BRIAN LAMB: Antony Beevor, author of The Second World War; when you first started thinking about doing this book, what was your objective?
ANTONY BEEVOR: It was rather embarrassing in a way. It was partly because in the past I’d always focused on particular battles, whether Stalingrad, Berlin, D-Day and Crete and so forth. And I realized that I just did not understand enough about the way the whole conflict fitted together.
And I think it was terribly important, really, to acknowledge that and therefore to understand it for myself, because the duty of the historian really is to understand and then to try to convey that understanding, and the way that, for example, the war in the Pacific affected the war in Europe or the way that the war in western Europe was affected by the fighting on the Soviet front. One really does need to understand this global; literally global aspect of the conflict.
LAMB: What kind of military experience have you had?
BEEVOR: I was a regular officer. I went to Sandhurst quite a long time ago. I was in a cavalry regiment, which meant we had tanks, in Germany, during the Cold War period, patrolling the East German frontier and all that sort of stuff. So it was a good preparation, because I’m not trying to say that every military historian has to have served in the forces, but I do think that it’s important that one understands the mentality.
So many people think that an army is a cold, mechanical organization. It’s actually an intensely emotional organization. And I think one needs to do that. I there are some women military historians who’ve been brilliant in what they’ve produced, but that’s because they’ve really put themselves into the boots of soldiers and really understand what they’re about, rather than coming from the outside and trying to impose theories on the organization.
LAMB: What is Sandhurst?
BEEVOR: Oh Sandhurst is the equivalent of West Point. In fact, we quite often did some joint exercises with cadets from West Point.
LAMB: In the beginning of your book, you say that 60 million people died in World War II. Can you break that down?
BEEVOR: Many will say that it’s quite a lot more than 60. In fact, when it comes to China, the conservative figure for China is 20 million, but there are some Chinese historians now arguing that it could sure be 40 million. When you’re looking at the Soviet Union, 26 million is the generally accepted figure; of those, 9 million military, 17 million civilian. It was one of the first wars in history where the civilian casualties completely outstripped the military casualties.
LAMB: How did you start this story and when did the World War II start, in your opinion?
BEEVOR: Well, it’s a very interesting debate, because every country has their own opinion or their own views of the Second World War, which is shaped by their experiences and thus become their memories. For the United States, the war began in December 1941. For the Russians, for the Soviet Union, it began in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
For most Europeans, you think of September 1939 and the German invasion of Poland as the start. But for the Chinese, it started in 1937, with the with the Japanese; the Sino-Japanese war. So there are many, many different versions and I think the important thing to understand, really, about the Second World War was that it wasn’t just a conglomeration of conflicts.
There were the state-on-state, the nation the great the great powers fighting each other, but also one has to remember, there was an element of international civil war and it was largely this international civil war, the splits throughout the word, almost, between fascism and communism, which led to the civil wars after the second world war; the Greek Civil War, the Chinese Civil War, and then ultimately to Korea and Vietnam.
LAMB: I’m going to show you some video. It was done by the American War Department. Frank Capra was the director.
BEEVOR: Oh yeah.
LAMB: This is just short, to give us kind of a sense of people. Let’s watch.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: With pagan pageantry, the district leaders from all over Germany swore personal allegiance to him; hypnotized to believe that they were members of a master race.
This film will deal with act 1 of the Nazi bid for world power; the most fantastic play in all recorded history. Hitler had seen Hirohito grab off Manchuria and other territory from the Chinese. He had watched Mussolini get away with the rape of Ethiopia. He had seen the democratic world look the other way, while these illegal aggressions were going on. And he smiled.
The collective action to enforce peace, the only weapon he had to fear had broken down. It was time now for the Nazis to start crossing borders. It was time for Hitler to put his plan into action.
LAMB: You write on page 746, and I’m going to jump to the end; ”he screamed and yelled in fury during the midday situation conference, then collapsed weeping in a chair; a little bit different image of Adolph Hitler than we saw there.”
LAMB: Where was this? What happened at the end?
BEEVOR: Hitler had been defying reality. He was in total denial psychologically. They were moments when I think that he realized by 1944 or 1945 that the war was going to end in Berlin, but at this particular stage, when he bursts into tears and collapses, I think he realizes that what he has done is to have brought the whole of Germany to destruction.
But he didn’t regret that. But he, in his sort of social Darwinian obsession that somehow the it was right for the strong to win, he even said that the German people have not proven themselves strong enough. Power now belongs to the Soviets, because in fact they have proved stronger and have conquered Nazi Germany. And so one sees an appalling perversity; that he was prepared to bring the whole of his own people down with him in a collective suicide, because he was determined himself to die.
LAMB: Where was he at the end? And what date was it?
BEEVOR: He oh well, this was this was in Berlin in April, as the Russians actually advanced in on the city, having surrounded it.
LAMB: Forty-five; 1945
BEEVOR: In 1945; sorry, yes.
LAMB: And what were the exact circumstances of the end of his life, the last couple of days?
BEEVOR: Well there was a strong element of, if you like, black comedy; grotesque farce. There was Hitler, still trying to order armies which no longer existed to counterattack; to come to Berlin to save him. In fact, the remnants of those armies were trying to escape to the American lines, so that they would not be sent into Soviet labor camps in Siberia.
And he was still sort of ranting and screaming about the Jews and the way that they had brought the war upon the world. This was his complete reversal of cause and effect, which was characteristic of Hitler and also characteristic of the of the German extreme right. And he, in those sort of last very that very last day and so he married Eva Braun finally; partly because she had insisted on dying with him and staying to die with him, and so this was sort of, in a way, her reward.
