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Interview by Donald A. Yerxa

The Moral Complexity of War

A conversation with Max Hastings

Can there be anything else to say about the collapse of the Third Reich—anything worth saying, that is? Sir Max Hastings, one of Great Britain's most respected military historians, convincingly shows that there is much more to the end of the Third Reich than speculations about mystery weapons and accounts of those murky final days in Hitler's Berlin bunker. Hastings' new book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944–1945 (Knopf), is an impressive and disturbing account of the last stage of the European war. This was nothing short of a cataclysm, and Hastings recounts some of the "extraordinary things that happened to ordinary people" on both fronts. What emerges is a picture of suffering, degradation, dignity, and profound moral complexity.

Hastings was an award-winning foreign correspondent for many years, reporting from more than sixty countries for BBC TV and the London Evening Standard. He has presented historical documentaries for BBC TV, including most recently (2003) on Churchill and his generals. He has written 18 books on military history and current events, including Bomber Command (which won the Somerset Maugham Prize for nonfiction), The Battle for the Falklands, and Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. He was editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, from which he retired in 2002. Donald A. Yerxa, editor of Historically Speaking and a professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College, interviewed Hastings in the Boston offices of the Historical Society on December 1, 2004.

What drew you to write an account of the battle for Germany?

It was a bit of unfinished business. Twenty years ago, I wrote Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, which ended in September 1944. I have always had a nagging fascination with what happened afterward, in particular with why the Allies didn't win in 1944. At the beginning of September 1944, most of the Allied leadership, with the notable exception of Winston Churchill, was completely convinced that the war was going to be over by the end of the year. In the West, the Germans seemed completely beaten. The Western Allies had overwhelming superiority in tanks, aircraft, everything—you name it. So I wanted to look at this question of why we didn't end the war in 1944. Secondly, and almost as important, virtually all the books that have been written about this period look at either the Eastern or the Western front—not both. And I wanted to set the two in context: to see what happened to the Western Allies in the context of what happened with the Soviets. This nearly overwhelmed me because it is such a huge subject. My wife, by the way, warned me not to write books that people can't hold up in bed. One has to remember that the last months of World War II witnessed the greatest human cataclysm of the 20th century, and trying to cover all that ground did prove to be a big task. But, I must add, it became utterly fascinating.

Could you comment on your claims that the Germans and Russians in World War II were better warriors but worse human beings?

This is a very important truth. When I wrote Overlord, I caused quite a lot of controversy by saying flatly that man-for-man, the German Army was the best in the war. This claim is generally accepted now, but when I first made it in 1984, it wasn't. British and American veterans took umbrage. When I was writing Armageddon, my assessment of the German Army was confirmed. The evidence is so clear: again and again small numbers of Germans managed to hold up for hours, days, weeks much larger numbers of Allied soldiers. But I also realized that there was an important corollary: if we wanted British and American soldiers to fight like the Waffen-SS, they would have needed to become people like the Waffen-SS. And then, of course, the very values for which the whole war was fought would have been out the window. We have good grounds today to be enormously grateful that American and British veterans mostly preserved all the inhibitions and decencies of citizen-soldiers. In the main, these veterans never thought of themselves as warriors. They were bank clerks, laborers, train-drivers, and so on, thrust into uniform to masquerade as warriors for a time. They wanted to do their duty and do it right, but equally they wanted to live to come home and share the fruits of victory. All this is very admirable, but of course you do pay a price because it takes much longer to win a war against German fanatics.

In the East, we had an ally who had nothing like the same concern for human life. Eisenhower, to provide an obvious example, was criticized for failing to reach Berlin in the last weeks of the war. I think he was absolutely right. Berlin was designated inside the Soviet zone. What would Eisenhower have said to the mothers and wives of American or British soldiers who had died to achieve a symbolic triumph? Joseph Stalin, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, and Marshal Ivan Konev were perfectly happy to see 100,000 Soviet soldiers die to achieve the great symbolic triumph of taking Berlin.

Having said all this, we have to be humble about the relative role that the Western Allies had in the final defeat of the Germans. To be sure, the United States played an enormous part in providing the munitions and the transport that enabled the Soviets to reach Berlin as well as the British to keep fighting. But we must recognize that the Soviets paid the blood price, when one looks at the raw numbers. I don't mean that the war was a happy experience for British and American veterans; it was very terrible. But in ballpark terms, during the course of the war, American and British ground troops killed about 200,000 German soldiers, while the Russians killed about 3.5 million. The United States, Britain, and France together lost about 1 million dead in the war. The Soviet Union lost 27 million dead. Although we can be grateful that on the whole—with some notable question marks around strategic bombing—the Western Allies did preserve civilized values through the war, we needed the help of some very uncivilized people in order to bring down the Nazi tyranny. Had it not been for the Soviets, who were prepared to lavish these huge quantities of blood, then an awful lot more American and British boys would have had to die to defeat Hitler.

You make a compelling case for the moral complexity of the end of the war in Europe. Have military writers tended to embrace simplistic or purist stances about the war (indeed, about war in general), either rendering it a triumphalist crusade or advancing such lofty moral standards that any resort to war would be almost unthinkable?

There are two types of military history. One is what we might call romantic military history. I was talking to the military historian Russell Weigley shortly before he died about a very well-known historian who had a lot of success writing books about the American fighting man. Weigley said that he was sad to see a respected historian raising monuments rather than writing history. In the same breath, Weigley noted that a veteran told him that these books make us feel good about ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this romantic military history as long as we recognize its limitations. It is a celebration. But we must also ask the hard questions.

What about the other side of this coin? What about those writers who are also unwilling to embrace moral complexities not because of celebratory sentiments, but because they want war to yield to purist moral standards?

I don't buy such arguments at all. Of course, no war is morally perfect. One of the worst diseases of our time is the notion that we must pursue moral absolutes. Most of life is about making very difficult marginal choices about morality. It is never going to be 100 percent, and that's why we should always exhibit some sympathy for our rulers when they make decisions about peace or war. I happen to be a critic of the Iraq business. There well might be a case to be made for using force against the North Koreans, Iranians, or someone else who threatens the peace of the world with weapons of mass destruction. What caused some of us to say before the Iraq war began that we were skeptical about going in was that we were fearful that it would compromise the case for using force in a better cause. So it is madness, I think, to say that nothing is worth the use of force. When civilized societies lose the strength of purpose to be prepared to use force for relatively good causes, we might as well all give up. We must have the confidence to make these decisions, but obviously every time we use force in a cause that is not very good, it weakens our ability to muster the will of our society to use force in a better cause. In the current situation, a lot of us are very worried about what the Iranians are doing with their nuclear capability. And we do feel pretty sore toward Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld because we feel they have made it harder to use force on something that looks as if it may really matter.

What would you like the reader to take away from the book?

Although I write military history, above all I am interested in what happened as human experience. And if I were asked to give one good reason to read my book, it would be that we have stupid people who don't know any history saying today that we live in a terrible world: 9/11, Al Qaeda, and so on. It bears saying again and again that we are an incredibly privileged and pampered generation. One need only spend five minutes considering the experiences of what people went through in World War II as a whole—especially in the final cataclysmic phase when more than 100 million people were, as I say in my book, "locked in bloody embrace"—to conclude that we are so very fortunate today.

I would especially hope that the message of humility comes through. The only case for writing books of this kind at all is to teach a new generation something about what happened to a previous generation. Every time I write a book like this, I listen hour after hour to the experiences of hundreds of men and women. And I always come away from listening to them hugely impressed with the dignity and generosity of spirit with which many people have endured far worse things than we will ever have to face.

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