintended consequences both politically and socially. The fascination for me actually started with the Spanish Civil War which I first wrote about in the late 70s/early 80s. It was the Soviet intervention in Spain which started to intrigue me, but also I think that clash of trying to understand whether there was a solution ever on the left – I mean it was obvious that communism produced the most horrific system imaginable. I was intrigued particularly in Spain by the whole idea of the Anarchists and their idea of freedom and the similar situation in Russia with the suppression of the Anarchists there by the Communists just as it had happened in Spain. There was a similarity in a way (and one has to be very careful of course about historical parallels and similarities) between these two countries at the extremities of Europe. With these similar clashes of social change the question was did you follow a path of liberty or did you follow a regime of complete control? That was part of the fascination for me.
TC: What would you say is the role of the modern historian today?
AB: I think the role of the modern historian is frankly to understand and to convey that understanding. Analysis obviously comes into that understanding, but the key is not to theorise, not to have a leading thought or theory or thesis and then to prove it by selecting material. I find the most exciting thing, in a paradoxical way, is to discover in the archives that my previous thoughts were proved to be totally wrong. Its then that I think I’m actually finding something interesting rather than confirming what I knew already. But the other duty of the historian today I think is more importantly to warn the politician against the mistakes of false historical parallels. That is one of the great dangers today and we are seeing it partly with the collapse of the Euro. One saw it with the Iraq war and the way that Bush compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbour; Blair compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler and so forth. All of those things were deeply alarming because it actually affected strategy. Not only was the vision of the present being seen through the past but in the case of Bush he opted for state on state warfare rather than treating 9/11 as a security issue.
TC: Your latest publication is on World War Two which is a massive topic. Have you got any future plans? Maybe the First World War?
AB: No no, I’ve got to do one more book on the Second World War which I’ve always been intrigued by. It will cover the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 and then after that a mega biography of Napoleon.
TC: Quite a large topic!
AB: Well that’s due for delivery in 2021. So yes I’ve got my time cut out, but my dear father-in-law is still writing at 82 so I think one should keep long term plans going!
Interview conducted 22 August 2012. All content ©Russian Art and Culture
The Second World War is currently available in bookshops and from Amazon.
For more information on Antony’s work visit http://www.antonybeevor.com/