Writer of the month: Stalingrad and Berlin – researching the reality of war
Antony Beevor discusses his experience of researching the reality of war.
Antony Beevor is an author whose books include: Stalingrad (Samuel Johnson, Wolfson and Hawthornden Prizes); Berlin The Downfall; The Battle for Spain (Premio La Vanguardia); D-Day – The Battle for Normandy (RUSI Westminster Medal and Prix Henry Malherbe); and most recently The Second World War.
This talk was part of the Writer of the Month – a series of free talks, in which each month a high profile author shared their experiences of using original records in their writing.
In January 1945 the Red Army launched its great Winter Offensive from the river Vistula. Its ultimate objective was Berlin, what Soviet propaganda called the lair of the fascist beast. In the city itself the mood was a mixture of fear, resignation, uncertainty and cynicism. Already at Christmas the famous black humour of Berliners had turned to gallows humour. The joke that season was ‘Be practical, give a coffin.’ The question dominating their minds was which enemy would reach Berlin first: the Western Allies or the Soviets, and Berliners remarked that optimists were learning English and the pessimists were learning Russian.
Nazi diehards had suddenly become a minority. They felt betrayed by the fair-weather supporters of Hitler who now tried to distance themselves rapidly from the regime. The question of how deeply Germans were committed to Hitler at particular moments has dogged the post war debate for decades. So, can archive material help resolve such a problem?
Well in Gemany the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence branch of the SS [Schutzstaffel] made regular reports on what people were saying. These Meldungen aus dem Reich as they were called were an extension of the Gestapo reports ordered by Hermann Göring in 1933 just after the Nazis came to power.
It was a more sinister version of mass observation and the wartime survey carried out by the Ministry of Information in Britain to monitor morale here. This vast material from the Bundesarchiv was published in the 1980s in 17 volumes. So it’s an immensely valuable and easily accessible source for historians.
Another very important source lies here at The National Archives in the WO 208 series and I’m working on it at the moment. These are the secret recordings of German prisoners of war right up to even the most senior officers who had been captured. They were secretly taped. Here you have officers and soldiers alike talking quite openly, not only about their feelings towards the regime but also about the war crimes they have committed.
Albert Speer when interrogated by the Americans some days after the end of the war made the bitter observation, this by the way is from the US National Archives at College Park, Maryland, ‘History always emphasises terminal events.’ Speer hated the idea that what he saw as the early achievements of Hitler’s regime would be obscured by its final grotesque collapse. He simply refused to recognise that nothing reveals more about the true nature of a dictatorship than the manner of its downfall.
No country has done more to face up to the horrors of its own past than Germany. Post war generations of German students have been openly critical of their parents’ failure to oppose or condemn the Nazi regime. Young German historians have done everything they can to uncover evidence of SS or Wehrmacht atrocities during the invasion of the Soviet Union. But what is far harder and far more important is to understand the mentality and the context of the times which led to such atrocities. The problem of retrospective judgement is an important one. You have to understand the mentality of the time and not just condemn it; that’s facile. In fact, intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage. Nothing is black and white in history, nothing is tidy. Putting on a Wehrmacht uniform did not automatically make a man a war criminal and nor did a Red Army uniform turn a man into a rapist.
The story of the last six months of the war, culminating in the Red Army’s fearsome assault on Berlin, is also the story of an increasing proportion of unwilling soldiers and civilians trapped in a nightmare of Nazi creation. Hitler’s refusal to allow retreat meant that German women and children were abandoned in the face of the Red Army. At times it’s hard to distinguish between the Nazis’ almost unbelievable irresponsibility and their total lack of humanity, even towards their own people. In the course of ten weeks from mid January 1945, 8.5 million refugees fled from East Prussia, West Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia by ship, by train, by farm cart and on foot. Soviet tank units simply crushed refugee columns under their tracks and it’s estimated that at least half a million German civilians died. By 1946, 11 million Germans had been ethnically cleansed.
In Germany itself thousands of refugees were left to freeze and starve by the train load in cattle and coal wagons just like concentration camp prisoners.