But he also saw he was certainly like Stalin; he was fascinated by movies, by the cinema. And you think in some ways that he saw himself as sort of almost a worldwide film director, directing this scrip and he didn’t want to fly out of Berlin to die in Berchtesgaden in his sort of Alpine retreat, because for him, the Gotterdammerung, the downfall should come in Berlin. That would make a more dramatic end to his whole life.
LAMB: How long had he been with Eva Braun before and where did they actually get married?
BEEVOR: Well they were actually married in the bunker; this is the bunker underneath the Reich’s Chancellery in Berlin. One feels almost slightly sorry for the official who was suddenly dragged in from his Volkssturm, which is a militia battalion defending the city, in order to come in to marry Hitler and Eva and had to ask of them if they were free of hereditary diseases and were they of Arian birth.
It must have been slightly intimidating asking Hitler that, I suppose, at that particular moment, but it was part of the Nazi wedding ceremony. And then they had this sort of strange little reception. But upstairs, in the Reich’s Chancellery, there were scenes of sort of, frankly a drunken orgy and all the rest of it, complete dissertation.
LAMB: So what is has been done with that bunker today?
BEEVOR: Well, the bunker; the Russians tried to blow it up, because it was in the Soviet-occupied zone. But the with five meters of concrete, which was covering the roof, only a little part of it collapsed, so they just covered it over.
And after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the West German government felt that they should start to do something with that particular area and they were going to excavate and they suddenly realized that, in fact, the bunker was still there, under the ground, and they were terrified that it would become a shrine to neo-Nazis so it was rapidly covered over again and it’s now sort of, I think sort of camouflaged as a as a sort of park.
But I remember climbing up the palisades to have a have a look in at that particular moment, when it was briefly exposed. I mean that was only really a bit of concrete and so forth, but.
LAMB: So you didn’t see inside of it.
BEEVOR: No, no, no. You couldn’t get you couldn’t get inside. I have heard one or two people claim that they got into the bunker through a tunnel from one of the canals; that there was an escape tunnel, but I’m slightly dubious about these stories.
LAMB: You write about that time period, when the end was coming, for people that also lived in Berlin, and who was heading toward the city at the at the end there, in 1945?
BEEVOR: Well in 1945, you had in the west, you had basically the British in the north and the Canadians in the north, and then opposite Berlin, all the way down the river; River Elbe, you had the American different American armies, particularly the 9th Army, and that was when Eisenhower gave the order to halt, as the Russians, the various the Soviet, Belarusian 1st Belarusian front and 2nd Belarusian front and 1st Ukrainian front, in a massive operation, were encircling Berlin.
And the interesting thing about that, which we discovered in the Soviet archives, in the Russian archives, was that the reason why Stalin was so insistent on surrounding Berlin first was he was terrified that the Americans were going to break through. He wanted to get the nuclear material and also the nuclear scientists who were in Berlin at that particular time, because he wanted them for Operation Borodino, which was the Soviet attempt to create nuclear weapons, because he knew from his own spies about the Manhattan Project in the United States and the creation of the atomic bomb, that was going ahead here in the United States.
LAMB: So go back to the moment
that Adolph Hitler was getting near the end. Who was in the bunker with him and what was his plan?
BEEVOR: Hitler, by then, had virtually no plan. I mean when he realized that these armies, or remnants of armies, were not coming to his aid, but were trying to escape, really, to the west, that’s when he collapsed, when he felt he realized finally that it was going to come to an end and it was only a question of suicide.
His main objective was simply not to be captured alive by the Russians. He was afraid of being paraded through Moscow in a cage and being spat at and ridiculed and all the rest of it, so he was determined to die and Eva Braun was determined to die with him. And in the bunker, and I spoke to I’ve spoken and interviewed some of the people who were there in the bunker with him; there were various generals and others.
Some were allowed to escape and some certainly did escape. Others had to wait until Hitler himself had killed himself and Eva Braun, and then also had to wait until Goebbels, the minister the propaganda minister had killed his children and his wife in a sort of suicide; mass suicide. And then they tried to escape through the Russian lines. Some of them made it; only a very few, but others were caught and shot down or committed suicide before they were captured.
LAMB: Who was there that you were able to talk to?
BEEVOR: Well one person, who’s a very extremely reliable witness, was in fact the chief of staff to General Krebs, who was the commander in chief and chief of the general staff. And this was General Freytag von Loringhoven, and I must say his accounts; also General Damasia, who in fact was visiting frequently.
But I also interviewed Hitler’s telephonist, who was an S.S. telephonist called Rochus Misch. And it was an extraordinary experience, sitting in his parlor in Berlin, drinking tea as he showed us his photograph albums, which were basically photograph which he’d taken himself of Hitler playing with his Alsatian, with his shepherd dog; German shepherd, Blondi, and things like that, as if and he was sharing this so proudly you know like his holiday snaps.
But Rochus Misch was there when Hitler’s body was carried past to be set on fire up in the Reich’s Chancellery Garden, along with the body of Eva Braun. And he recounted to us how one of the S.S. guards who’d been getting very drunk upstairs; there were drinking up the last of the alcohol before the Russians arrived, staggered down the stairs and shouted out to him, hey, the Chief’s on fire. Do you want to come and have a look? I mean it for me, this sort of summed up this grotesque ending of such an appalling regime.
LAMB: Specifically, how did he kill himself and how did she die?
BEEVOR: The he Hitler she took she took poison. They all had these sort of cyanide capsules and Hitler also had a small pistol and basically he crunched into the cyanide pistol (ph); same for the cyanide capsule and then shot himself as well, to make doubly sure.
