Now and then the Financial Times of London invites an author to lunch. -- This weekend it was the turn of Antony Beevor, the popular military historian. -- Commenting on the search in history for parallels to the present situation, he told Ludovic Hunter-Tilney: You can learn certain things from history but the idea of comparing Baghdad to Stalingrad — basically Saddam Hussein was not a Hitler, as Paul Wolfowitz convinced himself, he was actually a poor mans Stalin. So these parallels are dangerous. The trouble with the great disaster of 9/11 was when Bush immediately tried to turn it into conventional military terms by comparing it to Pearl Harbor. That was appalling because it was bound to be wrong." -- On his approach to military history, he has this to say: "'You have to keep asking yourself, why did people do this? Not go, 'Oh how ghastly." Obviously its ghastly. It doesnt do any good to indulge in a sort of spurious moral outrage. The point is, why did people act in the way they did?' The reason, he believes, is fear. 'Hatred is the explosive but fear is the real detonator. Fear produces a far worse rush of adrenaline in battle conditions than anything else. I think one of the reasons the Spanish Civil War was so brutal at the beginning was because Spanish honor meant that you had to suppress any sign of fear, and suppression of fear is liable to produce a far more explosive reaction.'" ...
Lunch with the FT
WAR AND PEACEFULNESS
By Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Financial Times (UK)
October 20, 2006
A grisly image from Antony Beevors book Stalingrad is lodged in my head as I meet the military historian for lunch. It is of German prisoners of war, captured after the Russians retook Stalingrad, eating slices of meat cut from the corpses of their comrades in a desperate attempt to stay alive. They called it camel-meat, and those who ate it were distinguishable from other prisoners because their complexion acquired a rosy tinge instead of the grey-green pallor of the starving majority.
This is one of Beevors great skills as a historian: his ability to combine striking details about peoples experience of warfare with the broader sweep of narrative history. One wonders, though, at the stomach a man needs to digest material such as this. It is distressing enough reading Stalingrad [Viking, 1998] and Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 [Viking, 2002], with their accounts of massacres and mass rapes: imagine what it must have been like to research and write them.
Our lunch takes place in a Spanish restaurant Beevor has chosen near his London home. I arrive with military precision at 1pm, but Beevor, a former cavalry officer in the British army, has already set up camp at a table with a glass of cava and a strong Spanish cigarette. Whenever I get to Spain I start [smoking] again because I just love Ducados, he says apologetically. Whenever I arrive in Barcelona and see my publisher, he has a carton of Ducados waiting on his desk for me.
The same Spanish publisher was instrumental in getting Beevor to write his latest book, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, a characteristically fluent and well-researched history of the Spanish Civil War. A comprehensively reworked version of a book he published in 1982, it has provoked much comment in Spain because of the unflattering light it casts on the Republican cause and the myths that have accrued around it.
Beevor argues that rather than being a virgin democracy despoiled by fascists, the Republic was incompetent and divided, and that Britain and France were in no position to intervene when Franco launched his coup in 1936. The Nationalists, in spite of their much greater murderousness and the support of Nazi Germany, did not win the war, Beevor suggests; the Republicans lost it.
Once youve accepted how bad the Francoist terror was, I think then you should start to look at the more enduring myths of the Republic, he says, particularly because it was a much more attractive myth and therefore was bound to be more endurable. So thats why its one of the few occasions when the losers wrote the history, not the winners.
He speaks precisely, in an almost clipped fashion; yet rapidly, too, as if fizzing with ideas and observations. Our prevarications over which tapas to choose inspire a dazzling series of digressions. The reason why jamon is central to Spanish culture, for instance: It was proof to the Inquisition that you were neither Jew nor Muslim. Or the reason for the size of Spanish fishing fleets: To a large degree, I think, its because much of the livestock was sent to Germany after the civil war as payment for the Condor Legion.
The only time he is lost for words is when I point out something called Cuba libre de foie con granizado de limon on the menu, which the waiter helpfully limns as a mousse of duck liver with a gelatin of Coca-Cola and some lemon on the top. Good God, says Beevor. Do you think we should try that just to see what its like?
The first tapa to arrive is a plate of cured pork loin, which Beevor declares very good. So it is, though he outflanks my efforts to give him the last slices with a No, no, you go on. He is off to Paris in the evening to see his French publisher. I cant really overdo it, considering Im probably going to be having a hell of a dinner, he says.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about Beevors success as a historian (Stalingrad has been translated into 25 languages, and together with Berlin has sold more than 2.4m copies) is his unremarkable academic record. Now aged 59, he failed his A-levels at Winchester College (history and English, ironically) and went to Sandhurst to train as an army officer.