This was mainly because local Nazi officials did not want the refugees to pass on diseases. In some cases they simply shirked the responsibility of looking after them and sent them further on down the line. So much for the Nazis’ vaunted Volksgenossenschaft, or sense of national comradeship. It’s doubly unsettling to read these documents in the Bundesarchiv in Berlin-Lichterfelde which is housed in the old barracks of Hitler’s bodyguard the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and you cross their parade ground to get to the reading rooms.
Dealing with Russian archives on the other hand, is a far more complex matter. My first attempts in 1995 to get access to the Red Army Stalingrad files, held at TsAMO the Russian Ministry of Defence Central Archive out at Podol’sk some 30 kilometres south of Moscow, was quite an education. TsAMO was set up in 1936 coincidentally at the start of the purges of the Red Army and some of the atmosphere still lingers like the portraits of Lenin staring with a sinister gaze at you from the wall.
Our negotiations over access the previous year had been conducted with the Ministry of Defence in Moscow with the responsible officer on the general staff which directly controls the archives. He told me flatly that the way the system worked was for me to tell them my subject and that then they would select the files. It would have been futile to protest. I explained that I was interested in depicting the experience of soldiers on both sides during the Battle of Stalingrad and to give an indication of the sort of material I was looking for I mentioned the very interesting reports by doctors and chaplains attached to German divisions which I’d found in the German archives in Freiburg. This prompted a bellow of laughter from the Russian colonel ‘No priests in the Red Army.’ ‘Well yes,’ I said ‘but the political officers.’ ‘Ah, so you want to see the political department reports,’ he said ‘we will see.’
Well eventually, five months later, I arrived at Podol’sk in good time in the morning accompanied by Luba Vinogradova my Russian research colleague with whom I’ve now worked for the last 17 years. Colonel Shuvashin, then the Deputy Director, showed us the mountain of files they’d extracted and selected. Pieces of paper marked the passages that they’d chosen for us and a typed sheet gave the summary. It was clearly forbidden to look outside the marked pages. So, we started off on that very first morning in the most extraordinary conditions I have ever encountered in any archive and I can assure you that it’s such a pleasure to work here in comparison. We had to sit and work on the far side of Colonel Shuvashin’s desk while he yelled into a malfunctioning telephone. At one moment he slammed down the instrument and pointed to it in frustration saying ‘Soviet 1960s model, it’d be easier to shout to Moscow.’ [laughter]
Anyway, just to be on the safe side, I decided to begin with the dossiers of interrogations of German prisoners which I knew would not be controversial or unsettling from a Russian point of view and this proved a fortunate choice.
At the end of the morning a man appeared in dark glasses, a beach shirt and a moustache, I hasten to add it was wonderful May weather at the time. He had a menacing friendliness and spoke such good English that he could have only been learned abroad and I discovered later that his name was Colonel Gregor Yurievich Starkov and even I, the most inexperienced of spook spotters, could see GRU written all over him, which is a Russian military intelligence.
Shuvashin also seemed nervous as Starkov started to question me on my approach to the subject expressing the hope that I was not looking for negative material. I tried to duck this with a deliberately boring treatise on a historian’s duty of objectivity but that cut no ice with Colonel Starkov whatsoever.
Eventually he just told us it was time for lunch and directed Luba and me towards the canteen and he said we should leave our bags and papers there in the office, so there wasn’t much subtlety there. They went through everything obviously that we had.
Anyway, that afternoon everything was very relaxed. Colonel Starkov had found nothing anti-Soviet in the notes or in the bags or anything like that and to our astonishment we were given a lecture room to work in completely unsupervised. We started to work on the daily reports: between 15 and 24 pages per day sent by aircraft every single night from the political department of the Stalingrad Front to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the Chief Commissar of the Red Army in Moscow. This was because Stalin had to know the absolute truth of what was going on in Stalingrad. Anyway, I was so carried away by the material I forgot at first we were supposed to be reading only a couple of dozen pages out of each of the 600 page dossiers covering just one month of the battle.