LAMB: Why didn’t she shoot herself?
BEEVOR: She did not want to disfigure herself, even in death. She was rather vain.
LAMB: You know one of the things that I saw here, and I know it’s been done before, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her referred to as Eva Hitler.
LAMB: Did you do that on purpose?
BEEVOR: No, she insisted on it. I mean when the servants sort of forgetting about the wedding ceremony, referred to her as Fraulein Braun; she immediately corrected them. No, no, no; Frau Hitler. And she in fact, it was quite interesting. When she signed when she signed the wedding the marriage register, you can actually see the way she signed Eva B. and she’d started with the B of Braun and then crossed that out and then wrote in Hitler.
LAMB: Is there anything new in the book?
BEEVOR: Yes. I think there’s quite a bit that’s new.
LAMB: Give us an idea of the kind of things that you’ve discovered as you went about this.
BEEVOR: I think one of the major elements, which was this was material which was sort of passed on to me after my book on Stalingrad. And quite often what happens is you finish a book and then suddenly lots of interesting material arrives and Professor Rzheshevsky, who was the academician who headed the Second World War Historians’ Association in Moscow, passed me a lot of material, especially from the KGB archives or the old F.S. the old NKVD, about Stalingrad.
But also, the material came out about Operation Mars. Now when they surrounded Stalingrad, they had this huge diversion in the center of the front, to tie down German forces there. And what became clear was not only did they send six Soviet armies into the attack, without really any artillery support, clearly to tie them down; they even betrayed the plans in advance to the Germans.
I mean this was one of the most cynical, appalling, ruthless acts in the whole history of warfare; 215,000 casualties, as many, really, as the Allies had in Normandy and D-Day combined. And Stalin was prepared to sacrifice that, just purely to make sure that the Stalingrad operation worked.
In the in the Far East, I mean I think one of the things which shocked me the most was to discover that the Japanese had used cannibalism as an actual strategy; the killing of prisoners and of locals, but of prisoners of war as well, and using them as human cattle, just literally slaughtering them one by one for their meat. And this was this was actually strategy. It was when they were ordered to adopt so-called self-sufficiency. When they’d been cut off by the U.S. Navy, they didn’t have any further supplies. And it was also happening in China as well.
Now when, in 1945, during the investigations; the Australian War Crimes Commission and the American authorities discovered this was the case, they decided to suppress it and it stayed suppressed for a very, very long time for the very good reason that most families who’d had a relative who’d died in Japanese imprisonment would of course would have (ph) been sort of psychologically traumatized by wondering whether you know their relative had been killed for
LAMB: Was this the same incident that you referred to when General MacArthur suppressed the it was either the prosecution of somebody in the in the after the war?
BEEVOR: Yes. He suppressed the prosecution of the officers involved in what was called Unit 731, which was their biological and chemical warfare development site in Manchuria, near Harbin. And the point was that, in exchange for all the information and I’ve heard there were a lot of sort of, shall we say, very dubious deals done at the end of the war, whether with German rocket scientists or with the Japanese scientists involved in these appalling experiments on prisoners. Then they were they escaped prosecution and some of them were actually sort of brought to the United States and used for their knowledge.
LAMB: This is an 850-page book. There’s an enormous amount of battles and names and how did how did you do this?
BEEVOR: Shall we say with a certain amount of difficulty and a good deal of panic in the early stage.
LAMB: When did it start?
BEEVOR: Oh, I mean in a way, it’s been an accumulation of material for over a quite a long period of time. But when I actually started on it was about 3, 3-1/2 years ago. It was a very difficult one. I mean the vital thing, really, was the question of structure and then the marshalling of the material.
And once it started to fall into place, then, if you like, my panic started to subside, but up until that point, it was a sort of worrying thing of whether I’d sort of taken on too much, because I mean we were just simply overloaded, overwhelmed, drowning on this in the quantity of material and detail.
LAMB: Fifty chapters.
LAMB: Why did you decide to lay it out the way you did and how would you describe the way you laid it out?
BEEVOR: Well, I always believed in a narrative history, because I think one needs to have that chronological order, rather than, if you like, a thematic construction or a where you might have, say, a part of the book about the Pacific War, part of the book about the war in Europe, or something like that.
I do believe that it needs to be in chronological order, as a narrative, not just from the point of view that it’s easier to understand if like it’s a story, but also that that is the way that you can show the effects of one theater upon another at critical moments and really major changes in the course of the war.
But I mean narrative history, thank God, is an Anglo-Saxon tradition, going all the way back to Sir Gibbon in 18th century and all the rest of it. It’s totally different to the German version of history, which has always been very much more their idea that it’s scientific. Well history can only be a branch of literature. It cannot be tested in a laboratory and I don’t believe in this notion of scientific history.
LAMB: But give us the atmosphere that you’ve would have we would have found you in give us the back the setup; the where you right and how you would you go about putting all this information on paper.
BEEVOR: Well, I was having huge help, again, as usual, from my sort of colleagues who I’ve worked with now for many, many years. I mean Luba Vinogradova, who I’ve worked with now for 17 years and she knows exactly the sort of material that I’m looking for and all the rest of it in the in the Russian archives, so she was providing me with material from that direction and from Germany. Angelica von Hase, who I’ve worked for a very, very long time, was also doing that.
So, when that material would arrive, obviously they would all be in different files and then I could copy it across to the skeleton chapters. I mean to begin with, actually, there were nearly 60 skeleton chapters, so I gradually sort of eased them down or whatever. You’re never really going to know how it’s going to work out. I mean sometimes you get so much material from the archives; I remember even on the Berlin book that on one chapter I had 110 pages of notes, just for one chapter, and this is from the archives alone, let along the books.
