By Keith Lowe
17 May 2015
(Photo: Paul Cooper / Rex Features)
Antony Beevor has sleepless nights. When I met him recently at his west London home, he confessed this in a matter-of-fact way, and neither of us sees anything unusual in it. We each take it for granted that any historian who immerses himself in the study of the Second World War, as both of us have for most of our working lives, is bound to suffer occasional bouts of disturbed sleep.
His own insomnia, he tells me, tends to hit him only during intense periods of research, or when he is preparing to write about some of the more disturbing aspects of the war. “Of course, you mustn’t let it get to you straight away because you’ve got to get the facts down accurately,” he says. “But it will get to you a few nights later. In the middle of the night, you’ll suddenly wake up, and it will be there at the back of your mind.”
Certainly, many of the subjects Beevor has covered have been dark. His history of the battle of Stalingrad, which catapulted him to international fame in 1998, described one of the most bitterly fought campaigns of the Second World War. He admits that some of the accounts he discovered, particularly of soldiers starving in the snow, still haunt him today. His subsequent book about the battle for the German capital, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, described the rape of German women on a vast scale – a subject that repeatedly drove him to tears. Most recently, The Second World War described in sickening detail the way that some Japanese soldiers in south east Asia not only cannibalised their dead, but even reared and slaughtered prisoners of war to be eaten.
Writing about such things has not always provoked kind reactions among his critics. Fellow historian Niall Ferguson once accused him of writing war pornography, a charge he categorically rejects. “One has to try to understand these things,” he says. “Let’s face it, the duty of a historian is to understand, and to try to convey that understanding to others.” In fact, given the brutal nature of war, he feels he has actually been relatively restrained. There are many details that have never made it into his books. In his history of the Soviet attack on Berlin, for example, he stopped short of including graphic accounts of German suicide attempts, including the suicides of young children. “I left them out because you couldn’t read them without bursting into tears. There are things that you can’t put in a book because they are too horrific. And yet at the same time you wonder afterwards if you are chickening out by not putting them in.”
If there’s one thing that sets Beevor apart from other historians – beyond his gifts as a storyteller – it’s that he is not afraid to look at the most uncomfortable, even frightening subjects, but does so in a way that doesn’t threaten the reader. There’s rarely a judgmental note to his writing. It’s like having Virgil there to lead you through the underworld: he doesn’t leave you stranded amid the horror, but leads you back out again, a wiser person for having undergone the journey.
He has a knack for choosing controversial subjects at the right moment – when they are raw enough to touch a nerve, but not so raw as to be too painful to acknowledge. His latest is an account of the battle of the Ardennes in 1944. The book, which comes out this month, is a natural progression from his earlier history of D-Day. There is the same political tension between the British and American commanders; there is the same desperation in the fighting of ordinary soldiers on both sides; but at the heart of it lies another dark subject: the indiscriminate killing of prisoners. This, Beevor says, is “unmentionable”, one of the last taboos of the war. “I still haven’t read any American historian on the subject of the shooting of prisoners. And until recently I don’t think many British historians have written about the British killing of prisoners. That was something the Germans did, but we prefer not to talk about our boys doing it.”
The book begins with a description of one of the battles that preceded Hitler’s massive Ardennes offensive, and it is this that sets the tone of the pages to come. In the autumn of 1944, the Allied advance across western Europe finally got bogged down on the borders of Germany. The Americans found themselves entangled in a bitter fight for the Hürtgen forest, a place that, in Beevor’s words, was “so dense and so dark that it soon seemed cursed, as if in a sinister fairy-tale of witches and ogres”. There is no hyperbole in this description, he insists. “It is purely a reflection of the way the soldiers saw it themselves. Everybody who described that place talked of it in those sort of terms.” As part of his research, Beevor visited the forest, “and there is something spooky about it”.
Here, men on both sides developed extraordinarily creative ways of killing one another. They fired bursts of artillery at the tree tops so that splinters would tear through the people below. They learnt to play on the instincts of their enemies, placing landmines wherever they might seek shelter, such as in hollows or shell holes. Soldiers were often afraid to look about them, because they were too busy scanning the forest floor for trip wires. The Germans, in particular, developed a habit of placing explosive charges beneath American wounded or dead, knowing that as soon as a rescue team or burial party tried to move them, they, too, would be killed by the explosion.
