What I've learned: Antony Beevor
The English military historian, Antony Beevor, is a former officer with the 11th Hussars. His best-known works are Stalingrad and Berlin — The Downfall 1945, which have been praised for their vivid style, their treatment of the ordinary lives of combatants and civilians and the use of Soviet archive documents. Here, the acclaimed author speaks about his craft:
A writer’s life isn’t always instant creativity. Today, I’m catching up with tax forms.
There is no excuse for not writing when it’s non-fiction. It’s not like fiction where people get writer’s block, which sometimes is as much psychosomatic as anything else. I usually start writing by 8:30am, take an hour off for a walk and also a quick snooze after lunch. Then I’ll work until about 7:30pm. When it’s going well, you’ve just got to keep pushing on. There may be bad days but there is always work to be done.
I always write in the countryside rather than London, so as not to get disturbed. For some reason the phone doesn’t ring down there so often, maybe because people assume I am busy. Our house is down a single-track lane and you can go for quite a few miles without seeing a house, which is very rare in Southern England and quite lovely.
My study is a converted barn that has a wood-burning stove and is lined with bookshelves. My wife, who is also a writer, has her own study in the house. And when my daughter comes down, she will come over to the barn to work on her Ph.D.
It is wonderful to be married to another writer. We edit each other and it works very well. In the beginning you have to be fairly tactful, but now she will come back with the manuscript that has a line alongside a paragraph simply saying, don’t understand or boring, and I know perfectly well that I have a problem. You don’t get proper editing anymore, so to have an in-house editor is a huge luxury.
My copy editor is a QC who suddenly went totally deaf and gave up his job. He will say things like, “On page 369 you say this, but on page 97 you said something different”. It is those sort of contradictions that a lawyer is brilliant at picking up.
The old advice from Hemingway and García Márquez, about how you’ve got to get that first paragraph right is something I’ve found to be true. You need to get the voice, tone and rhythm of the book, and let the reader know that they can relax into the book. You can only do that if you are confident about your subject, so I don’t start a book unless I’ve finished the research.
The expectations of history readers changed in the late 1980s and ’90s. Society was shifting towards an emphasis on the individual rather than the collective, and this was reflected in the way history was written. People didn’t just want a top-down version of events; they became interested in history in a far wider sense, including the fate of civilians in warfare. So when I wrote Stalingrad I realised that if I was going to convey the consequences of decisions by Stalin and Hitler on ordinary people then I had to integrate history from above with history from below. I think that’s when I really found my voice.
Computers also transformed the writing of history. Many of these books would have taken at least two years longer in the era of the typewriter and hand-written notes.
I am always excited when my pre-existing assumptions prove to be wrong. It means you avoiding that terrible temptation of selecting material to support your thesis. You want
to be able to find something astonishing and new.
I did once uncover what I thought to be a huge scoop and there was zero interest in it! So I think it’s more about the accumulation of really good low-level material that conveys the situation on the ground at that time. It’s very hard for people today to imagine what totalitarian warfare was like. If you compile the sort of detail that brings it to life then you are really achieving something.
History never, never repeats itself. It may sometimes rhyme a little but that is all. Historical parallels are the biggest danger we have in our post-war world, whether it is the media, or politicians trying to sound like Churchill and Roosevelt. That might seem like a paradox coming from me, but WWII has become a rather dangerous subject in that it has become the reference point for every crisis. For example, to argue that the battle against Daesh is the equivalent of WWIII is completely misleading.
There are certain lessons that one should never forget, of course. Dehumanisation goes back all the way in history. As soon as you have people who categorise other groups in this way then you will get mindless cruelty. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy with war justifying an attitude. Look at how Daesh has treated the Yazidis in Iraq.
A historian must fight against generalisation, categorisation and caricatures of groups by propagandists. It is one of the most important things that we can possibly do, because this is what the perpetrators are trying to do all the time.
History can only ever be a branch of literature. You can never test it in a laboratory or write about it in a totally dispassionate way. The German or Scandinavian trend of believing that history can be a science is preposterous. Now, obviously there are things that are self-evidently appalling, so nobody is able to be completely objective. But on the whole, historians have a duty to understand, and then convey that understanding, rather than make moral judgments.
You try to understand evil, if such a thing exists. Does madness exist? I mean, do we excuse everybody on the grounds of an unhappy upbringing or some sort of DNA problem? Can evil be argued away? Or is evil just a crazed religious concept? These are all huge questions. I have no notion that I am ever going to answer them, but it is part of the fascination.
Moral choice is the essence of human drama which is why so many novels and movies have been set in WWII. It was a conflict that involved more moral choice than almost any other period in our history, especially for those countries that had been occupied by an enemy. We live in a society where there is very little moral condemnation, so this interest in historical fiction, where real moral choices are presented, is not surprising.
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