So you know this is where you have to do your triage of information of material and what you drop out and put into it, for like into a reserve chapter. And then you can go back later and check if there’s anything very important that you have removed and maybe should go back in. But it’s the only way.
When you think of the old days, when one had to work with card index systems and you know typing it out on an electric typewriter and photocopying and all the rest of it; thank God for the computer. I mean I don’t think a book like that would have I mean it would have taken two years, at least, longer.
LAMB: Where were you physically located to write the book?
BEEVOR: Well this is in England, in down in the countryside, near Canterbury. I’ve got I’ve got a barn which I’ve sort of converted into a library, which has got sort of books all the way around and the important piece of equipment is the Ping-Pong table, because for spreading out the maps and also for the piles of photocopies from all the different archives, because otherwise, in too small a room, one would descend into chaos.
LAMB: And when you write, what time of day do you do it and on what?
BEEVOR: Oh, on a on a laptop and you know I’ll start I’ll start as soon as I can; usually 8:30 and usually by 8:30 or 9:00, and I’ll carry on. I mean there’ll be a break during the day. I’ll have to go and have a walk or something like that. You can’t sit there for all that time. And then I’ll carry on till usually it’s about sort 7:30, quarter to 8:00 in the evening.
LAMB: How do you do research? Do you do that all first and then write or do you do it as you go?
BEEVOR: Ideally, yes. I mean I think that both Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort of both argued that you should spend sort of several months on the first paragraph and then the whole book will write themselves. I’m not suggesting that’s necessarily the case here. Always in the past I always felt very strongly that you shouldn’t start to write until you’d finished all of your research.
But I realized on the book; I mean you know that I would be simply overwhelmed by the material, so I did need to change my method and start writing on a at an earlier stage. And you know once it once it gets going, it is vital to establish, I think, what your voice, your rhythm and everything in that sort of early part. If you don’t get the early part of the book right, I don’t think you’re ever going to really going to get it right. You can go back and you can keep rewriting the start, but I don’t think you’ll you won’t get that rhythm and the voice which you need.
LAMB: We’ll go back to the beginning in a moment. This is a piece of video and I want your assessment of how important thing that we’ll see happen is.
NARATOR: The Czechs mobilized and closed their borders. The leaders of France and Britain desperately striding to avoid war, flew to meet the two Axis leaders at Munich. On September 29th, in return for Hitler’s guarantee of world peace, Chamberlain and Daladier prevailed upon Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland without a fight.
In Czechoslovakia, the Munich Pact was greeted by riots of protest. But Daladier returned to France to be greeted by cheers from a relieved French people. And in Britain, a happy Chamberlain came back declaring he had achieved peace; ”peace in our time.” One of the most tragic and ironic scenes in all history.
NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM: I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Heir Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it, as well as mine. We regard the agreement signed last night and Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.
LAMB: How many people at that time, from your research, did not believe what Chamberlain was telling them?
BEEVOR: I’m afraid the vast majority did believe it. And that was true of France as well. What we must remember is that both countries, and particularly France, which had had such grievous losses in the First World War, couldn’t really believe that any other country would want to repeat the horrors of the First World War. They completely misunderstood Hitler and, in fact, the determination of many German people to like correct the mistake of 1918, of the German defeat and the attitude of the Germans that they had not really been defeated; it was only by a trick.
And I think one of the common elements between, if you like, 1938 and today and the Euro crisis is that that populations of Western Europe were severely misinformed by the leaders and by the press on what the real threat was and that’s certainly true today. I don’t think that leaders in Europe can actually tell the populations of their countries quite how desperate things are, because otherwise the dangers, the acceleration and panic will be even worse.
The one difference between the two, of course, is that the threat of war tends to unify a nation and the threat of economic collapse is that much more divisive. But in 1938, what I think is significant is there was a minority of there was Churchill, Eden, Duff Cooper, various others who were warning very clearly what the threat was, but they were treated as Cassandras, as or as warmongers, even. And I think it’s significant that Churchill could not come to power until after the war had started and in fact he didn’t arrive in power until May the 10th, 1940 which would happen to be the very day that the Germans launched their invasion of the Low Countries of Holland, Belgium, and also of France.
LAMB: Sudetenland is where?
BEEVOR: Sudetenland is the, if you like, the most western part of the Czechoslovakia, and in fact it was sort of likepeople referred to it as the cigar stuck in the mouth of Germany. And there were a lot of a large sort of German population there.
I mean one has to remember, at that particular time, how many Germans there were spread around different parts of Europe, who’ve been in under the sort of the empires, the German Empire, but also of course the Austria-Hungarian Empire and that had been part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. And Hitler’s argument at the time, of course, was that I want to bring the Germans back within the Reich. And many people thought well you know he’s only trying to get the Germans back.
And so they had a certain sympathy, or at least they weren’t prepared necessarily to fight over that. And it seemed to be a small price to pay for world peace. That was the one of the reasons. But in fact, as was shown very soon afterwards, when Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia the following March, in 19 March 1939, he was not just interested in just getting the Germans back; he was actually interested in seizing the territory of other countries.
LAMB: Why do you think Chamberlain thought he was going to live up to the signature on that piece of paper?
BEEVOR: Well, as Duff Cooper said of Chamberlain you know as Lord Mayor of Birmingham, which had been his sort of previous position, nobody had ever broken their word to Mr. Chamberlain and he could not imagine Hitler breaking his word. He was very naοve in that particular way. He was a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer. He’d done many good jobs, but he was, as one could see from, if you like, the wing collar and the Edwardian mustache and a rolled umbrella, particularly unable to face up to the gleaming ruthlessness of the Nazi regime.