“This is not a normal part of human behaviour,” Beevor tells me. The purpose of tactics such as this was not only to kill the enemy but also destroy their spirit. Both sides, he says, knew that demoralising the enemy could be the key to winning each battle; thus brutality, even atrocity, became an integral part of the fighting.
Over the coming weeks, the logic of such brutality would be tested to the full. On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their counter-attack across the boggy fields and wooded hills of south east Belgium. Much of the German army was made up of SS soldiers who had served in Russia, where they were notorious for torching villages and killing all the inhabitants. Now they brought the fighting methods of the eastern front to the heart of Belgium: civilians suspected of sympathising with the Americans were murdered, women were raped, farmhouses looted, and prisoners of war were shot. There were several massacres, most notably at Malmédy, where 130 American prisoners were herded into a field by SS Panzergrenadiers and 84 were machine-gunned to death.
Faced with this onslaught, the American defenders fell back in disarray. The units defending this part of the line were already demoralised by their recent encounters in the Hürtgen forest, and many of them now simply broke down. Those who suffered worst were the new recruits who had only recently joined their units to replace men who had already died. “There probably is no more desperate position than finding yourself in combat for the first time,” Beevor says. “It’s counter to every form of normal human experience. It becomes intensely personal, as if every bullet is aimed at you, as if every shell is aimed at you. The poor b------- came in without proper training – they were the ones who cracked in no time at all.”
The morale of American troops quickly became a serious problem. Instances of self-inflicted injuries increased as traumatised soldiers did whatever they could to escape the violence of the front. Usually these injuries took the form of an “accidental” rifle shot through the left hand or the foot, but one soldier from the 99th Infantry Division was so desperate that he lay down beside a large tree, reached around it, and exploded a grenade in his hand.
However, if the shock of the German attack struck fear into some American soldiers, it seemed to have the opposite effect on others. “The determination to fight back was astonishing,” says Beevor, “and probably the most important contribution to the eventual outcome.” News of the atrocities committed by SS troops also strengthened American resolve.
At this point, Beevor begins to tell me some of the savage details of American revenge. Their first targets, he says, were SS soldiers, who were often shot out of hand. He also talks of at least one platoon that vowed never to take any prisoners at all: whenever the Germans raised a white flag, a sergeant would stand up and beckon them closer before giving his men the command to fire. At Chenogne the 11th Armoured Division shot 60 German prisoners: “There was no secret about it – Patton even mentions it in his diaries.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this culture of revenge is that the American commanders were not only complicit but actively encouraged it.
“There was anger among the commanders that they had been taken by surprise. There was a large element of embarrassment. When something like that happens, you get very angry, and you refuse to accept responsibility for what you’ve done.” Several of the American generals openly approved of the killing of prisoners, and gloried in the gruesome nicknames the Germans were beginning to know their troops by, such as “Roosevelt’s butchers”.
As we talk, it is clear that Beevor struggles with these issues. Outside academia, there are few people who are prepared to look unflinchingly at the less flattering parts of our behaviour – and certainly no one with Beevor’s large readership has. What’s more, it is one thing to state that such events happened – an admission that many historians have shied away from – but quite another to know how to react to them. The whole subject runs counter to our most cherished communal myths about British and American heroism and gallantry.
Beevor knows instinctively that he must tread carefully, neither condoning the revenge nor reaching for outright condemnation.
“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,” he says.
For the first time in our conversation, he displays a flicker of discomfort.
“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I ask. Surely there are less disturbing ways for a historian to make a living – ways that do not involve the study of violence, atrocity and inhumanity? He answers with a single word: “Fascination.” He says it casually, in the same way that he spoke about his sleepless nights, but after everything we have spoken about the word is impregnated with layers of meaning. There is his fascination with the war period, which, he says, defined the world that he grew up in. There is his fascination with man’s ability to endure the most incomprehensible violence, and his fascination with what makes some men break while others are able to rise above their most primitive instincts. And beneath it all, there is that compulsion to lean over the abyss and gaze into the heart of darkness. “I’m afraid the whole nature of evil is something we are all fascinated by.”
Sadly, I have to agree.
Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
Antony Beevor will be speaking at the Hay Festival on May 23. His book, Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, is published by Viking (£20, 0844 8711515)