The world in flames

Antony Beevor's latest book is a sweeping narrative of the entire Second World War. Here, he talks to Rob Attar about his new discoveries and the myths of the conflict that he is hoping to lay to rest

Industrial might: Blenheim bombers in production in England, late 1939. The Allies’ combined industrial strength proved too much for the Axis. (Getty Images) 

This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Advertisement

Why did you decide to write a history of the Second World War?

I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud in some ways. People would consult me as a great expert on the Second World War, when I knew that I had large periods, large patches of ignorance. I’d always written before on particular aspects, battles or campaigns, but the whole thing didn’t join up.

It was vital for me as an education to understand how it all fitted together on a more comprehensive basis.

What new light will your book shed on the war?

There were many aspects that certainly shook me. I found that the scope of the horrors in the far east has been under-reported in many ways, mainly because we’ve failed to understand that however badly British, Australian, or American prisoners of war were treated by the Japanese, their treatment of local populations was even worse. When one looks at the casualty rate of the Burma railway, very roughly a third of Allied prisoners of war died in the course of building it, but the death rate was over 50 per cent for the local population who were used as forced labour.

There were other aspects too.

I was totally unaware that the Japanese actually used prisoners as meat, ie kept them alive to butcher them later for food. These were not just isolated incidents – it was throughout the whole of the Japanese army. When Japanese troops were cut off from supply routes they were told to adopt self-sufficiency, and that basically meant not only stealing the food of the locals, but also using them where they could as meat.

It included Allied prisoners of war as well, particularly Indians.

The story was suppressed at the end of the war and didn’t come up at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal because the authorities were so afraid of the effect that it would have on families back in Britain or the States etc. They didn’t want people whose father, brother or son had died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, wondering if he had been eaten.

A losing cause: German soldiers fighting in the Soviet Union in 1943, by which point, Antony Beevor argues, the Nazis were doomed to defeat. (Getty Images)
A losing cause: German soldiers fighting in the Soviet Union in 1943, by which point, Antony Beevor argues, the Nazis were doomed to defeat. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Who would you say was to blame for the outbreak of the war?

Nothing is inevitable in history. The conditions for instability as a result of the world economic crisis and the flaws in the Versailles treaty were great, but they didn’t have to lead to war.

Hitler was just a single person, but he really was the one person who did create the Second World War. Japan would have gone to war with China on its own, but would never have attacked Britain and the US, as it did in 1941, if there had not been the war in Europe started by Hitler. He was the prime person responsible for the Second World War. There would have been other conflicts during that particular period, but such a conflagration was definitely caused by Hitler.

Was it ever conceivable that the Axis could have won the war?

If Churchill had, say, lost his nerve or been forced to give in to Halifax [and negotiate a peace deal] for one reason or another in late May 1940 then obviously the situation would have been completely different. For starters, there would not have been an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the United States to launch an invasion of Europe from.

Hitler would have been triumphant – although how things would have panned out later on we don’t know.

If Britain had given in and made a humiliating peace treaty then Hitler would have been in a position to concentrate more forces on the eastern front, including the Luftwaffe, at a critical moment.

One of the things I’ve argued in the book is that we underestimate – however much we condemn or want to condemn on moral grounds – the strategic bombing of Germany. It had much stronger military grounds than anybody has accepted. The Luftwaffe was forced to withdraw the bulk of its fighter squadrons from the eastern front to protect the Reich and this made a huge difference.

So would a larger force in the east in 1941, with Britain out of the war, have been decisive? Obviously we’re into the realms of counterfactual history and I wouldn’t go any further than that.

Was the battle of Stalingrad the turning point of the war?

I would put it a different way. Stalingrad was the psychological turning point of the war. The geopolitical turning point came in December 1941 when the Wehrmacht was stopped in its tracks outside Moscow, and the US entered the fray because Hitler declared war on America after Pearl Harbor. There was no way Hitler could ever win the war after that and he was almost doomed to lose it because the geopolitical line-up against him was so huge, particularly in industrial terms.

Some people put the turning point as late as the battle of Kursk in 1943, which I find astonishing. It’s obvious that it came much earlier. The problem is that 1942 was an absolutely terrible year for the Allies. The Red Army was beaten all the way back to the Volga at Stalingrad, and everyone thought that Rommel was going to break through in north Africa, allowing the Germans to link up in the Middle East. That obscures the fact that the Wehrmacht had definitely overreached itself.

It had reached that critical point of overstretch and was bound to start collapsing fairly rapidly.

Was Allied victory principally due to logistical superiority?

Absolutely yes. Charles de Gaulle recognised this in 1940, predicting that the war would be won by mechanisation. When Stalin met Beaverbrook and Harriman in Moscow the following year, he said straight away that victory would come to the side that could produce the most engines.

This wasn’t just a blood and guts war of numbers on each side. We’d moved beyond that stage of the First World War. The development of air power, tank warfare and all the rest of it was handing victory to the major industrial powers. From that point of view Germany was doomed because it could never out produce the combination of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union.

Did the Allies have superior leadership as well?