LAMB: By the way, if you had to pick one human being out of this book that you’ve written that you could write a book about, who would it be?
BEEVOR: Well actually there’s a cast of thousands almost.
LAMB: Who would be your first choice?
BEEVOR: Well too many people have already written about Churchill. I would actually therefore attempt to do that. And in many ways, also, I didn’t sort of see myself necessarily as a biographer of that particular period. I’m I’ve always been fascinated by Eisenhower about both his qualities and his certain one or two of his weaknesses as well. Patton is a fascinating character, and obviously that’s, again, a sort of a huge temptation. But one sees these sort of various limitations on leaders of that particular time.
But I’ve always been rather struck by the way that many of these commanders, particularly on the Allied side, not on their part in the armies of the totalitarian regimes, but the Allied commanders had spent most of their military life in complete isolation and anonymity and maybe you never heard of them and suddenly they became film stars, actually, with journalists and news field (ph) cameras and unable to report any of the military details because of security and secrecy, so they could only really face focus and make sort of personality count of these commanders.
Now most of them sort of, such as Nimitz and others, who are much too modest and in fact remarkable commanders, were totally unphased by that, but one or two, I mean certainly MacArthur and, to a certain degree, Patton, and I’m afraid above all, Montgomery, sort of almost did see themselves as film stars or Presidential candidates, in this sort of new role and I think that their vanity was inflated to a dangerous degree.
LAMB: One small question. You say that Montgomery actually had photographs of himself that he would sign and pass out?
BEEVOR: Yes, absolutely.
LAMB: Who wanted them?
BEEVOR: Well unfortunately, rather a lot of people did. I mean one has to remember that Britain was rather short of military heroes at that particular time, particularly in the senior ranks. I mean you know the generalship in the early part of the war had been distinctly unimpressive. So as soon as Montgomery had won the battle of Alamein, largely through very good preparation rather than through tactical brilliance during the battle you know he did become a hero and we were desperate for that sort of hero, I suppose at the time, and Montgomery actually became almost fatuous in the way that he was carried away by his self image at that particular time, but
LAMB: You have a little bit of a scene in the book where you compare Montgomery with Mark Clark, our general with your general. I guess I’d just never seen him before; I didn’t know Montgomery was that short.
LAMB: And that Clark was that tall.
BEEVOR: Oh yes, oh yes.
LAMB: What was their relationship?
BEEVOR: well, shall we say one, certainly on the Clark side, one of intense jealousy. Clark was absolutely obsessed with the idea of capturing Rome before the British. And in fact his even his own staff officers were really rather dubious about this sort of obsession. In fact they used to refer to the way that he made sure that his truly imperial profile was photographed by from the right side by all the correspondents. And they used to refer to him as Marcus Aurelius Clarkus, with his desire to capture Rome. And he was intensely distrustful of Montgomery.
I think actually, in this particular case, unnecessarily so. Anyway, Montgomery then went back to Britain for the preparations for D-Day and Clark became even more obsessed. He even sort of threatened, apparently, to
Well in fact, he even claims it in I think in his own memoirs that he threatened the British that if they got to Rome first, he would actually fire on them. I mean, I’m afraid sometimes, and I think this is one of the few cases in the Second World War that sort of the charisma of leadership can actually psychologically unbalance people.
LAMB: How many books would you’ve had to have read in order to write this book?
BEEVOR: Oh dear. I mean really one’s gotten what one lists in the bibliography, but I mean in terms of the other ones, a huge number. I mean it’s been several thousand. But I mean you could you could go on reading all your life; researching all your life and you’d never you’d never finish it completely.
LAMB: Let’s go back to the beginning.
LAMB: For some reason or other, you picked one human being to lead your book off.
LAMB: A picture of a man who died in Illinois, but he had quite a history. Who was he and what’s the story?
BEEVOR: Well he was a young Korean. At the age of 18, he was grabbed by the Japanese and forced into their army in Manchuria, because Korea at that stage was a Japanese colony. And his name was Yang Kyoungjong. And he was with the Japanese army when there was the major clash with the Russians with the Red Army at Khalkhin-Gol in August of 1939 and I, in fact, use that for me is the start of the Second World War, because the battle at Khalkhin-Gol, on this Mongolian-Manchurian frontier was actually one of the most influential battles of the war.
It wasn’t that large. I mean you know we’re only talking about we’re only talking about sort of you know 60,000 men on one side and in comparison the huge conflicts later on, it was pretty small. But it was very, very influential in the way that it persuaded the Japanese not to try to fight the Soviet Union and to attack sites which later led, of course, to Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Malaya and so forth.
But anyway, poor Yang was captured by the Russians at this particular battle at Khalkhin-Gol, put into a labor camp, along with thousands of other prisoners of the Japanese army. But then later, to manage a crisis in 1942, the Russians grabbed him and thousands of other prisoners and forced him into a Red Army uniform to fight the Germans.
And he was then captured by the Germans in ’43 at Kharkov and then the Germans, later on, put him into a Wehrmacht uniform and along with lots of other Russian prisoners, he was forced to serve in what was called an Ostbataillone, an eastern battalion in Normandy to defend the Atlantic wall. And so come 6th of June, 7th of June, with the landing of the American paratroopers on the Cherbourg Peninsula, he was captured then finally by the Americans, taken back to England, where he was put in a prison camp for a bit and then transferred to a prison camp in the United States.
So having been all the way around the world, he actually then settled in the United States after he was released at the end of the war and died in Illinois in 1992. But the point, really, of the story is not just that he emphasizes the global aspect of the war, but it shows how, for most people, they had no control over their own fate.
LAMB: Where did you find it, though? When and when did you decide to open your book with it?
BEEVOR: Well, I when I saw the photograph and I came across the account and I’d sort of tried to double-check it as far as I could, the reason why it grabbed my imagination so much was that my father was in fact the in charge of commanded special operations executive in Italy, which was our equivalent of OSS. And he’d always told me, and I remember this story as a child, how a German soldier, but in fact of Asian origin or looks had been captured by the British and maybe you could find out where he came from, because he couldn’t they couldn’t find what language he spoke.
And finally there was an English priest who had been attached to one of the a chaplain attached to one of the divisions who’d been a missionary in India and he spoke to him in Tibetan and this man collapsed in tears. It was the first time he’d heard his language in three years. And apparently he’d been picked up by a Soviet border patrol on the edge of Tibet and grabbed and pushed into the Red Army. So having heard that story as a child and then when I came across this particular story, it had a huge resonance for me.
LAMB: Couple of quick things. Where did most of the fighting I mean just divide it up between the east and the west. Where did the most people get killed?
BEEVOR: Oh, I think without any doubt, on the eastern front; particularly what one could describe, the borderlands of Poland, Belorussia, the Baltic States, the and Ukraine. There is no doubt that that is where the bulk were killed, both in the prison camps, the death camps, but also Soviet prisoners starved to death, who’d been captured by the Germans. I mean when you’re talking about these sort of huge numbers of figures, there is no doubt that the back of the Wehrmacht was actually broken on the Eastern Front.
The west made major contributions in terms of Lend-Lease, which made a vast contribution, if you like, to the Soviet victory, but there’s no doubt that, in fact, it was the Soviet Union which broke Germany’s path.
LAMB: Where did the Americans lose the most people; in the Pacific or in over in the Atlantic?
BEEVOR: On the whole, you can’t really sort of say that it was it was the casualties in the final year started to mount up pretty in a pretty large way in Europe, but I mean the casualties in the Pacific, on the whole, were the heavier.
LAMB: You’re British; tell the American people, from your perspective, how did the Americans do in World War II?
BEEVOR: Well the Americans made the huge contribution, not just in the question of the human sacrifice and the Far East with the Marines and the Army there and particular in North Africa and, above all, in D-Day and in the fighting in northwest Europe, but the industrial contribution was simply staggering. I mean one of my favorite quotes which I put in the book is the American general who said that the U.S. Army does not solve its problems; it overwhelms them.
And I thought that the way that that illustrated this sort of cornucopia of tanks, aircraft, liberty ships, all rolling off production lines. I mean it was one of the most astonishing achievements in human history. And there’s no doubt about it. I mean the reason why the Russians got to Berlin before the Americans was quite simply that fact that it was American Dodge, Studebaker, Chevrolets and all the trucks that had been given to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease had made their advances in ’43 and especially in ’44 possible. They’d never have got anywhere near it. That’s not very popular when you tell Russian historians.
LAMB: Where were we weak?
BEEVOR: I think I think that the weakness was only right at the beginning, if you like. Inevitably, like every army entering a war, particular it’s a civilian army, basically, which was had been swollen. I mean one has to remember the size of the American Army, going from sort of you know little more than 100,000 up to up to 8 million. I mean that was one of the astonishing achievements under General Marshall. And of course there was going to be a weakness at the beginning you know until you’ve actually been bloodied in battle and all the rest of it.
But where I think that the I mean the British were very arrogant in a way as sort of referring to the Americans as green troops and so forth. But in fact, my God, the Americans took learned their lessons very, very quickly. Churchill used to make a joke, saying you know the Americans always do the right thing in the end, having tried everything else beforehand, which I think was slightly unfair, because the Americans, as I say, learned very fast and learned quickly more quickly on the job, I think, than the British did.
LAMB: This is again out of context, but it’s near the end and it jumped out. This is nothing new for us to hear, but it’s rather precise. Roosevelt, looking old and frail
with his mouth hanging open most of the time, sometimes did not appear to follow what was going on. You’re talking about Yalta.
LAMB: How serious was that and did he make a mistake, or did we as country make a mistake having him there at that table?
BEEVOR: Well the whole state of Roosevelt’s health was of course kept completely a secret and it was very hard for Roosevelt’s associates and companions basically to say, Mr. President, are you sure you’re up to it. He was desperate to be there and the trouble was, he was desperate to be there, because his great obsession was to leave a legacy of peace in the post war world. And he thought he could do a deal with Stalin; that he could charm Stalin into supporting his project to the United Nations. And that was the thing dearest to his heart.
In a way, I think the huge mistake was that he completely underestimated the ruthlessness of Stalin and Stalin’s total contempt for any democratic idea or ideal, and especially over Poland. And this is where Churchill became increasingly horrified; the that at Yalta, Roosevelt announced that he was going to withdraw all the American troops in Europe, which of course was absolute music to Stalin’s ears.
And in fact Churchill was even at one stage, just after the war ended, even contemplating the idea that somehow we should push the Russians back to force them to behave over Poland, in what was called Operation Unthinkable.
But I think that it was one of the great dangers. I think that the main failing of Roosevelt was the belief; an excessive belief in his own charm and ability to win Stalin round to his way of thinking. Stalin wasn’t going to be won round by anybody.
LAMB: I don’t know that this is a relevant question, but who was worse, Stalin or Hitler?
