The historian in Laurent Binet’s HHhH describes himself as “[writing] two pages for every thousand I read”. What is the scope of research behind The Second World War and how long did it take to write?
I would have thought the ratio was a lot higher than that. In many ways I could say that The Second World War has taken four times as long to write as the war lasted, since I began back in 1989 on a whole series of books on the subject, and every single one has contributed to this one. Also, I have gained immeasurably from all the stories, accounts and archival details sent to me by readers after each book has been published. The actual writing, as opposed to the research, took only about a year.
What is the role of the historian in the 21st century?
To understand and to pass on that understanding. The historian should not take on the role of moralistic judge or polemicist and should try to remain as objective as is humanly possible. The great danger is the temptation to impose the values of the 21st century on previous periods. Historians should put themselves in the shoes of the people at the time and see things through their eyes. We should try to understand the motives of villains as well as heroes and in writing narrative history, leave moral judgments to readers. In some countries of continental Europe, there is a belief that history is a science. I think this is a dangerous delusion. History can never be tested in a laboratory. It is a branch of literature.
How selective did you have to be in reducing what you refer to as “the greatest man-made disaster in history” to just over 800 pages?
I would have liked to include more personal experience than I have, but the prime objective of the book was to bring the vast global conflict into focus, with the effects of the different theatres of war on each other. This war was an agglomeration of different conflicts, and different countries look at it through their own experiences. For the Americans it did not begin until December 1941, but for the Chinese it began in 1937, and for far too long we have remained in ignorance about the Sino-Japanese War, which did so much to shape the China of today.
What is the book’s biggest revelation?
The one which most newspapers have focused on is the degree to which cannibalism became an official strategy for the Imperial Japanese Army towards the end. Allied prisoners of war, as well as locals, were used as human cattle and slaughtered one by one for their meat. This was kept secret for so long after the war by the Allies because of the horror and uncertainty it would have caused to the families of all those who died in Japanese prisoner of war camps.
Does writing a book like this affect you on a personal level?
The horrors do get to you. For years after writing Stalingrad, I could not look at a plate of food without thinking how much it would have meant to people at the time, whether Germans, civilians or Soviet soldiers. When working in the Russian archives with my colleague, Lyuba Vinogradova, she was often in tears at the material we encountered. I did everything I could not to let it influence me then. I had to concentrate on getting every detail correct, but it would get to me later.
What is the most neglected area of World War II studies?
The Russian archives are now basically closed again; the Chinese (where they exist) are almost impossible to access, and the Japanese authorities thwart any serious attempt at research. All this emphasises that there are still many areas and details left to come out, but I do not think that our overall view will be greatly changed by future revelations. The most neglected area has been the Sino-Japanese War, but increasing cooperation between historians – American, British, Japanese and Chinese – is starting to bear fruit despite the heavy hand of governments.
Is it important to give back individuality to those denied control over their lives during the war, whether as soldiers or civilians, by telling their stories?
It is vital. History in the past was written as a collective version. Since the ’80s and ’90s, there has been a greater emphasis on the fate of the individual within the mass horrors. At first this was achieved through oral history and collections of diary extracts, letters, interviews, but that lacked context. What I have tried to do is to integrate history from above with history from below, because only in this way can you show the way that the decisions of, say, Hitler and Stalin totally dominated and, of course, ended the lives of millions.
In what way are the legacies of the Second World War most visible?
Its legacies are all around us if we look and think carefully. And the three main issues which threaten the world today – the Middle East, Korea and potential conflict over the South China Sea – all have their origins in this war.
What are you working on next?
The Ardennes Offensive in December 1944, what the Americans call “The Battle of the Bulge”. I am interested in the Germans’ need to believe that this last, desperate throw of the dice might somehow save them from the fast approaching vengeance of the Red Army.
- The Second World War by Antony Beevor
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