‘Antony Beevor, chronicler of European history, has chilling warnings about the current rise in militant nationalism.’
by Elizabeth Grice
First published in The Telegraph, 28 May 2012.
Clearly the conversation that Elizabeth Grice had with Antony Beevor was a little more complelling than the article she has written, but in the context of his relationship with Paddy (and of course Artemis Cooper), and the state of Europe which, has at its epicentre Paddy’s beloved Greece, I thought I would share this with you.
Antony Beevor, chronicler of European history, has chilling warnings about the current rise in militant nationalism.
Nothing I’ve heard from politicians or economists on the world crisis has shivered my spine like an hour spent with the gentle‑mannered historian Antony Beevor, whose mighty new book on the Second World War is making him the pundit of the moment. He does not mean to be alarmist, and that is why the soft warnings in his sunlit garden are chilling.
Of course the rise of the Right in Europe is not the same as the rise of the Right in the Thirties, he soothes. But isn’t it terrifying the way the Greeks are portraying the Germans as Nazis in their popular press, with Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform? There are “far too many jibes” about a Fourth Reich. The weedlike eruption of extremist parties makes him “uneasy” – and if Beevor is uneasy, it probably means the rest of us should be scared witless.
“The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism,” he says. “We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken when people realise how little control their politicians have. We are already seeing political disintegration in Europe.”
It’s fascinating the way serious historians are being treated as quasi-prophets for the economically bewildered. Tomorrow, Beevor is due to lecture to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hague on the Second World War and the current euro crisis and he says he is having to change his script daily “as more and more terrifying news comes in”.
“I feel slightly uneasy at the way historians are consulted as if history is going to repeat itself,” he says. “It never does. It is misleading and dangerous to make sweeping parallels with the Second World War. Politicians like Blair and Bush liked to sound Churchillian or Rooseveltian at times of crisis, but the comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Hitler were preposterous. Eden compared Nasser to Hitler and that led us into the Suez disaster.
“It is this compulsion to look backwards at a time of crisis because one’s got no idea of what lies ahead. There is a notion of security that somehow it must resemble the past. It’s never going to. Just because we muddled through in the past doesn’t mean we can automatically muddle through in the future.”
The only similarity between now and the late Thirties, he says unconsolingly, is that the public have not been told the truth about how desperate the situation is because no politician, then or now, dares to spell it out. “One must remember that Churchill was derided and scorned when he warned of the dangers of German rearmament. He could only come to power once war had started. That, I think, is rather alarming.”
Everything is rather alarming seen through the Beevor long lens. There is even drama in his person. He has a lot of silvery hair and leaping black eyebrows. Though his speech is a torrent of pure Queen’s English fluency, in occasional silences he picks at his fingers. Perhaps he is suppressing anxiety.
If so, it can’t be on account of his sales figures. The military historian – of whom it is always joyfully recorded that at Winchester he failed history and English A-level – has sold more than five million books. His most acclaimed, Stalingrad, won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, the Wolfson history prize and the Hawthornden prize, all in one week in 1999. With the money, he bought a house in Kent that friends like to nickname Schloss Stalingrad or Dunstalingrad. Here, in a pastoral retreat surrounded by sheep and alpacas, he and his wife, Artemis Cooper, do most of their writing. Her biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor comes out in the autumn.
After his non-compliance in formal education, Beevor joined the Army in 1965 and served with the 11th Hussars. On a posting to Wales, he was so bored that he began a semi-autobiographical novel that made him rethink his motives for being a soldier. They were all wrong: he realised he had a big chip on his shoulder about proving himself physically, a legacy of having been bullied as a child. From the age of four to seven he had walked with an armpit crutch, with one leg strapped up behind his back, because of a degenerative disease of the hip.
John Keegan, whose ground-breaking book Face of Battle revolutionised the chronicling of war, had taught him military history at Sandhurst. Once Beevor got into his considerable stride as a writer (he is from a long line of female authors), he found Keegan’s way of looking at history from the bottom up rather than the top down fitted with his own ideas of conveying the fear, chaos and horror of war from a soldier’s perspective. A soldier himself, he already understood the psychology of war.
“I’m not saying every military historian should have been a former soldier – that was the problem in the past – but some military experience is useful, if only to understand that armies are emotional organisations, not the cold mechanical institutions so often portrayed.”
Beevor’s skill is in making big historical events resonate with people through the detail of human experience gleaned from letters, interview transcripts and diaries. “I am not someone who believes I am going to find a historical scoop,” he says. “What I find satisfying is lots of good low-grade material [in Stalingrad’s cellars, lice are seen leaving the dead body of a German to take up residence in one that was still warm], which helps to build the mosaic through detail. I just love the days when you come out of the archives with half a dozen excellent descriptions or poignant accounts of personal experiences.”
Interest in the Second World War was flat when Beevor started his four-year project on Stalingrad. The book was expected to sell 6,000 copies, but flew off the shelves. Berlin: the Downfall 1945, six years later, was another triumph. The resurgence of interest in history was a phenomenon he could never have predicted. “People’s interest in the past had changed. My timing was lucky. Timing is a big percentage in life, in love or anything else.”
Beevor claims there is nothing he likes better than to start a book with an idea and then to realise he was completely wrong. He has no time for historians who are simply out to prove a thesis. Much historical fiction makes him grind his teeth, especially where words and thoughts are put into the minds of real historical characters, as in the Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. “We are part of an age where there is virtually no distinction between fact and fiction. The failure to distinguish between historical truth and the imagination of the novelist is a danger area. I am not attacking the quality of Mantel’s fiction but I would have preferred it if she had not called the character Thomas Cromwell. My wife does not agree with me. She thinks I am being far too pedantic.”
He was dragged by his daughter, Nella, 22, to see the film of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (“an absolute load of tripe”) on the basis that it was so bad he might find it amusing. On leaving, Beevor heard a man say to his girlfriend: “That really makes you think.”
“So depressing,” he slumps. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It is frankly grotesque that nearly 50 per cent of the population was persuaded that Mary Magdalene had a child by Jesus and the bloodline continued.” As for Tom Cruise in the 2008 film Valkyrie: “Most people seeing it would have thought it was an accurate account of the July bomb plot, when it was absolute rubbish. Sorry, but the interests of the entertainment industry and the interests of history are fundamentally incompatible.”
He admits to panic that he would drown in the sea of material for his latest book, The Second World War. Copying across information from the archives into skeleton chapters, he would find that he had 110 pages of notes for a single chapter. And yet there is one more massive Beevor analysis of the conflict still to come – about the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – before he starts an epic life of Napoleon, followed perhaps by a novel set in 1917‑45. He is 65, and at his present rate of production, that will take him well into his seventies. “I can’t envisage stopping writing,” he says. “My dear father-in-law, John Julius Norwich, is still writing at 82. My God, it really keeps the marbles jangling.”
Antony Beevor’s ‘The Second World War’ is available to order from Telegraph Books for £20 plus £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. He will be at the Telegraph Hay Festival at 7pm on June 9; http://www.hayfestival.com