‘Stalingrad’ author on epic battle’s horrors and legacy

With a wife called Artemis and an award-winning book on the Battle of Crete under his belt, Antony Beevor is no stranger to Greece. He was in Athens this week for the Greek edition launch of his epic history «Stalingrad,» published by Govostis Press in Athens. The historian and former British army officer has emerged as arguably our era’s finest chronicler of war in all its confusion and heroism, valor and squalor. He has penned several novels in addition to his better-known non-fiction works. The latter include «The Spanish Civil War» (1982), «Crete – The Battle and the Resistance» (1991), «Paris After the Liberation, 1944-49» (1994, written with his wife Artemis Cooper), and, in May 2004, «The Mystery of Olga Chekhova.» His reputation as not only a first-rate historian but a deeply engaging writer was set with «Stalingrad» (1998), which has sold over a million copies worldwide and utilized recently opened Russian archives. His follow-up work, «Berlin – The Downfall 1945,» met with similar professional and public acclaim. Beevor’s work is marked by an intense humanity, and it is this rendering of the human side of a brutal battle that makes reading «Stalingrad» an unforgettable experience. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his work. What can people who are not familiar with «Stalingrad» expect from it? Stalingrad was one of the most inhumane or dehumanized battles in history and the challenge of writing about it as a historian, especially with the opening of the Russian archives, was to try to put back the human experience. What one needed to do was to show what the soldiers on both sides and the civilians caught up in this terrible battle were suffering as a direct result of the orders of their leaders: Stalin and Hitler. In a way, the point of the book was to integrate history from above with history from below. Stalingrad itself was, as most people know, the psychological turning point of the war. The war on the eastern front and particularly the Battle of Stalingrad was almost as much a battle of vanities as a war of ideology. Given that World War II must be the most exhaustively covered event in human history, why have you focused so much on this as opposed to other eras? It is the most interesting era in terms of moral choice. It is also the most important era in terms of the way it has shaped the world but also in human terms, it is the war that has had the greatest effect on the way it has marked, changed and ended people’s lives. More people died in World War II than in any other war in history, some estimates say as many as 80 million. It has never been paralleled in history. We’ve never seen as many mass rapes as the Red Army perpetrated in its assault on Germany. Everything is huge in that respect. The reason for writing about Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin was that very little was known about the eastern front in the west. If you watch «Saving Private Ryan,» it was the Americans that won the war but on Omaha Beach during the D-day landings, as shown in the film, they lost as many people that day as the Russians did on an average day during the war. I think it was high time that the British and the Americans started to face up to this imbalance. What prompted you to write a book about Crete’s wartime history? Crete has always fascinated me, partly because it was the only major island to have been captured by assault from the air. But, above all, what intrigued me from a human point of view was that it was a battle of wasted heroism. The people who suffered the most were the Cretans themselves. With the 5th Cretan Division still trapped on the mainland, young children, women, priests and old men armed themselves with anything from a sporting shotgun to kitchen knives and they went at the paratroopers, but their bravery and the bravery of the troops involved was wasted by the major strategic blunder of General Freiburg who had totally misunderstood the whole situation. Your books are acclaimed for their attention not just to strategic elements but to the human or emotional side of battle. Do you set out to illuminate this side of war or is your interest drawn that way in your research? Funnily enough, it’s developed that way over the years; the Crete book was the first step in that direction. I always hated the way military history was written, usually by generals who make out battles to seem like chess games between grandmasters. I knew from my own little military experience and from reading that this was far from the truth: It was chaos and fear and everything else… I realized that you needed to integrate history from above with history from below because you needed to see the direct consequences that leaders’ decisions had on soldiers and civilians. «Stalingrad» certainly underscores that this battle was one of the most pivotal of WWII. What special features of it genuinely surprised or struck you? One of the fascinations was something that goes back in literary terms to Xenophon’s 10,000. The idea of an army cut off, far from home has an extraordinary dramatic fascination – it’s part of the hubris of war. «Stalingrad» also provides a tremendous geographical and chronological focus which is easier than other books about World War II. Did you come across material that you found particularly shocking? Oh yes, my assistant was often in tears but I found it usually hit me 24 hours later. It usually hit me at night because when you’re researching, you’re just grabbing at information and not chewing it over. The descriptions of Red Army soldiers, for instance; young boys who were shot by their own side or orphans being shot by Russian snipers. It was totally brutal and there was a total lack of respect for any human individual. How did you manage to uncover verbatim conversations behind Kremlin walls or things Hitler said in private? Many of these were written down immediately afterward. In the case of Hitler, he had stenographers recording major conversations. As for the Kremlin, most Russian memoirs and accounts are written almost like a film or play script with detailed conversations on both sides and often written down later on. Do you think that we will ever see a battle as significant as Stalingrad again? Do you think we might look back on the siege of Fallujah, or the war in Iraq generally, in the same light? No, no, no. Before the Iraq war I was asked [frequently] whether I would do an article on Stalingrad-Baghdad. There was no way that Baghdad was going to be another Stalingrad and I tried explaining that to people many times but they didn’t seem to understand. But there are things that we can learn from Stalingrad. We may have assumed at the end of the Cold War that the terrible dehumanization of the enemy would never happen again but we must look at the dangers of dehumanization between Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. This doesn’t mean the past will repeat itself but there are certain parallels with the past that one would be very, very stupid to ignore. Your books are exhaustively researched yet appeal to the broader public. What gives more satisfaction, the heavy archival work or the end result? The archival work is a bit like detective work, so it can be exciting. The writing is also enjoyable. Thank God for the computer because with the old system of index cards for referencing, a book like «Stalingrad» would have taken eight years to write because I would have drowned in the information available. What’s next on the agenda? We are editing the Russian novelist Vassili Grossman’s wartime notebooks. It is the only honest eyewitness account by a Russian of what was going on in the eastern front, and they’ve never been done properly before. It will be coming out next year and then I will be working on a D-day book, which I know has been done before but there is a lot of good material left that hasn’t been touched.