At the time, it seems, he was more interested in a life of activity than the life of the mind. As a child he had suffered Perthes disease, which affects the hip, and spent three years on crutches, his leg in a sling behind his back. Obviously you then were teased wickedly at school and bullied and all the rest of it, he says briskly, and that was when I began to get romantic ideas about joining the army and proving myself and all the rest of it.
He joined the 11th Hussars, a cavalry regiment, though after a posting to north Wales (I drew the shortest straw of all) he grew so bored with military life that he turned to writing. He comes from a family of female authors, a long line of bluestockings dating back several generations, and initially he attempted to follow in their footsteps by writing fiction.
Im not going to give you any details, even my wife hasnt been allowed to read it, he says of his first, unpublished novel, though he then relents a little, possibly lulled by the strangely delicious Coca-Cola liver mousse which we are busily spooning on to pieces of toast. Basically I hadnt realized how autobiographical it was. It was only when I finished the book that I realized I was writing about myself and my real reasons for having gone into the army, i.e. to get over a thumping great physical inferiority complex.
He continued writing novels after leaving the army and probably would have plodded along unspectacularly had his publishers not pointed him in the direction of military history. Despite the success of his books on wartime Crete [Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1992)] and Paris after the liberation [Paris after the Liberation (Doubleday, 1994; rev. ed. 1999)] (the latter co-authored with his wife Artemis Cooper), Stalingrad, published in 1998, proved to be his great breakthrough. Influenced by his old Sandhurst tutor and fellow military historian John Keegan, Beevor evolved a style of writing that moved seamlessly between affairs of state, military strategy, and personal accounts of life on the frontline, as if blending the historians objectivity with the novelists eye for detail.
I suddenly realized that this was the only way to do it, particularly with something like Stalingrad where there was almost total dehumanization, partly through the scale of the battle, and also in the propaganda of the time on both sides, he explains. So the real challenge was to try to get into the archives and get the material and actually show what life was like for these poor bastards, both German and Russian.
How, I ask, mentioning the German prisoners cannibalism (which he learned about from interviews with ex-PoWs), did he remain dispassionate in the face of so much suffering? You have to keep asking yourself, why did people do this? Not go, Oh how ghastly. Obviously its ghastly. It doesnt do any good to indulge in a sort of spurious moral outrage. The point is, why did people act in the way they did?
The reason, he believes, is fear. Hatred is the explosive but fear is the real detonator. Fear produces a far worse rush of adrenaline in battle conditions than anything else. I think one of the reasons the Spanish Civil War was so brutal at the beginning was because Spanish honor meant that you had to suppress any sign of fear, and suppression of fear is liable to produce a far more explosive reaction.
A plate of fried squid and a bowl of rice with artichoke and quails legs lie almost finished on the table. Who will eat the rest? Beevors officer instinct takes command of the situation. Ill have that, you finish off the rest. The tapas disappear in no-nonsense fashion. He has another glass of cava, and I join him with another sherry.
One of Beevors early non-fiction books, written in 1990, was about the workings of the British Army [Inside the British Army (Random House, 1991)]. I am curious to know his views on its current state.
I saw one field marshal the other evening and he said, Right, -- it was almost like staff college -- Right, Beevor, what would you have done: should it have been Iraq or Afghanistan or both? The answer was, Afghanistan yes, Iraq definitely no.
Stalingrad is about a city transformed into a battle zone; Berlin is about the occupation of a country; The Battle for Spain is about civil war. Does he see historical parallels between those events and the ones unfolding today on the streets of Baghdad?
Im always very dubious about doing that, he replies. You can learn certain things from history but the idea of comparing Baghdad to Stalingrad -- basically Saddam Hussein was not a Hitler, as Paul Wolfowitz convinced himself, he was actually a poor mans Stalin. So these parallels are dangerous. The trouble with the great disaster of 9/11 was when Bush immediately tried to turn it into conventional military terms by comparing it to Pearl Harbor. That was appalling because it was bound to be wrong.
Before leaving for Paris and a potentially huge French dinner, there is time for him to enthuse about his current project, a history of D-Day. Theres fantastic material in the U.S. which has not been used, and is amazing, but lets not go into that...
The American and French archives will be his home for the next few months. Itll certainly be a lot more pleasant than the Russian archives, he laughs. So much for a psyche scarred by exposure to the darkest aspects of human nature. Beevor radiates contentment: the contentment of someone who, relatively late in life, stumbled into a line of work at which he excels.
Cambio de Tercio, London SW10
1 x cured loin of pork
1 x duck liver mousse
1 x rice with artichoke and quails legs
1 x fried squid
1 x bread
1 x bottle water
2 x glasses cava
2 x glasses sherry
1 x espresso