Assembling one of recent history’s great jigsaws

One of the foremost British historians – his backlist includes the much praised Stalingrad and Berlin: the Downfall – is to speak in the Borders. Mark Entwistle talked to him about his latest book

THE desire to better understand how the jigsaw of battles and campaigns fitted together was the catalyst for a new history of the Second World War by Britain’s pre-eminent military 

Antony Beevor is about to undertake a tour of more than 20 countries to promote publication of The Second World War, but he kicks things off with an event at Mainstreet Trading bookstore in St Boswells tonight.

Beevor, 65, is the author of four novels and nine non-fiction books, including the highly-acclaimed Stalingrad, which won the first Samuel Johnson Prize in 1999, Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.

Educated at Winchester and Sandhurst military academy, he spent five years as an officer in the 11th Hussars. He and his wife, the writer Artemis Cooper, who have two children, divide their time between homes in London and Kent.

Speaking to TheSouthern ahead of his St Boswells appearance, Beevor said all his previous military histories had focused on certain episodes of the global conflict.

“I realised I needed more knowledge of how they all fitted together,” Beevor explained. “I did not have as good an overall understanding of that as I should have.

“It was when I was writing D-Day that I became conscious of how all the events related to each other, seeing more of the whole jigsaw.”

It took Beevor three years to write The Second World War and he admits it was difficult encapsulating the conflict in a single volume.

“Yes. That was quite tricky, especially when you consider that the official German history of the war runs to 10-and-a-half volumes.

“So there’s no way you can cover everything in depth in one volume.”

His research for the new book often revealed fascinating facts which he was tempted to investigate further.

“There’s always a risk of going off on tangents when other interesting angles are thrown up, and you think ‘oh, that would make a good book’.”

Such exhaustive and emotionally-draining research takes its toll. Beevor’s style is to examine conflicts from the bottom up – from the perspectives of ordinary soldiers and those caught up at the sharp end of the conflicts, rather than looking down from the lofty perch occupied by generals and national leaders.

It is a method he learned from his military history lecturer at Sandhurst, the great John Keegan, and it has served Beevor well, although not without 

“After I finished writing Berlin I had to take a break. Writing about such a big battle was exhausting and it was such a huge relief to work on something so different,” he said, referring to his book on Russian actress Olga Chekhova, published in 2004.

Beevor regards himself as a professional soldier-turned-writer and prefers not to dwell too much on the brief interlude between the two spent in the advertising industry – work he did purely to support himself while he established himself as an author.

He had resigned from the army, much as he loved soldiering, when he realised his reason for enlisting had been to prove himself physically able after a childhood blighted by 

He also chooses to forget his first forays as a professional writer – three novels – and considers his first “proper” book to have been his history of the Spanish Civil War, published in 1982.

“I was always fascinated by the Spanish Civil War and the different characters that took part,” he told TheSouthern.

“I had met lot of old Spanish refugee republicans in London. I’d also done a lot of travelling in Spain in the 1970s. Britons are attracted to Spain because, while being so close, it is so different.”

His mother’s side of the family includes a host of writers, so it was always probable he would take up the pen himself sooner or later.

His career as a soldier and war studies at Sandhurst sharpened his interest in the history of conflict.

“I always felt histories of the Second World War were rather misleading. The countries that took part don’t event agree on when the war started. For the Russians it was June, 1941, while for the Americans it was December, 1941, and Pearl Harbor. For the British, war started in September, 1939.”

Beevor says despite its all-encompassing name, the Second World War was an amalgamation of a number of separate conflicts and not the single monolithic war of states on states. “Some of these conflicts had been simmering for ages,” he said.

Asked what, if any, relevance the Second World War has for today, Beevor says people must be careful. “It still has very important danger signals we must listen to. Politicians like Eden tried to draw comparisons between the Second World War and Suez, while for George Bush it was 9/11.

“There is a lot of direct referencing to the Second World War by politicians.”

Beevor says he was appalled when 10 newspapers asked him to write an article on how the battle for Baghdad was like the battle for Stalingrad. “Which it was nothing of the sort,” he said.

Beevor says politicians cannot resist the urge to emulate Roosevelt or Churchill, trying to tap into that emotional residue which still lingers for many in the west of the view that the Second World War was the last truly popular war.

It is another interesting topic from someone at the very top of their game. No doubt tonight’s Borders audience will leave with more questions than they arrived with.

Beevor has the magical knack of making history that has already been covered many times seem fresh and different.

“After this I am travelling to 21 countries, probably more, to promote the book,” Beevor said.

“And I’m very much looking forward to my visit to the Borders.”