What do historians think of Antony Beevor?
"The core of human drama lies in the Second World War"
DW: On September 1, 1939, Hitler's Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Was this the beginning of World War II?
Antony Beevor: I don't think it's the only thing, because the important thing about World War II is, of course, that it is a clash of many different conflicts. One of the most important is the Sino-Japanese War, about which we in the West know far too little. It is not without reason that I begin my book with the Battle of Chalchin Gol [in May 1939, editor's note]. This wasn't a particularly big battle, but it had a huge impact on the course of World War II not only in the Pacific but also on the Eastern Front. The Japanese defeat meant that Japan did not want to join Hitler in the fight against Moscow. This shows how much it was actually a global war and not just a European war.
I was surprised that you started your book with the example of the young Korean soldier Yang Kyungjong. Why did you choose him?
It stands for two things: One is the truly global aspect of this war. There is this young Korean who is forced to fight in the Chinese army in Mongolia, then is captured by the Russians and put in Soviet uniform. Then he is captured by the Germans, forced into their uniform and again taken prisoner of war - this time by the Americans. He came around the world once. This story underscores how little opportunity a simple person had to pull the strings of his own destiny. That touched me very much.
Who started the war? Wasn't it Hitler?
Hitler would have started the war in any case - and that's what he did in Europe. But it didn’t start the one in the Far East at all. Of course, the war plays a crucial role in Europe and Hitler was definitely the one who really wanted it and who created the incredible brutality that characterized this war.
How important was the British policy of appeasement? For example, showing no reaction when Hitler sent troops to the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland, no response when Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia. What role did Chamberlain play in the outbreak of war?
It certainly played an important role in letting Hitler get away with a whole series of territorial enlargements without initially leading to a war. We know that Hitler was even furious that he didn't get his war back in September 1938. But if we try to ask the question: "What would have happened if Churchill had been Prime Minister and he had stood in Germany's way earlier ...? Would the British and French have been in a stronger position vis-à-vis the Wehrmacht in September 1939?" I think it's important to ask these questions, but we'll never get an answer to them.
In Germany we often see World War II as a struggle for Hitler against the rest of the world. Who really were the powers that, according to your research, were at war with one another?
That is very difficult to answer. We have to remember that Stalin was Hitler's ally when the partition of Poland was at stake. But that changed. And that's why I think it's important to see all these very different conflicts and not to reduce them to a simple battle of different ideologies. To believe that Britain and America went to war on their own to defend democracy in the rest of the world is far too easy. Great Britain had a great strategic interest in preventing a European power from dominating the region. America acted more ideologically, but was still strongly guided by the self-interest that America's trade would be badly affected if a dictatorship dominated Europe. The motifs were therefore by no means what they were later passed off in the form of national myths. That we went to war to save the Jews is simply wrong. At the time the war broke out, no one assumed that Hitler would really enforce the “Final Solution” or that he would make this decision at all.
Was the Holocaust part of Hitler's warfare?
There is no doubt about that. It must be remembered that the so-called "Final Solution" was originally intended to have been reached if victory was achieved. This is the crucial aspect of the question about the period of 1941 - about which many historians have bitterly argued - when exactly the change from the "Shoah by rifle volleys" to the "Shoah by gas" took place. I do not know whether we will ever get an unequivocal answer to this, but I have no doubt that this turning point was connected with the inability of the Wehrmacht to achieve a decisive victory on the Eastern Front. Hitler desperately wanted to make sure that the Jews would not escape him. That is why he forced - or even ordered - a turn towards industrial murder compared to the previous mass murder of the Einsatzgruppen.
60 million people were killed in World War II. At one point in your book you call it "the greatest man-made disaster in history". How have these five and a half years - if you count from September 1939 to May 1945 - changed our world?
A question of morality: one of Beevor's most prominent books is about the Battle of Stalingrad.
The Second World War definitely changed our world, and not just politically. Nor is it necessarily the sheer number of those killed; the war either changed, or at least actually influenced, everyone's life. This is the reason why, at the end of the book, I tell the story of a German farmer's wife who fell in love with a French man. Such things would not have happened without this war either. It was important to me to link the story from above with the story from below, of ordinary people. This is the only way to really understand the effects of, say, Hitler and Stalin on the life of every human being.
What ended the Second World War?
Two answers: The war in Europe ended the exhaustion of German resources and the destruction of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. In Japan - there is no doubt about that - the atomic bombs ended the war. The Japanese military would have fought on to the last and would not have allowed a single soldier to surrender. Of course, dropping the atomic bombs raises great moral questions. Someone has calculated that the number of Japanese killed if the army continued fighting in suicidal actions would have cost between two and eight million people if the atomic bomb had not been dropped. So it is - and this is one of the fascinating aspects of World War II - the question of moral choice. And moral choices are - let's face it - the core of human drama. This is probably why World War II is still so fascinating, even 75 years after it broke out.
The interview was conducted by Sarah Judith Hofmann
The British historian Antony Beevor has written a number of renowned works on the Second World War, including "Stalingrad", "Berlin 1945 - The End" and "D-Day". Beevor recently received the Pritzker Literature Prize 2014 for his life's work. His latest work, "The Second World War", is now also being published in German by C. Bertelsmann.
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