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A List Too Far

Posted on 6th June 2016 by Sally Campbell
Anthony Beevor, bestselling military historian and author of Ardennes 1944, muses on the difficulties of selecting his top ten books about warfare.

Anthony Beevor is regarded as ‘one of the finest narrative military historians now writing’ (The New York Times). The recipient of numerous literary awards, Beevor was the first ever winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for his internationally bestselling work Stalingrad. His reputation has only grown further with such critically acclaimed works as D-Day: The Battle for Normany and Berlin: The Downfall 1945.

His latest work Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble depicts the Ardennes offensive, more familiar as The Battle of The Bulge: the greatest and most savage battle on the Western Front. Over a million men were embroiled in the brutal fighting which came to be regarded as one of Hitler’s last gambles.

 

Selecting the top ten books in any subject is difficult enough, but to choose the top ten books about warfare is very hard, and to rank them is utterly impossible. There are literally tens of thousands of them on the Second World War alone, but fortunately in the case of my latest book Ardennes 1944, there were not too many on that battle so I could concentrate that much more on contemporary documents from the archives.

Should one consider great novels alongside works of history? Should Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate or Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy be included? Since 1945, few conflicts have provoked much literary interest, save perhaps the semi-journalism of the Vietnam War. I was fascinated by Michael Herr’s Dispatches, but ultimately I felt unconvinced. It was too glib, too self-consciously laid back. I much preferred Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato. The Tom Wolfe school of writing was not a patch on Waugh, I concluded. But perhaps that dates me. And yet war reporting today seems to have returned to the laconic-yet-wearing-your-heart-on-your-sleeve style of the Spanish Civil War. On reflection, I think it is much better to leave novels and impressionistic reporting to their own categories. The blurring of historical fact and fiction should be resisted in any form. So I will stick to non-fiction.

There can be no doubt which book had the greatest influence on the way my work developed. It was that modern classic, The Face of Battle by John Keegan.  I had studied under John Keegan at Sandhurst and he could not have been more stimulating in the way that he provoked intake after intake of officer cadets to look again at the subject of military history from unexpected viewpoints. This appealed to me particularly since I had always disliked instinctively the conventional approach to the subject, which seemed to assume that commanders really could move divisions around on a battlefield as if they were pieces on a chessboard.  Keegan, on the other hand, examines the fear, the pain and the chaos – the real fog of war from smoke and soil-dust blasted into the air. The book, although hailed for its originality, was still ahead of its time. A decade later attitudes to military history finally began to change with the approaching end of the Cold War and the new age of individualism. People, especially the new civilian generation, wanted not the collective version based on the nation or a whole army. They wanted to understand the experiences of ordinary people caught up in the horrors of war. A vogue for oral history was the first step, but there were only a handful of books of any real merit. The most notable were Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain, a superb collection of interviews of participants in the Spanish Civil War, and Studs Terkel’s highly acclaimed The Good War.  


1. A Woman In Berlin - Anonymous

My list – in alphabetical order by author – starts with A Woman in Berlin, a diary still published as ‘Anonymous’, although we now know that the author was in fact Marta Hillers, a former journalist. With astonishing bravery, perception and honesty, she describes the mass rapes by Soviet troops in Berlin and her own experiences.

2. An Army at Dawn  - Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy about the US Army in the Second World War – An Army at Dawn; Day of Battle and The Guns at Last Light. Atkinson, a triple Pulitzer winner, is a brilliant researcher and a superb writer. He is also too honest to be one of ‘the greatest generation’ propagandists, who have tended in the long shadow of the Vietnam War to eulogise the veterans of the earlier conflict.

3. The Coming of The Third Reich - Richard J. Evans

Richard Evans, the former Regius professor of history at Cambridge, wrote a three volume history of the Third Reich, (The Coming of The Third Reich is the first instalment) which has rightly been acclaimed both here and in Germany as one of the great studies of the terrifying achievements and the catastrophe masterminded by Hitler. 

4. Finest Years - Max Hastings

Max Hastings has written many excellent books, but I think his greatest is Finest Years, a portrait of Winston Churchill at war which shows his courage, his follies, his mercurial moods and the author’s deeply impressive judgement.

5. Captain Professor  -  Michael Howard

My favourite memoir of the Second World War is Captain Professor by Michael Howard, the doyen of military historians and the one to whom we all bow down. Of course it is not his weightiest book by any means, but it is one of the most honest books about warfare, imbued with a self-deprecating charm.  

6. Hitler – 1936-1945 Nemesis - Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography, Hitler – 1889-1936 Hubris, and Hitler – 1936-1945 Nemesis, represent superb scholarship, combined with a wonderful clarity of thought and prose. They are classics of the art and will never leave my shelves.  

7. The War that Ended Peace - Margaret Macmillan


Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace is the best researched and the most balanced study of the origins of the First World War. It is also beautifully written as one would expect of the author of Peacemakers, her multi-prize winning account of the Versailles Conference.

8. Bloodlands - Timothy Snyder

One of the most important and original books on the Second World War is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands – Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Snyder puts the Holocaust in its proper context as part of the murderous crushing of civilian populations between the Reichschancellery and the Kremlin from 1933 to 1953. Inhumanity fed off inhumanity.

9. The First World War – To Arms - Hew Strachan

Hew Strachan’s masterwork, a three volume history of the First World War is still in progress, but the opening volume The First World War – To Arms, indicates that his superbly written account is unlikely to be surpassed.

10. The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany - Gerhard L. Weinberg


Without doubt the greatest diplomatic history of the Second World War is Gerhard Weinberg’s The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany. Weinberg’s  expertise in German documents had already led to his discovery of the manuscript of Hitler’ sequel to Mein Kampf. He also wrote a more general history of the Second World War with naturally more emphasis on the diplomatic side. This thousand-page single volume was called A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II

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