This depends on what level you’re talking about. At the very very top level the Allies did have better leadership, although we did also have the problem of coalition warfare. General Patton, for example, argued that the Allies should fight in different theatres because otherwise they would end up hating each other more than they did the enemy. That was an exaggeration of course, but there were terrible tensions. The main point, however, was that the Allied chief of staffs system, and the way that they worked with their political masters, was extremely effective.

When it comes to Hitler and Stalin we see curious reverse graphs. At the beginning Hitler was a fairly inspired leader, because his genius lay in assessing the weakness of others and exploiting those weaknesses. That was his only talent really. He saw the potential of von Manstein’s plan [for the German invasion of France] and was prepared to back it as far as he could. But from then on, and certainly from the turning point of 1941, he became completely sclerotic. He would not allow any form of retreat or flexibility among his field commanders, and that of course was catastrophic. They were cut off time and time again because of Hitler’s refusal to withdraw and refusal to make use of the German army’s advantage, which was in the war of movement.

Stalin on the other hand was disastrous at the beginning but then became a very good war leader. That didn’t mean that he spared soldiers’ lives – he was prepared to waste them

in the most terrifying way – but he was extremely effective once he started to give his marshals and generals their head. By late 1942 Stalin realised that the best way was not to interfere too much and to make them use their own talents and imagination. Then the war turned very rapidly in the favour of the Red Army.

Is it too simplistic to describe the war as a conflict between good and evil?

Yes of course. A number of historians have quite rightly shown that there was a huge moral dilemma at the centre of Allied strategy; the price of liberating one half of Europe was surrendering the other half to a dictatorship that was almost as appalling as Hitler’s.

One can never talk entirely of black and white. The whole debate over the strategic bombing offensive shows the shades of grey. Moral choices lie at the heart of human drama and I think that this is part of the fascination with the Second World War. People ask themselves what they would have done if they had been there. Would they have survived physically or psychologically?

One of Britain’s dilemmas was whether to ally itself with the Soviet Union. Was that a justifiable decision?

Absolutely. There was no alternative whatsoever. Churchill made it clear that he had no truck with the Soviet Union, and yet because of the evil nature of the Nazi regime it had to be that our enemy’s enemy became a friend.

Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said quite rightly that Stalin may have killed more people, but Hitler had to be defeated first. That’s absolutely true. When one looks at things like Herbert Backe’s hunger plan [plundering Soviet food resources to feed Germans], which if it had been implemented as intended would have killed several times more people than the Holocaust, it’s clear that Nazism had to be beaten first.

And anyway there wasn’t any question of being able to defeat communism at that particular stage. It wasn’t even on the agenda.

Counterfactual historians who try to argue that Britain should have tried to make peace with Germany in 1940 to preserve the empire and all the rest of it are talking rather dangerous rubbish. It’s quite preposterous to believe that somehow we could have done a deal with Hitler, knowing perfectly well that he broke every single agreement that he ever made. We would have been forcibly disarmed and completely under his control, the equivalent almost of Vichy France.

Several conspiracy theories have grown up around the war. Will your book help to challenge these?

I hope that by integrating all of these particular aspects of the war, and in some cases dealing with these theories, it will be able to do so. There are a number that have to be tackled.

One is that Stalin was preparing to attack Germany in 1941, which is a complete load of rubbish. It was based on one contingency planning document, when the Soviet general staff was already well aware that Hitler was planning to attack them. So it wasn’t a question of an unprovoked attack at all.

One cannot rule out the possibility that Stalin may have considered a pre-emptive attack on Germany in 1942 or afterwards because he was afraid of the threat from Germany. But in 1941 there was no question of the Red Army being in any shape or form capable of launching an effective attack. All of the Soviet artillery tractors were then being used to bring in the harvest.

There are also theories about the suppression of news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Warnings had been sent out time and again in the previous weeks saying war with Japan was a distinct possibility, but the problem was that it was beyond the Americans’ imagination that the Japanese would get all the way to Pearl Harbor. One cannot say there was a conspiracy or somehow Churchill had something to do with it because he wanted to force America into the war. This was entirely an American affair.

What’s far more striking is that Stalin knew by then that the Japanese were going to attack south, and so was moving his Siberian divisions eastwards. But was there a warning from Stalin to Washington? Was there hell. It’s always a question of trying to attack Churchill or Roosevelt, but seldom of attacking Stalin.

Similarly there are theories about why the Allies didn’t bomb Auschwitz or the prison camps. Actually there are some very straightforward reasons for that. The chief ones were the distance and flight time, and the inaccuracy of their bombing. When the Allies did try to bomb prisons in Amiens or Copenhagen they ended up with more civilians killed than prisoners saved. Stalin, however, was closer, had better intelligence and could have done much more in that particular way but he, of course, was simply not interested.

Will there ever be another war of the same magnitude?

This was in many ways the war to end all conventional wars. The age of the conscript army has almost gone. On a global scale we won’t see so many people under arms again because that phase of warfare has completely passed. It is now far more professional and technical.

We may well see other conflicts, which could be alarming, particularly in the Middle East for example. But we will not see the same mass attacks of infantry or armour, because they are too vulnerable to higher technology.

Advertisement

Antony Beevor is one of the world’s best-known military historians. Among his previous books are Stalingrad (Penguin, 1998), Berlin: The Downfall (Viking, 2002) and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (Viking, 2009). Find out more at www.antonybeevor.com