Beevor by the Book
Antony Beevor, author of a new account of the Second World War, talks to Roger Moorhouse about the importance of narrative and why he thinks new technology is not the future for history in a post-literate age.
When I travelled to see Antony Beevor – Britain’s most commercially successful historian of recent years – the newspapers were full, as serendipity would have it, of the ruminations of Sir Keith Thomas, the distinguished historian of early modern England, complaining about ‘telly dons’ and their supposedly pernicious effect on academic history, luring young historians away to the glitz and glamour of the media’s ‘history boom’.
Beevor is one of those primarily responsible for that boom. His book Stalingrad, published in 1998, convinced public and publishers alike that history could be fascinating, sexy even, and spawned a host of imitators. For a while history became improbably fashionable. Accolades followed for Beevor: the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Hawthornden Prize and the Wolfson History Prize. The book was translated into 26 languages, selling almost two million copies in the process. Beevor continued to mine the rich seam of popular interest in the Second World War, with follow-up volumes, Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (2002) and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009) among others, all received with enthusiasm by the reading public. In short, more than any other historian writing today, Antony Beevor has taken history out of its ivory towers and placed it squarely on the nation’s coffee tables and night-stands.
For his new work Beevor has returned to the subject of the Second World War, this time seeking to tell the entire history of that most defining conflict in a single volume. His approach, he explained, was motivated as much from a position of humility as anything else; an acknowledgement that, for all his previous work on the subject, he still had much to learn. ‘It was partly out of a sense of fascination,’ he said, ‘but also tinged with guilt that I felt that I just had to do this, that I couldn’t postpone it any longer. I had been struck after doing the D-Day book that I frankly did not know enough or understand enough about the subject.’
I asked what novelties of approach or new material he employed for the book? Did he, for instance, set out to try to draw the two traditionally distinct narratives of the war in the Pacific and the war in Europe into a single integral whole? Though he does make a nod in that direction, Beevor believes that such an approach is not really feasible, adding that the war in the Pacific was ‘almost like a war on another planet’, such was its separation from events in Europe. ‘I was fascinated,’ he went on, ‘by the reaction of the US Marines on Okinawa when they heard about the surrender of Germany. It was “Who cares?” For them it was impossible to imagine, just as it was impossible for the people fighting in the snows of Russia to imagine war in the Pacific Islands.’
If the approach is largely conventional, the book does not lack new information. Russian sources are still yielding fascinating material, he notes, despite political retrenchment, while German scholarship is throwing up new approaches and new resources, such as the archive of Feldpostbriefe (soldiers ‘field post’ letters) in Stuttgart. Beevor’s most interesting revelation, however, is the horrific contention that the Japanese army practised organised cannibalism. As he explains: ‘Allied prisoners, especially Indian army prisoners, were kept as sort of human cattle and slaughtered one by one for their meat.’ News of such crimes was largely suppressed after the war, as it was considered ‘too awful even to be mentioned in the war crimes trials’, but has since been brought to light by Japanese historians.
Given that the market is not short of single-volume histories of the Second World War, I asked what he saw as the book’s specific selling point? Beevor wrestled with this question for a few moments; he is, after all, someone who has traditionally eschewed the artificial neatness of a thesis-based approach. But his answer was simple: ‘I would have said that it’s a deliberately narrative history, which brings the whole story together, with a degree of new information.’
Of course the heart of Beevor’s appeal is precisely that straightforward narrative approach, coupled with his lively, engaging style and his use of memorable, almost cinematic, set-pieces. I put it to him that, in tackling a book of this scope, perhaps he had been obliged to rein in some of those literary flourishes. ‘You are right,’ he conceded. ‘There is so much more to tell and there is much less room for the vignette, but it is still terribly important, serving to root the reader in the reality of the moment.’ He is swift to acknowledge a debt to John Keegan in this regard, under whom he studied at Sandhurst and whose The Face of Battle (1976) was hugely influential. ‘It is absolutely vital to give the reader a frequent reminder of what it was actually like, the view from below, otherwise it’s just history from above, which never really works.’
It is certainly an approach that has served Beevor well, bringing him huge commercial success despite his standing very much on the fringes of conventional academic life. I wondered if he perceived an unhealthy divide between academic and popular history? His response was positive, however, praising the ‘Gibbonian ideal of comprehensible narrative’ that he sees still permeating academic writing. ‘What I think is wonderful in this country is that we don’t have that Berlin Wall between academe and independent historians that you get in other countries, particularly in Germany, which forces academics into a position in which their work is all but unreadable to outsiders.’ In this respect, claims Beevor, ‘Anglo-Saxon history writing is way in advance of the Continent, with an admirable clarity of thought and clarity of prose.’
What does he think of the ‘history boom’, I asked, which, despite his best efforts to the contrary, increasingly appears to be one with Nineveh and Tyre; with its glory days behind it. On this he is also surprisingly upbeat, replying that ‘people were prophesying the end of the history boom five years ago and it has held up remarkably well in spite of the fact that other sectors, such as travel writing and biography, have all but died off.’ What does concern him, however, is the ‘terrifying polarisation’ in the history book market, in which ‘a certain number of books still do incredibly well, while all the others are basically suffering more and more. It’s frightening and deeply worrying as there are a hell of a lot of very good books that have been almost totally ignored.’
Beevor is also exercised by the implications of the technological shifts now assailing the publishing industry, which tend to favour a younger, more digitally literate readership over history’s traditional audience. ‘I’m not sure non-fiction works that well on a Kindle,’ he says, adding that he was ‘rather appalled’ by the enhanced e-book that had been produced for his latest tome. ‘It’s all-singing, all-dancing, with newsreel clips and sounds of guns going off and so on. I mean, for God’s sake, is it a book or is it a movie? I don’t think that’s the future at all.’
Rather, he suggests, it is symptomatic of publishing pandering to a younger generation that shies away from the commitment of time and attention required to read a whole book, ‘preferring extracts, bite-sized chunks and the Internet’. He notes, with a shrug of resignation, that ‘we are living in a post-literate society. The moving image is king – and there is very little that we can do about that.’
What then, I wondered, of those young academics supposedly itching to shed their footnotes and rush to join the ‘boom’? Beevor is less than entirely optimistic for them: ‘It might have been a good idea 10 years ago, but I don’t think they realise how much things have changed. It’s a vicious circle; as sales tail off, publishers are now not offering enough money to the younger historians to enable them to make their books as good as they need to be. What it will be like in a few years’ time, I don’t know. But I do thank heavens that I started writing when I did.’
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital (Vintage, 2011).
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