But anyway, once over our euphoria at getting at the unvarnished truth, we realised that we had to be very, very careful and Luba stuck her finger in one of the permitted passages and every time we heard footsteps in the corridor she flicked back. It felt rather like cheating in an exam. The pages selected for us consisted mainly of letters of praise addressed to Comrade Stalin from soldiers on the Stalingrad Front. But the rest was exactly what I’d sort of ever dreamed of finding because it was a detailed record, day by day, without any propaganda gloss. They described the acts of heroism but also the ‘extraordinary events’ which was Commissar speak for desertion, self-inflicted injuries, drunkenness of Commanders, alcohol poisoning of soldiers, retreating without orders, counter-revolutionary agitation, defeatism and all other crimes punishable by death. Story after story put terrible flesh on the figure of 13,500 Red Army soldiers executed at Stalingrad by their own side.
The problem with the positive material was that it consisted of propaganda versions of utterly genuine bravery and self-sacrifice but the Stalinist clichés made it slightly unconvincing, but it was definitely true I’m sure. I was staying with the Canadian political attaché in his apartment in Moscow and on the first evening, when I rang my wife to tell her I couldn’t believe that we’d been allowed so close to the files unsupervised, my host signalled urgently to me to shut up and it’s very easy to forget in the new Moscow that of course some old Soviet habits haven’t stopped and he even told me not to say anything about what we’d managed to find in the archive when we went out to dinner.
So anyway, Luba and I spent the rest of that week flipping back to those handful of permitted pages but towards the end of the week Colonel Shuvashin and the woman archivist seemed to get slightly nervous. I think because mainly I was taking notes by hand rather than ordering photocopies which they felt they could control. I mean, we were actually the very first foreigners into this archive which had been opened by order of the Minister of Archives appointed by Yeltsin. He’d told the military that they had to open their archives too and they just simply didn’t know what to do or how to handle it. They’d heard that foreign researchers usually worked off photocopies and they thought that they could make some money for their archive, which of course they badly needed, by charging a dollar a photocopy. I mean I suppose if you were prepared to order photocopies that wasn’t so much the problem. I obviously don’t think I perhaps ordered enough.
But anyway they finally worked out that we’d taken an unusually long time to go through the main three or four files in which we were supposed to see only a few dozen pages. Sure enough on the Monday morning Colonel Starkov reappeared and then followed another interrogation at which there was no pretence of friendliness.
After Starkov’s departure, Shuvashin came back in and announced that they would have to see all of our notebooks. Obviously the important thing was to calm their suspicions so I agreed immediately and I even offered to help decipher my appalling handwriting. I then suggested that to save wasting their interpreter’s time each day – I did actually know by then that their interpreters were in the centre of Moscow and it was at least a two hour drive down – that we could go through everything at the end of the week, of the second week which we were permitted. Anyway Shuvashin seemed much relieved and agreed. I’d manage to hide my nervousness but I knew that I’d have to re-write all of my existing notes which were hidden still back at the flat where I was staying.
I worked through most of the night on them. One of the important things of course in those archives is that you want to have the wire spine notebooks because then you can rip out the pages without it showing that something’s missing but the wire spine notebooks were getting pretty thin by then. [laughter]
It was rather hard to find…I was then rewriting them out into fresh notebooks, but it was rather hard to find enough positive material to add to the neutral material of captured German documents. I was almost tempted to start composing letters of loyalty to Comrade Stalin myself to bulk it out.
On the very last morning a GRU Major appeared and in a friendlier manner than Starkov, it must be said, he asked whether I was writing a novel. It was not hard to guess his line of approach. I said no, I was writing a work of history. How then, he asked, since I was taking handwritten notes and not photocopies, could I prove the authenticity of my sources. I would reply that, as he would see in my notebooks, we were recording the form, the description, the file and the page reference of every single quotation so if other historians were dubious about what I’d written they had a precise reference for checking. This of course was not a very popular answer and he then spent the rest of the morning at the back of the lecture room going through my notes while I sat at the front and intriguingly there was another officer then came in after lunch saying…having to check in the old Soviet style, having to check all of his material, I mean everything had to be done twice over. Anyway we were given the all clear and Colonel Shuvashin also seemed to be fairly relieved.
I meanwhile felt secretly elated as you might have imagined, as if I’d passed the exam, but when I got back to the apartment that evening my host warned me that there was a very small risk that the military authorities might suddenly have second thoughts and search me at the airport and confiscate all my notes.
So he took me into the Canadian Embassy the next morning before my flight and we photocopied every page to leave a spare copy there just in case. In the event there was no problem but I can assure you it was a huge relief at Sheremetyevo to be able to walk out knowing perfectly well that even if the worst came to the worst there was another backup. So ended really my only brush with the world of John le Carré.
I returned to the Russian military archives at Podol’sk nearly three years later for research on the next book which was The Fall of Berlin [Berlin: The Downfall 1945, published 2002] and the control of access to archives had been getting much tighter and in fact during the Kosovo crisis I didn’t dare believe that I’d ever be allowed back into Podol’sk. Yet eventually we were given permission that September and Colonel Shuvashin was very affable and outwardly much more relaxed but I knew that little had changed except for presentation when he said ‘We would like to see ourselves in a way as the co-authors of your book.’ Well you can imagine my smile at that idea. One of his colleagues then said that they would like to see how I’d made use of the material from their archive on Stalingrad and thank God my Russian publishers had taken a very long time producing the book and it hadn’t yet appeared, which was a great stroke of luck, so I replied that they’d very soon be able to read the Russian translation.
Anyway, this time Luba and I were allocated a supervisor named Alla who was supposed to stay with us the whole time to make sure that we did not look at any pages outside the allotted ones, the permitted ones. So for the first two days while we worked through those sections, while Alla yawned her way through crossword puzzles which were sort of a new Western import and we wondered how on earth we might get rid of her. Luba even whispered to me rather naughtily that I should give her a box of chocolates injected with laxative. [laughter] But I might have been accused of sabotage. Anyway, luckily for us our watchdog became bored of her crossword puzzles after a couple of days and she played a version of grandmother’s footsteps with us a couple of times: leaving us for a few minutes and then coming back on tiptoe and opening the door suddenly to see if we looked guilty. [laughter]
But eventually she went shopping because from the window of the second archive block where we were, still under the watchful eyes of another Lenin, we could see her go out of the main gate. She had a very, very bright pink shopping bag and so from then on I worked facing the window, watching for her return and taking dictation while Luba worked very rapidly through the forbidden material.
Unfortunately one afternoon, fairly soon afterwards when we had been enjoying this sort of opportunity, Alla must have slipped back in another way and she caught us in the act but mercifully, not long before then actually, I’d taken the opportunity to tear all the pages of the forbidden material from the ring spine notebook and had put them in my trouser pocket. So when Alla demanded to see the notebooks I was able to hand them over with a reasonably clear, well not conscience, but at least a…clear mind at any rate.
Interestingly, when they had been through all of the other notebooks, and this actually is standard Soviet practice, when they had been through all the other notebooks, they even ripped out pages in front of my eyes which came from the permitted passages. The point is that there was no reason or advantage in getting angry or frustrated or whatever. When working in those sort of archives you’ve simply got to keep going to get everything you possibly can while you
still have the chance.
Sadly, that half open window is now obviously closed, in fact it has been for some time. Not long after we finished the research on Berlin in 2000, Lennart Samuelson, a distinguished Swedish historian, rang me to ask whether I’d heard that the FSB, the new name for the KGB, was now checking all the archive registers to find out exactly which files had been examined by foreign historians. A few months later the Russian expert Catherine Merridale, who is a great friend, was working in Moscow on her new book Ivan’s War, rang me to say that she was not even allowed into Podol’sk and that information on foreign
researchers had definitely been centralised. The fact that there are computers to keep track of foreign researchers, but there was no money to computerise a single archive catalogue, says a great deal about the situation. Since then the secret committee on the control of information, which was abolished in 1983, six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has also been reactivated without any public announcement.
The Battle for Berlin in April and the beginning of May 1945 was the long predicted climax of the war on the Eastern Front. Once again, thousands died for vain symbols on both sides. Two Red Army divisions were thrown against that massive and well defended building the Reichstag to raise the red banner of victory. On the German side Hitler, a devotee of the cinema, must have visualised his Götterdämmerung in Berlin amid blazing monuments crashing down. In fact, Albert Speer agreed with Hitler at their very last meeting that the fall of Berchtesgaden didn’t have quite the same dramatic quality as the fall of Berlin.
War between the two totalitarian states of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was not just a war of ideologies, it was a war between the monstrous vanities of two leaders. The point of writing a new book on such a well known subject was not to focus just on the leaders and the commanders. It had to rediscover the experience of the individual caught up in this terrifying and mad maelstrom. Once again I didn’t want just the headquarter war diaries and logs but also the letters home from ordinary soldiers, private diaries, reports of prisoner interrogations, doctors’ accounts and so forth. In the case of Stalingrad, there were huge numbers of letters to choose from. That was not the case, however, for Berlin.
The German Feldpost, as well as the internal mail, had collapsed but fortunately many people, especially women in Berlin, realised that they were living through one of the key moments in history and kept a minute record of events in private diaries. Several are truly outstanding, above all a woman in Berlin which has now been made into a film to the fury of the Russian government.
The important point when it comes to letters is that soldiers, both German and Soviet, exerted a self-censorship in one sense when writing home. Very few revealed the true horror of their situation because they did not want to upset their families at home. I mean, a standard Russian letter home I promise you was sort of, you know ‘Hello my darlings’, ‘Hello my family’ and all the rest of it. ‘I am living well, do not worry about me, but we are all prepared to die for the motherland.’ So you can imagine how friends at home might not have been quite so reassured by that. Not only did they want to not reveal the true horrors of their situation, they also knew that only people who’d been through what they’d been through could really understand so even those who went home on leave said very little of the reality on the Eastern Front.
Nevertheless, some of the collections of letters in Germany, above all the Sammlung Sterz in the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte in Stuttgart provide a formidable source, not so much for specific incidents, I don’t think they’re ever terribly reliable, certainly for example personal interviews with survivors of the time and eye witnesses. But what they are useful for is the way that they reveal the mentality, the concerns and the attitudes of soldiers at the time. I mean, one of the reasons why personal interviews can be very useful, not that you can rely on them for factual dates or anything like that, but they can be useful because they can often explain incomprehensible elements in the archives themselves and things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to understand.
Diaries tend to be much more factually reliable, not just because they were written at the moment but also because they were usually written out of a need to testify. There’s even an archive of Second World War diaries in Emmendingen north of Freiberg.
Certain official reports are also extremely revealing and totally honest, untainted by bureaucratic norms. For example interviews with soldiers and officers flown out of the Stalingrad encirclement were entirely reliable because those who had escaped the frozen hell felt a strong sense of obligation to those left behind to recount the absolute truth. They really did demonstrate an outstanding, outspoken honesty which is of course completely absent from the official accounts.
The downfall in Berlin itself produced a crescendo of insanity and grotesque images. One staff officer described to me the atmosphere in the Führerbunker as a mixture of hysteria and resignation. Another, General Freytag von Loringhoven who was there almost until the end, recounted how SS officers and Nazi leaders spent their time discussing the best way to commit suicide: poison or a bullet through the head. Hitler was handing out cyanide capsules as if they were sweets to be sucked during takeoff for the next world.
The sense of unreality pervaded everything. Even the Führerdämmerung itself with Hitler and his new bride dressed in black had its elements of farce. On their death, Hitler’s valet Linge even managed to steal his master’s watch as they bundled his corpse up in a grey army blanket. When the two bodies were doused in petrol and set on fire in the Reich Chancellery garden, one of the SS guards who’d been drinking heavily in the canteen, rushed downstairs and he called drunkenly to the SS telephonist ‘The chief’s on fire, do you want to come and have a look?’ [laughter]
This telephonist, from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, is called Rochus Misch and he’s still alive. It was very strange sitting in his little parlour in Berlin drinking tea as he proudly showed us his photograph album full of shots which he’d taken of Hitler playing with Blondi, his German Shepherd dog at the Wolfschanze headquarters in East Prussia. The drama continued, albeit in a different way, after the Reich Chancellery was captured by the Red Army on the 2nd of May 1945 and a SMERSH attachment under General Vardis took over the bunker. As we found in files in GARF, the State Archive of the Russian Federation, Stalin urgently wanted to know what had become of Hitler. SMERSH, Soviet counter-intelligence, had heard from surrendering German generals and officials that the Nazi leader had committed suicide but nobody could find the body.
