Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Rick Atkinson wraps up his WWII Liberation Trilogy with The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945: Volume Three of the Liberation Trilogy. He humbly called it “yet another history” of the war, but it’s hard to imagine a better one.
You interview people about events that occurred half a century ago. How does one fact-check these?
I conduct very few interviews with veterans. The contemporaneous, or near-contemporaneous, record for WWII is so spectacularly deep that latter-day recollections are largely unnecessary for a historian. Of course, in considering any account, I’m looking for additional sources that can confirm or enlarge that version of events.
Your sources have strong opinions, but you rarely take sides. Did you make a conscious decision to avoid editorializing?
I believe the storyteller should largely stay out of the way. If I’ve vividly laid out the narrative, the reader will come to his own conclusions. I’m certainly game to call a spade a spade: in The Guns at Last Light, I ascribe a “bumptious, cocksure solipsism” to Gen. Bernard Montgomery. But I believe the narrative historian’s preeminent task is not to litter the story with verdicts but rather to illuminate, to transport, and hopefully even to transfix.
Which historians influenced you the most, and which generals do you most admire?
There are a number of World War II historians I admire: Cornelius Ryan, Mark Stoler, Antony Beevor, to name a few. As for generals, there are those I admire as combat leaders and others I admire because they’re great fun to write about. Lucian Truscott and William Simpson exemplify the former; the latter include Patton, Montgomery, and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. I think Jacob Devers, commander of the 6th Army Group, is undervalued by historians and, unfortunately, has been largely forgotten in the 21st century. I’ve spent 14 years in close proximity to Eisenhower. My esteem for him has only grown.
Some historians—like Max Hastings—state that German troops were superior to the Allies. What’s your opinion?
Sir Max is high on that list of historians I admire, and we’re good friends. The fact that a German company or regiment was more tactically proficient, or more ferocious than an Allied counterpart is irrelevant. Global war is a clash of systems, not just battalions biffing one another in some godforsaken forest. Max and I had a spirited e-mail discussion of this question, and here’s part of my reply to him: “Tactical clumsiness leads to young men dying, but it’s often not where wars are won or lost.... Every day as I sift through this catastrophe I’m heartsick at the missed opportunities, the purblind personalities, the wretched wastage. Why can’t they be braver or at least cleverer, smarter or at least shrewder, prescient or at least intuitive? And yet here we are, two sons of the victors, each writing yet another history.”