BEEVOR: It’s a great
LAMB: Oh let me let me ask it this way; Stalin or Mao?
BEEVOR: Ah, well. I think one of the more interesting remarks was that of Andre Sakharov, the great scientist and physicist and dissident. And he said although and this was in reference to those two, Stalin and Hitler. He said although Stalin killed more people than Hitler you know Hitler still had to be defeated first, and I think that’s absolutely true, because if Hitler had won in the Soviet Union, the deaths I mean the hunger plan alone counted on 30 million Russians dying of starvation. I mean it would have dwarfed even the even the holocaust.
In the case of Mao; yes. I mean you know but it’s again a question of figures. I mean 60 million, however many Chinese died; as many as almost the whole of the Second World War in those famines. Now you know
LAMB: This is after the war?
BEEVOR: This is after the war, obviously. The especially during you know the Great Leap Forward and later in the Cultural Revolution and so forth. I mean that was it was a madness of the most terrifying, terrifying form.
But you know do how do how does one calculate these sort of figures of deaths through famine or disease as a result of malnutrition? You know it’s very, very hard to start sort of defining these figures and categories.
LAMB: I’m trying to find the quote, of course I can’t fast enough, but there was a quote in here that people might be surprised about and that would be where you quote Teddy White, who was such a prominent figure in this country in the ’60s, when he wrote about the elections.
LAMB: Buying the Mao as a successor to Chiang Kai-shek as being a better deal.
BEEVOR: Yes. I’m afraid the war’s, say a lot of, shall we say New Deal idealism and I think that certainly more and more historians now are accepting that in fact Chiang Kai-shek has had rather a bad deal in history. He had an impossible situation. Yes, there was a lot of corruption within his own organization and all the rest of it, but when you see what Mao did later; the witch hunts of any opponent, the killings, the humiliation and destruction of almost anybody who might be slightly dubious, let alone oppose Mao’s personal command.
I mean it wasn’t a question of being anti-communist; it was a question of unless you absolutely bowed down to Mao as a as a god you know you were regarded as an enemy. And this was madness, frankly. But it was terrifying that so many people were able to bow buy the story which the Communists were the Chinese Communists were putting out at the time; that they were the ones fighting the Japanese and the Nationalists were doing nothing.
This is totally untrue. Mao was very careful and was giving orders the whole time to his troops. You know don’t take on the Japanese; we need to keep our weapons and our ammunition ready to destroy the Nationalists in the civil war that will follow inevitably, which will follow the Second World War.
LAMB: I want to show you some video, a man you know and then ask you about him. He we’ve gotten to know him a little bit here. This is back in 2003.
SIR JOHN KEEGAN, BRITISH MILITARY HISTORIAN: I think Hitler’s real mistake, if he wanted to win, was not to have organize planned and organized his scientific program better than he did. Germany made was enormously successful in the development of critical military technology, between, well, 1936, say and 1944.
By 1944, the Germans had the following technological achievements to their credit; they had built and flown the first helicopter, they built and flown the first jet aircraft, and they had built and flown the first cruise missile, and they had built and flown the first extra-atmospheric missile, the VII. But all these weapons were either not fully developed or but came too late into production.
LAMB: What impact did Sir John Keegan have on your life?
BEEVOR: A great deal. I studied military history under him at Sandhurst, where he was he was a wonderful influence in the way that he was provocative, in the sense he made us think of things from a totally outside different angle, whether our role as an officer a future officer and all the rest of it. But we all every military historian owes John a huge debt. Really on his first major his first book, really, his important book which was The Face of Battle.
And this was the first time that military history had been looked at, if you like, from below, rather than in the collective version of history in the past, where you know generals and staff officers had tried to impose an order which had never existed on the battlefield and made it sound as if military commanders were somehow sort of chess grandmasters. And this was totally misleading and John turned that upside down and so as a result we’ve always been in his debt.
LAMB: Where is he today?
BEEVOR: He is at home in Wiltshire in Kilmington. He’s not well, I’m afraid. He’s mainly bed he’s bedridden, in fact, and incredibly brave. I mean I’m afraid he’s always suffered very badly from bad health and all the rest of it, all his all his life, but it’s been it’s been particularly cruel in recent years.
LAMB: Well you couldn’t tell that looking there, but he had a terrible handicap with one of his legs, as I remember.
BEEVOR: That’s right.
LAMB: Was that was that polio? I can’t remember.
BEEVOR: Well from childhood; yes. And in a way, that was always what I think what had he’d been fascinated as a as a small boy at the time of D-Day and when we saw all the troops assembling and all the rest of it. And he knew that he would never be able to go with them.
But one of the reasons why he was such a good military historian was that although he could never obviously serve in the army, he was fascinated by the role the problems of the military and his sympathy for soldiers and anybody involved in warfare came through really his sympathetic imagination.
LAMB: So if you had a room full of young students who wanted to do what you’ve done, what would you start to tell them about being a historian?
BEEVOR: I think, as I say, the first rule of the historian is to understand. It is not to make moral judgments; that should be left to the reader. You don’t go into an archive or at least if you go into an archive with fixed ideas, the best thing that can happen to you is to find that those fixed ideas are totally wrong, because then it means you’re actually discovering something new or something interesting.
I’m, as I said, very opposed to sort of the German idea that you should have a thesis and then you should support it with the material, because that means actually you’re selecting the material to suit your own particular prejudice or your own particular argument. The vital thing is to try to keep your mind as open as possible.
And you know you’re never going to get it entirely right; nobody can. No book is ever definitive. It you there’s always going to be more material to come in the future. But I think that you’ve just got to make the best the best work and the best effort that you possibly can.