Eventually, it was finally discovered by SMERSH operatives on the 5th of May buried in a shell hole along with the body of Eva Braun and his adored dog Blondi. But Stalin did not want anyone to know. Not only did he use this as an opportunity for accusing the Americans of having hidden Hitler in Bavaria, he also wanted to put pressure on his own army commanders. He rang Marshall Zhukov on two occasions to taunt him with the supposed failure to find Hitler when he knew all the time that SMERSH was carrying out its own autopsy on the body. This may beggar belief but Marshall Zhukov, the Commander in Chief in Berlin did not discover for 20 years that Hitler’s body had in fact been found. This was all part of a Byzantine world of Stalinist politics. Stalin feared the popularity of Zhukov and later had him accused of Bonapartism.
But don’t let’s fall into the trap of regarding Zhukov as a great hero and an anti-Stalinist. When it came to ruthlessness, Zhukov even exceeded his master.
On the 4th of October 1941 Zhukov, as commander of the Leningrad Front, had issued an order to be found in the RGASPI the Russian State Archive for Socio-Political History, archive in Moscow, to make clear to all troops that all families of those who surrendered to the enemy would be shot and they themselves would be shot upon return from prison. Ironically, Zhukov did not realise at the time that according to his own order Stalin himself was liable to be executed because his own son Yakov Dzhugashvili had been captured by the Germans. I don’t think that Stalin was unduly worried; he simply admired Zhukov for his pitiless attitude.
Hitler’s corpse, meanwhile, had been examined in every detail. The most certain means of verification were the teeth. This all comes again from the SMERSH documents in GARF. SMERSH then tracked down the assistant to Hitler’s dentist who’d recently carried out bridge work on his mouth. In Moscow we interviewed Yelena Rzhevskaya the interpreter with the SMERSH attachment in the Reich Chancellery and she told us how on the evening of the 8th of May, when the Soviet troops went wild celebrating the victory in Berlin, she was given a satin lined red box – the sort used for ‘cheap jewellery’, she described it. Inside were Hitler’s two jaws, removed during the secret autopsy. She was warned by her SMERSH supervisor that if they were lost she would answer with her head.
Rzhevskaya was entrusted with these vital artefacts because as a woman she was less likely to get drunk and lose them during the celebrations and so she spent the evening of the victory celebration with the red box clamped under her left arm while she poured drinks for her SMERSH comrades with the right.
Certain research trips also produce some rather strange experiences. Luba and I went to Georgia with the BBC to interview more veterans who’d taken part in the Battle for Berlin. The reason for that is that actually the quality of the food and above all the quality of the alcohol in Georgia is rather better than in mainland Russia, if you like, and as a result, there were many more veterans alive in Georgia than almost in the whole of the rest of Russia but anyway that’s a minor detail. The most extraordinary character we encountered down there was Stalin’s grandson Yevgeny Dzhugashvili. He in fact is the son of the one who was captured by the Germans. We talked to him in Stalin’s birthplace in the town of Gori which is now a great memorial to Stalin.
Beria, as a tribute to his chief, razed a quarter of the town in 1951 all around the Great Helmsman’s birthplace which is a two room hovel. He created a huge museum and erected a sort of Stalinist oriental marbled Parthenon over this holy of holies and it’s still the place of pilgrimage. The grandson bears a striking resemblance to the generalissimo and he cultivates the look as far as he can go. In fact he’d win any Stalin lookalike competition with his sort of swept back hair, the moustache, the yellow teeth and he even holds his cigarette in the same way.
When the cameras began to roll and we started to talk to him, he made the most extraordinary boast when I asked him about the purges of 1937. ‘Everyone goes on about those so called purges’ he replied ‘but what about the crimes over the previous 20 years?’ (1917 to 1937). ‘My grandfather did what the country wanted, he really sorted out the Jews.’ Luba who’s half-Jewish turned to me and said in English ‘Antony can I tell him what I think of him?’ I said ‘Please, not while the cameras are rolling, I beg, just keep him talking.’ [laughter]
It was absolutely fascinating to hear the way that he was actually echoing the approach of the Nazi ideologists who claim that Bolshevism was entirely dominated by the Jews. ‘They were almost all Jews’ Dzhugashvili went on ‘just think what the Israelis would say if their cabinet was made up of Arabs. Well that’s what it was like for us until my grandfather put an end to it.’ [laughter]
Afterwards, while Yevgeny Dzhugashvili stood on the steps to be photographed with one group of school children after another, Luba and I went off to inspect Stalin’s wagon-lit coach the one in which he travelled to the conferences at Yalta and Potsdam.
Stalin insisted on choosing places where he could go by train because he was terrified of flying. He claimed that he was ill at the beginning of 1945 and insisted that Churchill and Roosevelt, who was already ill and close to death, should fly to the Crimea. This wagon-lit coach is green with Art Nouveau fittings from its Tsarist construction. As we were shown Stalin’s sleeping quarters the guide gestured to the adjoining bathroom saying in a reverential voice ‘And this is where Comrade Stalin performed his hygienic functions.’ Luba and I, as you might imagine, found it very hard to contain our laughter. Afterwards we had to have lunch with Dzhugashvili because to my horror I found that the film crew had invited him. He called for vodka and insisted on making one toast after another. These followed the accepted pattern which we’d found with all Soviet veterans. The first was to international peace, the second was to the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and Britain, the third was to the ladies but then to my horror he insisted on drinking to the generalissimo. Luba refused to raise her glass but I’m forced to confess out of British politeness, that masquerade for moral cowardice [laughter], I raised my glass to avoid a scene and it’s the only time I’ve drunk a toast to a mass murderer.
Luba had remarked to me in Moscow at one point ‘I think we deserved Stalin.’ I felt bound to disagree. If only because one can never say that a whole people deserved an appalling leader. It is in any case one of the terrible chicken and egg questions of history whether a leader like Hitler or Stalin are the product of their country’s history or the shaper or both. On many occasions I’ve been asked ‘Who was the greater criminal: Hitler or Stalin?’ It’s an interesting philosophical question. Stalin was almost certainly responsible for more deaths, especially of those of this own countrymen and women. But can one say which crime is worse: racial genocide or political genocide? Andrei Sakharov the great scientist and Soviet dissident once observed that although Stalin killed more people, Hitler had to be defeated first and he was undoubtedly right. A Nazi victory over the Soviet Union in 1941 would have been so terrible that there is no other answer. In fact the mass starvation and enslavement of the Hunger Plan, which the Nazis envisioned for the population of the occupied territories up to the Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan line, would have dwarfed even the horrors of the Holocaust.
After years of Soviet propaganda it’s very hard for Russians to face the implications of their country’s past horrors. It means questioning 70 years of terrible sacrifice and countless millions of wasted lives. For Russians, therefore, it is more difficult in a way to re-examine their history than for Germans, faced with a 12 year aberration and the Soviet victory in 1945 makes it even harder to question. Before my book was published the Russian ambassador was actually trying to find out what was in it. Explained to me privately why his country found it hard to question the past. ‘You must
understand the victory is sacred.’ He was right, but it was the vast human sacrifice which made it sacred and this is why Russians have such trouble with the subject and not just Stalinist dinosaurs. Even the most anti-Stalinist and anti-militarist of them do not find it easy.
For example Luba had some difficult moments in the Moscow archives as we worked together. The hardest, especially for her, came about in RGASPI the old Marxist-Leninist institute and party archive when we came across the first dossier dealing with the subject of the Red Army and rape in Germany in 1945.
Luba became increasingly uneasy and when I muttered something at one point her reaction was both aggressive and defensive at the same time. ‘Well Antony I’m sorry’ she said ‘but I refuse to feel sorry for those German women who were raped. They must have encouraged their men to invade the Soviet Union and do what they did.’ I avoided getting into any sort of argument because I knew how hard it was for her. During the research on Stalingrad she’d said at one moment with only the trace of a joke ‘Helping you get this material almost makes me feel like a traitor to the motherland.’
