Antony Beevor: On the joys of history

The Left isn't going to like Antony Beevor's book on the Spanish Civil War, but he's used to controversy - his account of the fall of Berlin elicited heated protests from the Russian ambassador. Danuta Kean talks to him about the joys of digging in the archives, his despair about history students today and his brush with Jackie Onassis

Sunday 21 May 2006 00:00 BST

He leans forward, hands clenched tight. "I get letters from students, post-graduates even, saying, 'I am doing a thesis on the war on the Eastern Front. I haven't had time to read your book, so could you answer the following questionnaire?'" He throws his hands up in despair. "What is completely shattering is that most of these letters are illiterate. They couldn't string a sentence together. They couldn't spell, of course, let alone punctuate, and their sentence construction is wicked." He laughs in disbelief at the students' crassness. It breaks the tension. "There was not a moment for them to stop and think: what would a person who has written a book feel if they are told, 'I haven't had time to read this book, but could you fill in this questionnaire?'"

We are in the airy study of his Fulham town house, paintings cover the walls and a huge table, laden with books and papers, dominates its centre. We are meant to be discussing his latest book, The Battle for Spain, an epic history of the Spanish Civil War that has topped the Spanish book charts, unleashing a storm of debate, but a question about history in schools has touched a nerve.

It is one of many tangential diversions. Like his contemporary David Starkey, Antony Beevor has opinions and is not afraid to use them. But unlike Starkey, Beevor is no vituperative controversialist. Seemingly incapable of dissembling, he passionately engages in issues whether debating arcane facts of history, the rapaciousness of supermarkets - which as president of the Society of Authors he vocally campaigned against - or, as now, ill-informed government policy.

"This government has the lowest regard for history we have ever known," he says, exasperated. "One of the worst things about the state system in this country is that nobody really has to write essays. Students are incapable of putting their thoughts down in a coherent way and this is handicapping them for jobs in the future. The good thing about the history essay was that it taught you to assess the material you had and to put it together in a reasonable way, which is what you have to do for any report, whether you are a civil servant or working in a company."

His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper and he leans closer. "Of course we are going to have high [university] drop out rates if students feel incapable and inadequate when writing. They are force-fed stuff for the GCSE and A Level system, but they are incapable of thinking for themselves or putting together an argument." His voice rises: "We have created a generation of educational nerds. They can think inside a box, but are totally incapable of getting outside that box."

The irony of Beevor attacking the education system is not lost on him. He may be a world-class historian, but he was a school failure, flunking A Levels in History and English due he says to "utter bloody-mindedness". There is a mischievous glint in his eye when I ask about his academic record, and he giggles like a guilty schoolboy. "It was the arrogance and innocence of youth that made me fail," he admits. "I was at Winchester in a completely bolshie mood. I didn't do any work at all."

From Winchester, he joined the army, where he served for five years as an officer with the 11th Hussars, a decision he now regards as a mistake. "Lives and careers are very strange things in the way that they can work out," he says, philosophically. As a child, he suffered from Perthes disease: from the age of four until seven he was on crutches. It left him with a feeling that he had something to prove. "My reasons for going into the army were less than glorious," he admits with characteristic honesty. "They were just purely to sort out a physical inferiority complex."

Ironically, the army redeemed him, because there he discovered two things: a love for writing and a passion for history, fuelled by the lectures of Sir John Keegan at Sandhurst. Keegan rejected the chessboard theory of battlefields, in which master chess players outmanoeuvre one another, and convinced Beevor that battles are lost, not won, and that the reasons for those failures lie in the stories of the men on the ground and the people back home.

His obsession with detail marks him out from other star names who seem less willing to spend years lost in archives: three for Stalingrad and four for Berlin. Ask him about his latest research and he can barely contain his excitement. Sometimes, what he discovers has a high cost. The terrible stories he uncovered for Stalingrad, his landmark account of the decisive battle of the Second World War, and for Berlin, the harrowing story of the fall of Hitler's capital and the brutality of the Red Army, still give him nightmares.

The Battle for Spain contains its own horrors, with outrages on both sides. The brutality of Franco's Nationalists is well known, but equally shocking is the murderous paranoia of the Communists and the blood-lust of the people unleashed after years of oppressive government. In Spain, it has reignited debate about the war and its painful legacy, not least because Beevor explodes the myth that the Republic was a virgin democracy violated by fascist forces and betrayed by its democratic neighbours.

"The myth of the immaculate Republic was something that really did need to be tackled, because it still exists in Spain," Beevor explains. It is an under-statement. The idea of the Immaculate Republic remains a rallying cry for the Left. To understand the impact, imagine a foreign historian revealing that the idea of plucky Britain facing the fascists alone during the Blitz is a myth.

"Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, whose grandfather was executed by the Right, refuses to believe it was anything else other than a virgin political entity ravished by the appalling Fascists," he says. "In the book, I do not in any way diminish the horrors of the Nationalist brutality, but the trouble with the myth of the violated Republic is that it automatically means everybody and every element within it shares the same reputation."

In place of the myth, Beevor shows a Republic in disarray. While the cruelty of Franco's Nationalists is shocking in its systematic viciousness, the Republic was hamstrung by incompetence and ideological infighting. The lack of political cohesion severely clouded the judgement of its leadership, leaving it isolated internationally and divided at home.

He explains the inaction of Spain's democratic neighbours France and Britain, and shows how it played into the hands of the Nationalists. He also reveals that Stalin was a less than willing accomplice, his craven self-interest ensuring the help he gave the Spanish socialist forces was too late and too little.

"The idea that the Republic had been betrayed by the democracies is ridiculous," Beevor says emphatically. Britain was in no position to help, its own air force was still flying biplanes and its army ill-equipped. "It would have been disastrous for Britain and France to intervene. That would have handed the plate to Hitler and Mussolini, because it would have given them the excuse to occupy Gibraltar, thus sealing off the Mediterranean."

That the Republic could have had a hand in its own downfall is a bitter pill for the Spanish to swallow, and Beevor admits he braced himself for criticism when the book was published there last September. It would not be the first time he has found himself revealing unwelcome truths. In Berlin his revelations about mass rapes by the Russian occupying forces led the Russian ambassador to accuse him of "slander, lies and blasphemy" against the Red Army. In Spain, he says in disbelief, "The coverage was simply staggering."

As so often in Beevor's career, his timing was impeccable. Post-Madrid bombings, The Battle For Spain arrived as a new generation looks to its past to understand the divisions of the present. Within a week of the book appearing, it was being discussed at the Spanish Cabinet meetings, all the ministers having read it.

The debate he unleashed, while healthy, has disturbed him. "I was alarmed by the questions of a lot of young Spanish journalists, who were saying Spain seems to be more split than it has been for so long, did I think that they face the risk of another war? I said, for goodness sake! Spain has achieved one of the great miracles of democracy. I couldn't understand this extraordinary excess of alarm, fear and unease. This has been very much since the Madrid bombings. There is unease in Spain at the moment about many of these aspects, which is why a debate is so necessary and so healthy."

Such soul-baring is a by-product of what he does, he believes, not an end and he is dismissive of historians who seek to prove pet theories with research. "The point of a historian is just trying to understand," he says. "I think it is an appalling idea that a historian should have a leading thought, where they have a theory and get material to suit their thesis." History is not science, he declares, it is a branch of literature, and to view it in any other way is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

He names a clutch of European rivals, whose work he regards as fatally flawed by the belief that somehow history can be evaluated in a test tube. Top of his hit list is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's psycho-history Hitler's Willing Executioners with its claims to scientific credibility. "It is a dangerous idea, because books like Goldhagen's will, on the basis of demographic profiling and a lot of archival research, start leaping to conclusions, or certainly drawing conclusions based on figures that are telling only half or a quarter of the truth. A scientific arrogance among historians is truly dangerous."

Arrogance is not among Beevor's qualities, and he is capable of dealing with the putdowns of rivals with a shrug of his shoulders. Besides, no putdown will ever match that of Jackie Onassis, with whom he worked on Paris After the Liberation, which he co-authored with his wife Artemis Cooper. Beevor had found "the perfect" jacket photograph of an American soldier sitting in a jeep looking very pleased with himself, surrounded by a French intellectual and a mother and child.

"The group said everything about the French-American relationship. I thought it was fantastic. I immediately sent it to Jackie with shall we say naive enthusiasm. Back came this wonderful printed pale blue card, with a white border and white cockle shell at the centre as her symbol. It said..." Laughing, he assumes an effete American accent: " 'Dear Antony, thank you for sending the photograph, but I think I should warn you that choosing a jacket photograph here in the States is a little akin to the Japanese tea ceremony.'" Authors meddling with jacket designs is a bête noir among publishers; Onassis had told him, albeit elegantly, to butt out.

Onassis was a revelation, he says fondly. Though he had expected a fashion icon, with all the vapidity that implies, what he found was a smart woman who took her role as editor at Doubleday seriously. "We only discovered how sharp she was right at the end," Beevor recalls. Though dying of Hodgkins lymphoma, Onassis continued to work diligently. Beevor and Cooper were under pressure to finish the book in time for the 50th anniversary of the liberation, but there were problems with the final chapter.

"I finished the last chapter, took it in to see Artemis and she said it doesn't work, but she couldn't see exactly why. Well, of course I threw my teddy into the corner, even though I knew she was right." Nobody else could work out what needed changing either. "We sent it to Jackie, and this was three weeks before she died, so she was very ill indeed, and she put her finger on it straight away. She was so professional, so elegant..." his voice trails away. It is a fond memory for a man who spends most of his hours among the horrors of other people's recollections.

'The Battle For Spain' is published by Weidenfeld at £25. To order a copy for £22.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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