Tuesday, September 18, 2018

British historian tips hat to Stephen Ambrose, though their styles differ

By Ted Lewis
September 10, 2018

Image result for antony beevor
Antony Beevor in his writing barn

Improbably, their paths never crossed.
But Sir Antony Beevor certainly feels at home in the House That Stephen Ambrose Built.
The recently knighted British historian, whose writings on World War II have been as successful in the 21st century as Ambrose’s were in the late 20th, is the keynote speaker for the National WWII Museum’s 2018 International Conference on World War II. The three-day symposium opens Nov. 29.
Featuring panel discussions on topics as such as “Greatest Unheralded Commanders,” and “Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” the conference draws scholars, historians and plain WWII buffs from around the country.
Beevor will focus on his latest work, “The Battle of Arnhem,” the recently released story of the failed Allied airborne operation designed to hasten the end of the war in Europe.
Beevor’s appearance in New Orleans will be one of six in he’s making in the United States to promote the book, his 18th.
It’s Beevor’s fourth time at the conference, which debuted 2006, four years after Ambrose’s death.
“It’s a great pleasure coming back,” Beevor said. “They always manage to assemble an extraordinary collection of historians and writers.
“I must say that to find a conference of this size and scale is really quite something.”
Beevor also used the Eisenhower Center at UNO in his research for his 2010 book on D-Day, which bears the same title as Ambrose’s on the event (there are different subtitles), as well his latest one. Beevor also cites “Band of Brothers,” and “Citizen Soldiers,” both by Ambrose, in “Arnhem.”
Ambrose’s D-Day, published in 1995, is credited as the launching point for the museum, which opened five years later. Ambrose kick-started the project with a $500,000 donation.
“Stephen Ambrose turned more people on (to) the story of World War II than any other person outside of the people who actually fought in it,” said Rob Citino, the museum’s senior historian. “And Sir Antony is one of the five greatest World War II historians working today.
“He’s a great writer dealing with an epic topic. That’s a winning combination, and it’s why his books sell.”
And it’s also why, in a veddy British phrase Beevor uses in “Arnhem,” “It was a great pity,” that they never met.

Different approaches

That meeting would have been interesting because the two took such different approaches toward their life's work. In fact, readers argue which is best.
Ambrose was unabashedly Americentric. His D-Day opus manages to all but omit the British, Canadian and other Allied participation in the Invasion of Normandy.
“It’s a typically American optimistic approach to history,” said Beevor, who has more of a world view. “Some of it’s a scrubbed version such as leaving out the killing of prisoners (included in “Saving Private Ryan,” for which Ambrose was a consultant, a movie Beevor considers “rubbish,” save for the opening landing sequence).
“You’ve got to be completely honest in your writing, even when it’s embarrassing to your country. In many ways for him (Ambrose), it was the story more than the history.”
But, Beevor adds, Ambrose’s style opened the doors for a revived literary approach to writing history, even if it’s sometimes derided in academic circles.
“You have to hit the right balance,” said Beevor, whose first three books were novels. “When you’ve got solid, verifiable material from the archives, you should use it in an accessible way.
“The whole point is to bring to life what it was like at that time. Military history has developed that way in the last 20 years.”

Nostalgia vs. resentment

Ambrose’s sometimes nostalgic approach to the “The Good War,” fought by “The Greatest Generation,” also, in Beevor’s opinion, reflects how the era is viewed differently in America and Britain.
In the U.S., the start of the war helped end the Great Depression well before Pearl Harbor, the country was physically untouched by combat and the end triggered unprecedented prosperity.
In contrast, the war left Britain damaged, bankrupt and without its empire.
Food rationing didn’t end until 1954, and Beevor, who was born in 1946, relates how the government purchased a special shipment of bananas to give the children of the country a rare treat.
“We’d won the war, but to what end?” Beevor asked. “There was great resentment, particularly when Germany became so prosperous in the 1950s and '60s.
“Churchill saw at the peace conferences that Britain was becoming a junior partner. I am afraid he was proved to be right.”
The different outlooks even manifest themselves in the way the war is memorialized.
At the WWII Museum, there is an upbeat feeling despite the obvious horrors of war. At the Imperial War Museum in London, things are more solemn.
There’s also a “heroic failure” theme in British military history, Beevor added, of which “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” is the foremost example. Market Garden also is often seen in that regard, although Beevor hopes to change that, saying, “This was not just about being a bridge too far.”

Civilian suffering

Beevor used extensive British, American, German and Dutch sources in his research.
The foremost American source was the work done by “A Bridge Too Far,” author Cornelius Ryan, on which the 1977 blockbuster movie was based. 
The Dutch archives, Beevor said, were particularly bittersweet.
Before the start of Market Garden, the government-in-exile had radioed, “Liberation is at hand! Keep a diary!”
Many did, and those diaries revealed the extent of the suffering the civilian population endured during the “Hunger Winter,” of 1944-45 when the Nazis starved the people in retaliation for the underground’s role and an estimated 22,000 died.
That was just one of the consequences of a fundamentally flawed plan to capture bridges across the Rhine but instead resulted in what one author called “the last German victory.”
Beevor places the bulk of the blame on Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. 
“Montgomery was wrong on several counts, and his biggest problem was he wouldn’t listen to anyone,” Beevor said. “With all military leaders there is vanity at work, but in this case, Monty was displaying incredible hubris.”
Montgomery at least knew the ramifications of failure. The 1st British Airborne Corps was assigned the most vulnerable drop zone because of the political fallout from an American unit being ravaged, which is precisely what happened.
But Beevor also slams the entire Allied leadership for believing the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler two months before Market Garden meant the Germans were on the verge of collapse.
Fortunately, we all know the eventual outcome, the last clear-cut American victory.
Perhaps that’s a reason why almost three quarters of a century since its end, World War II maintains its high level of interest in popular culture and in successful undertakings like the WWII Museum.
Beevor, who at 72 still loves research (“It’s like catnip to me”) and plans on several more books, has his take on WWII’s legacy.
“More than any other war in history, this was one of moral choice,” he said. “The defeat of  the totalitarian entities fascinates us until today.
“I trust that it will for years to come.”
And on that point, Stephen Ambrose and Antony Beevor would certainly agree.

No comments: