Careers are as unpredictable as a maze. In childhood, I longed to join the army. This desire came about because I was on crutches due to Perthes disease and therefore suffered from a physical inferiority complex. Later, after five years as a regular officer, I suddenly decided to write a novel. Like most first novels, it was heavily autobiographical, and although the book was mercifully never published, it revealed my less than glorious reasons for wanting to be a soldier. Shocked by the discovery, I resigned my commission Then, with the ignorance and arrogance of youth, I decided to become a writer despite my complete lack of qualifications.
Miraculously, my next book was taken on by John Murray, the firm which had published five previous generations of my mother's family. But after several fairly unsuccessful novels, I was persuaded by another publisher to tackle military history. The subject had fascinated me as a boy, and my interest had increased when studying under John Keegan at Sandhurst.
Keegan's book, The Face of Battle, made a deep impression. His revolutionary description of soldiers in the front line overturned the traditional top-down approach of previous writers. It showed that while most accounts had tried to impose a chesslike logic on developments, the reality of combat was far more chaotic.
Perhaps my most important discovery occurred when researching Paris After the Liberation in the French National Archives. I came across a single short paragraph in a police report in 1945. This described how a German farmer's wife had been arrested in Paris. She had fallen desperately in love with the French prisoner of war working on their farm while her husband served on the eastern front. Their illicit affair had encouraged her to follow her lover to Paris. She somehow managed to smuggle herself onto one of the trains bringing back concentration camp victims in the early summer of that year. There were no other details, yet so many questions arose from that typewritten report. Had the Frenchman told her his real name and address? Had he returned to a wife and had he found that she had had a liaison with a German soldier during the occupation? All the material necessary for a novel by, say Marguerite Duras, existed in that single paragraph. It was a vital lesson, because it showed that history did not just consist of casualty figures. Everyone's life had been dramatically affected.
This lesson started to shape the manner in which I wanted to write about war. Oral history was not enough. What one needed to do was to integrate history from above with history from below. Only in that way could one show the true consequences of the decisions of leaders and commanders on the fragile lives of ordinary soldiers and civilians caught up in the huge maelstrom of the conflict. So that is why I wrote Stalingrad, The Fall of Berlin and now D-Day: The Battle for Normandy in the way that I have.
|Antony Beevor's D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, a #1 bestseller in five countries, will be published in the U.S.|