Antony Beevor: You Ask The Questions

So, Antony Beevor, how do you go about interviewing the survivors of war? And what will history make of Blair and Bush?
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The Independent Online

Do you think the upsurge in historical films and novels means that people will start paying more attention to fictional portrayals of history than factual ones?

It worries me that documentaries are becoming more like feature films, using CGI and dramatised reconstruction. And Hollywood movies are trying to become semi-documentaries, desperate to convey an impression of accuracy and research. This grey area of "faction" will have a worrying affect on the way people see history.

How long do you spend researching a book? Do you ever get frustrated and want to write light romantic fiction?

In a way, I have! Stalingrad and Berlin took four years each, and then I couldn't face doing another long book, so I did the historian's equivalent of light romantic fiction, which was Olga Chekhova. I could not face another four-year stint on one book.

Do blogging and the internet make life easier or more complicated for the modern historian?

Much more complicated. Sources are often unverifiable and based on hearsay. In some ways there is so much information coming from the internet that you're going to be drowned by it. People have asked if I'll do a history of the latest Iraq war, but I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. Most of the information about what went on before the war was electronic and has been deleted, and you cannot rely on what remains. I think that in the future the historian's job is going to be far more difficult.

Would Hitler's general staff have made better strategic decisions than he did?

Oh, absolutely. There was a streak in Hitler almost like a compulsive gambler who is always trying to raise the odds against himself - like, for example, he stopped the production of tanks and military equipment before the war on the Eastern Front. It was very strange behaviour considering this was the biggest military gamble the world had ever seen.

How did you approach interviewing survivors of the events in your books?

You always feel a bit like an ambulance chaser. One of the best was the interview I did with Winrich Behr, the officer flown out of the Kessel [the area where the 6th Army of the Wehrmacht was surrounded by Soviet troops at Stalingrad] to talk to Hitler. That was the most fascinating moment of my life, listening to him recounting that conversation, which he remembers with huge accuracy, because, as a young officer talking to Hitler, you are going to remember exactly what was said. On the Russian side, you have to be very careful. As soon as I mentioned Stalin, they became tremendously defensive.

How do you cope with having to work with such harrowing testimony such as that in Stalingrad and Berlin?

The best thing is not to allow your emotions to get involved straight away. But a day or two later, you find yourself waking up at four in the morning and the true horror of the stuff starts to hit you. After Stalingrad, I found I could not look at a plate of food without thinking what that would have meant to people during the siege. That went on for a couple of years, even after the book came out. I still get the odd flashback to this day.

Berlin was almost more harrowing: my friend and Russian research assistant, Luba Vinogradova, was very churned up. It was difficult for her to learn about what the Red Army had done to German women - but there was a small sense that perhaps they deserved it to pay for what the German men had done on the Eastern Front. But later, reading files describing what the Red Army had done to Russian and Ukrainian women, Luba was so upset she had to spend most of that night talking to her mother to try to make sense of it. The feeling of the Red Army's heroism went deep into Russian propaganda, which is why I'm not popular there, as you can imagine.

What is your next project?

A Writer at War. Along with Luba, I have translated the wartime notebooks of the Russian novelist Vassily Grossman - probably the only accurate and completely honest eye-witness account of what warfare was like on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Also, Grossman was the first person into Treblinka, where his Ukrainian mother was killed. After that, the next major project is D-Day.

How will history judge Tony Blair and George W Bush?

History judges people according to success or failure, not necessarily according to their moral position. Success and failure will depend very much on what happens in Iraq. I am pessimistic, largely because I feel that we have not seen the worst of it yet. What I always feared was that we were going to trigger a civil war, and there is still a distinct possibility of that happening. If that is the case, history may regard the Iraq war as one of the great disasters of the early 21st century. But if Iraq survives the insurgency and democracy takes hold in the Middle East, then perhaps Bush and Blair will be seen as brave visionaries. Chairman Mao was quite right when he made his remark in the 1960s that it was still too early to comment on the French Revolution.

Antony Beevor's book A Writer at War: Vassily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945 is out now, published by Pantheon at £20

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