LAMB: What was the first thing you ever successfully wrote?
BEEVOR: Well it depends on the degree of success, but I suppose the one which really breaks broke out in a way was Stalingrad. I mean there’d been one or two books before, which had done fairly well, but Stalingrad was the one which sort of went sort of international and translated into 30 languages or more and so forth.
LAMB: What year?
BEEVOR: That was in 1998.
LAMB: And what intrigued you about Stalingrad to make a book out of it?
BEEVOR: Well the reason really was that the Russian archives had just opened and I’d already worked there on another book about Paris after the liberation. And the whole point of Stalingrad was that we knew more or less the military story; the strategic, the tactical story, even.
We had very little idea of what it was really like for the soldiers on the ground at the time, and the civilians caught up in the city, trapped. The children even you know living the orphans, living almost like animals off roots and plants to survive. I mean I couldn’t believe it that 1,000 of them were still alive in the city after five months of battle.
But it was the ability, although a potential possibility of actually getting at those archives in the Ministry of Defense archives out at Podolsk, just south of Moscow, and that was really where the vital material lay.
LAMB: Are the are those archives closed now?
BEEVOR: Yes, I’m afraid so.
LAMB: Who did that?
BEEVOR: But it wasn’t my fault; I promise.
LAMB: I but I mean, we I’ve heard a number of American historians say the same thing. Who why did they close them?
BEEVOR: It was it was quite interesting the way they were opened. Pichaya was the Minister of the Archives and for under Yeltsin and sort of really forced the military into opening their archives. They were never happy about opening those archives and they were very uneasy, because they never dealt with foreign historians before. And there was a mixture of sort of paranoia and naivetι among those sort of dealing with those archives at the time.
I mean I remember the colonel in charge at the general staff in the Ministry of Defense in Moscow saying to me, ”We have a simple rule in our archive; you’ll tell us the subject, we choose the files.” There was no point in trying to say well that’s not how it works in other archives and one just had to try and do one’s best, and in fact, we were very, very lucky indeed.
But the closing down came, in fact; it was before my Berlin book came out. It was actually soon after we’d finished the research. And in fact, by that stage, the FSB; the old KGB was actually checking on all the material taken out by foreign historians. They’d started to become completely paranoid. And by it was I think just after 2000 that they closed the doors to foreign researchers.
LAMB: Your former teacher has an opinion of what could have happened in World War II. I want to run that and then see what you think.
KEEGAN: Had he developed a nuclear weapon and had either the cruise missile, the VI, or the rocket, the VII, in production early enough, he would have won the war. He would have bombarded London. He would have bombarded the invasion ports. D-Day couldn’t have taken place. He would have destroyed the American armies in Britain and having done so, he could have dictated his own terms.
Eventually, I suppose the Americans would have brought their own nuclear weapons to the practical stage, as they did indeed in 1945 and there would probably have been a counter bombardment of Europe with nuclear weapons by the Americans, but that would have been too late. Hitler would have would have frustrated the Allies’ efforts to win the war by conventional means.
LAMB: Did Hitler try to build a nuclear war a bomb?
BEEVOR: Well interestingly, Hitler didn’t seem too terribly interested in it, in one of the bizarre developments. The German nuclear scientists, though, had also made one major mathematical mistake from what I can understand, which seems to have been that they completely misinterpreted or misestimated what the critical mass would need to be to create the bomb. And as far as they could work out at that particular stage that even if they had the right uranium and all the rest of it, the bomb would need to be almost the size of house and therefore would not be deliverable in any in any form.
The American, British and other scientists working at Manhattan Project in fact had actually worked out that this was not necessary, but it was one of the great worries, but I mean John Keegan is right, of course. If they had made the bomb and they had the delivery systems you know Hitler I’m sure wouldn’t have been at all averse to destroying Britain in form of revenge, particularly after the strategic bombing campaign on Germany, which had so angered and exasperated.
At stages, he wanted to use gas, but his generals persuaded him against it. One of the things one should always remember is that the prevailing wind in Europe is westerly and of course most of it would have been blown back onto the German troops if they’d used it against the Allied troops.
LAMB: We only have very short minutes or so. Looking at Germany today, I know we a lot of Germans came here and helped us build our weapons in the United States.
LAMB: But looking at them, what do you see in Germany today in context to what’s going on in Europe?
BEEVOR: I think that I’m in a way worried for Germany, because I don’t think the Germans have realized to what degree their economy has been taken hostage by the debtor countries of the south. And I think that you know the implications are simply terrifying in that particular in that particular way. I mean Germany, I don’t think, even with its astonishingly powerful economy, is not in a position to basically bail out the whole of the rest of Europe. And to have one bailout after another, which actually buys actually no time at all, is not achieving anything.
LAMB: Last question; Antony.
LAMB: We have Anthony in the United States. Is it the same name?
BEEVOR: Well it’s the same name, but it’s certainly mine’s without an H. Curiously, I’ve had different theories on the difference between the one with an H and without, but usually I’ve anyway, I’ve always stayed without an H.
LAMB: Is it pronounced Anthony?
BEEVOR: Yes, yes, no H.
LAMB: Not Antony?
BEEVOR: Just Antony; yes.
LAMB: No H. Antony Beevor; next book?
BEEVOR: The next book is going to be The Winter of 1944, particularly including the Battle of the Bulge. I’m fascinated by the German state of mind and obsession belief that somehow they might win something in this last desperate gamble.
LAMB: The name of this book is The Second World War. Our guest has been Antony Beevor. Thank you very much.
BEEVOR: Thank you very much indeed.