The bestselling historian of the current era, Antony Beevor made his name with the books Stalingrad and Berlin which recount Soviet-German conflict during WWII, making judicious use of previously un-seen Soviet archive material. Known for his vivid narrative accounts of Twentieth-Century military conflicts his primary interest is in revisiting and re-evaluating the Second World War with recent volumes including D-Day and a history of the war from an Eastern perspective, The Second World War.
On 17 September 1944, General Kurt Student, the founder of Nazi Germany's parachute forces, heard the growing roar of aeroplane engines. He went out on to his balcony above the flat landscape of southern Holland to watch the air armada of Dakotas and gliders carrying the British 1st Airborne and the American 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions. He gazed up in envy at this massive demonstration of paratroop power.
Operation Market Garden, the plan to end the war by capturing the bridges leading to the Lower Rhine and beyond, was a bold concept: the Americans thought it unusually bold for Field Marshal Montgomery. But could it ever have worked?
It is perhaps surprising to consider that the bestselling historian of our times failed his History A-level and never got a degree. To conclude from this, however, that Antony Beevor missed out on an education, would be to jump to entirely the wrong conclusions.
Beevor’s training at Sandhurst included studying under the eminent historian John Keegan whose books including The Face of Battle were a major influence on his own work. After serving as an officer, Beevor turned to writing, at first fiction (unsuccessfully) before turning to history with The Spanish Civil War, first published in 1982.
Old Ground, New Material
After several more well-received volumes, including collaborating with his wife, the biographer Artemis Cooper, on Paris after the Liberation, 1944-1949, Beevor turned his eye to Russia. In an extraordinary moment of serendipity, the break-up of the Soviet Union meant he was allowed access to previously locked archives of the Russian ministry of defence and by the time access was shut down, Beevor had key material for both his seminal work on Stalingrad and the following volume Berlin.
Stalingrad was a fresh perspective on the history of the battle, not only for the new material it elucidated but also for Beevor’s choice to chronicle events from a soldier’s perspective, from the ground up, giving full force to the horror of men and women, soldiers and civilians pushed to the brink of human endurance.
The book was well-received, both in the UK, where it won the Samuel Johnson Prize and The Wolfson History Prize, and abroad, with a warm reception in Russia itself. The same could not be said for his consideration of the Red Army’s assault on Berlin which, being heavily critical of the Russian forces, led to his books being banned in Russian schools, he commented ‘what depresses me most is that once again we are faced with a government trying to impose its own version of history. I am fundamentally opposed to all such attempts to dictate a truth.’
Supported by a tranche of first-hand accounts including private diaries, letters home and security reports as well as the notebooks of the novelist Vasily Grossman, in Berlin Beevor built up a vivid picture of extraordinary brutality, mass-rape and extreme privation, as a review in the LRB put it ‘Antony Beevor cannot bring that Berlin back to life. But he has constructed a staggering diorama of how it was in those months.’
A New Perspective
Much of Beevor’s recent work has been devoted to revising established views on events in Second World War history including a book on D-Day and an ambitious project to give an overview of WWII primarily from the perspective of the Eastern Front, redressing the balance of Western-centric narratives having commented that ‘as far as the Germans were concerned, we were a sideshow. But each country sees the war from its own perspective and memories.’
Much of the praise for Beevor’s work comes from his ability to bring a reader close to the action, enabled by his close and careful use of first-hand sources and an ability to tread lightly where other writers would be tempted by heavy-handed moralising.
He says ‘I think what one should try to do is to leave the moral judgments up to the reader. There’s no use in being judgmental. Far from it; we can only speculate as to how we would react in the circumstances ourselves,’
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