A few days later in the same archive we came across a very detailed report to the Central Committee of the Komsomol from the deputy chief of the political department of the first Ukrainian Front, General Tsygankov. This gave chapter and verse detailing the mass rape of Russian and especially Ukrainian girls and women deported by the Wehrmacht to Germany for slave labour. These young women, most seemed to be between 17 and 25, had been praying for liberation from their slavery by the Red Army but when they found to their disbelief and horror that they were treated as badly or even worse than German women.
General Tsygankov cited example after example in his report including groups of officers and soldiers up to 60 strong, most of them drunk, charging into the dormitories, where the liberated Soviet girls were quartered, and raping them. Luba, not surprisingly, was shaken to the core. When my book finally came out the reaction in Russia was explosive. The same Russian ambassador in London accused me in print of ‘Lies, slander and blasphemy against the Red Army’ and even said to another historian that Luba was a traitor to the motherland for having helped me. Then the following year on the 9th of May which is Victory Day in Russia, Russian TV and radio also accused me of being the chief slanderer of the Red Army.
Since then things have not even improved at all. Sergey Shoygu the Minister for Emergency Situations – wonderful title – proposed a law to prosecute anyone who criticised the Red Army in 1945 which he equated to the glorification of Nazism. He compares criticism of the Red Army to Holocaust denial and has threatened retaliation against foreigners who in any way denigrate the Soviet victory. Curiously, I’m now receiving invitations to parties at the Russian Embassy but I still don’t think it would be wise of me to return to Moscow.
Attitudes to the past in Germany, funnily enough took another course. After the years of national guilt a new feeling of Normalisierung or normalisation started in Germany in 2002. Many Germans began to feel that at last it had become right to portray Germans in 1945, especially the civilians, as victims alongside the other victims of the Nazis. This was partly sparked in January 2002 by the publication of Günter Grass’s novel Im Krebsgang. Grass now focuses on the fate of the refugees from East and West Prussia in the early part of 1945. The book revolves around the sinking by a Soviet submarine of the Liner Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic. Over 7000 refugees, some say 10,000, drowned in the icy waters off the Pomeranian coast. It was one of the greatest disasters at sea ever, ever known. Far greater, of course, than the Titanic.
Then in December of that year the book of the moment was Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand, a detailed and highly emotive account of the suffering of German
civilians under British bombing. Friedrich called Churchill a butcher and implied that he should be classified as a war criminal for such senseless suffering. But like most German historians, Friedrich takes a narrow view of his subject. He fails to recognise that the British strategic bombing offensive from 1942 was in fact our Second Front to help the Soviet Union in the only way we could at the time. Our feeling of blood guilt towards the Red
Army, which was taking all the casualties, influenced British policy more than has yet been fully realised. Perhaps, most importantly of all, Friedrich and most German commentators completely fail to appreciate how effective British bombing was in forcing the Luftwaffe to withdraw the vast proportion of its
fighter squadrons and empty aircraft batteries from the Eastern Front to defend the Reich. And this aided the Red Army enormously in 1943 and especially in 1944 when they were able to make huge advances.
It is of course quite right that the terrible suffering of German civilians should be acknowledged at long last and it’s also right that modern Germany should be allowed to forget the burden of collective guilt. But that does not mean that a veil should be drawn over the horrors of the past and one must not also underestimate the perils involved if the process of normalisation is taken too far, particularly in the case of the former eastern territories. In Warsaw just a couple of weeks ago I was struck by the continuing anger prompted by the German idea of their victimhood in 1945.
I would like to emphasise how vital it is to understand the end of the Second World War in Europe. Not because 1945 marked the start of the Cold War but because the problems, suspicions and resentment created then have re-emerged following the collapse of communism. The Cold War, while suppressing nationalist and ethnic conflicts for nearly 50 years, in fact acted rather like a straitjacket while doing nothing to resolve the problem. Wars between states in Western Europe are, mercifully, a thing of the past but old ethnic hatreds are not, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia. Nationalist resentments, such as the subject of German suffering in 1945, are made worse if repressed. It’s far better to show, in all possible clarity, where such bitterness can lead. Speer, on the other hand, could not have been more wrong. History must emphasis those terminal events which reveal the terrible consequences of grotesque nationalist ideologies.
Thank you very much. [applause]
Transcribed by a volunteer, February 2015