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The fascination of WW2

QUESTION: You’ve been writing books and making films about the Second World War for twenty years now – why? What’s the fascination?

LAURENCE REES: People often ask me that, and I always feel the question should be put the other way around. Since the Second World War was the biggest, most brutal conflict in history, and since we all still live with the consequences of it today, why isn’t everyone fascinated by it?

I do accept that for someone of my generation – I went to school in the 1960s and 1970s – the Second World War has greater personal resonance than it does for someone born in the 1980s. For me, there was an immediate family connection to the war - my father fought in the RAF and my uncle was killed (long before I was born, of course) when his merchant ship was sunk by a U boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. And then something which added to this sense of immediate intimacy was the fact that the only way I could understand the world I grew up in was to try and understand the Second World War. A divided Germany, the Cold war, Soviet suspicion of the West, NATO – none of this made sense unless you knew about the Second World War.

So I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in this history. Indeed, I still recall the moment, when I was in my teens, that I saw the epic ‘World at War’ TV series in the early 1970s and realised that it might be possible to combine my love of this history with my desire to write books and work in TV. From that moment on my working life seemed set – though there were still many twists and turns ahead of me.

I was also enormously lucky with the timing of my interest in the subject. Because the twenty years from 1989 to 2009 - during which I made 5 documentary series and wrote 6 books about the war - coincided with two events which were enormously helpful to anyone interested in this period of history. The first was the fall of the Berlin wall, which opened up, for the first time, the possibility of finding out the unvarnished truth about the war in the Soviet Union. A whole wealth of fresh documents and eye witnesses became available. I remember travelling through the countries of the former Soviet bloc during the 1990s and feeling so privileged that I could meet people who could tell their stories about the war openly for the very first time. I really felt that we were doing something completely new. That this was a moment when we could gather important primary source material that would alter how people felt about this vital history.

In 1999, for example, I remember listening to one old lady describe how, in her part of the former Soviet Union during the war, the Germans had been bad, but the Red Army partisans had been 'worse'. These were views that would have been virtually impossible for anyone to express to a foreign television crew - or anyone else for that matter - under Soviet Communism. And our understanding of the nature of the Partisan war in the Soviet Union is just one of many different aspects of the war that has changed as a result of the fall of the Berlin wall.  

We tend to forget that one consequence of repressive regimes can be the death of history. One reason, for example, there has never been the definitive TV history (or book written) about the Japanese war in China, which began in the 1930s, is because the Chinese government control the eye witnesses living in China as well as the archives. Soon all the Chinese eye witnesses from that war will be dead – and their story will never be freely heard. We are all just lucky that it was possible to get into the former Soviet Union and interview people in time.

And the second lucky break I had was that I could meet and film former Nazis at a crucial point in their lives when many were prepared to talk openly about what they had done in the war. They had just retired and so felt free to speak without jeopardising their careers, and were also still extremely lucid.

I’m very conscious of the fact that I was fortunate to be able to meet hundreds and hundreds of veterans from the war – not just former Nazis, but Soviet secret policemen, Japanese torturers, Auschwitz survivors etc, etc – and record interviews with them. No one else I know of in recent years has had this wealth of experience, and, of course, no one in the future can have a similar experience, since so many of the people I met from the war over the last twenty years are no longer with us. So I’ve been very lucky.

I can’t emphasise enough the insight that I think you can get talking to someone who was actually there. Someone who dealt with Hitler, someone who was in meetings with Stalin, someone who worked at Auschwitz, someone who suffered in the Warsaw ghetto and so on and so on.

QUESTION: But can you really trust the testimony of eye witnesses, talking to them so long after the event?

LAURENCE REES: I think historians should treat every source they use sceptically. That applies to written sources just as much as eye-witnesses. In an essay I wrote in my book ‘Their Darkest Hour’ I tell the story of how Nigel Nicolson, a British officer who took part in the infamous forced repatriations from Austria in the summer of 1945, said to me that he had deliberately falsified the historical record at the time, writing that the Yuogslavian deportees had been offered ‘light refreshments’ by their Communist guards. He’d done this because he had been ordered not to tell the truth in his military report – that the deportees were being appallingly treated – and so had written something that he thought was so ludicrous – how could the deportees be given ‘light refreshments? – that future historians would know he was being ironic. But, before Mr Nicolson admitted what he’d done, some historians had taken his written report at face value and used it to try and ‘prove’ that the surviving deportees who now spoke of how badly they had been treated were lying. If Nigel Nicolson hadn’t told the truth years later than that inaccurate report would still be in the written archives and the suffering of the deportees still disputed. So my advice is to be as careful of the accuracy of written archives as you are careful of the accuracy of people.

However, of course, we have to recognise that all eye witness testimony needs to be carefully scrutinized. And all of the interviews that I was involved with over the last twenty years were always researched in detail before being recorded. We looked at the person’s motives for giving the interview, whether the facts they mentioned checked out from other sources and so on. If I was ever in any doubt about how genuine someone seemed then I didn’t record the interview.

What one also learnt was that what one might call ‘emotional’ recall – how someone felt at any one moment – was always more reliable than the recall of detailed facts. As I wrote in ‘Their Darkest Hour’, I think one can see that in one’s own life. For example, I can remember the birth of my children many years ago much more clearly than I can what I had for breakfast last weekend. Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean you can’t remember it well – it all depends on how important to you the event in question was.

And, crucially, as I’ve just said, what these interviews meant for me was that I could actually interrogate someone who was really there – someone who met Hitler, Stalin or Churchill. Someone who committed atrocities, or suffered at the hands of a war criminal. Someone who had been tested in ways that I have never been. It was the most enormous privilege. I gained insights into human behaviour that I don’t think I could have gained any other way. And what I learnt has certainly changed how I feel about life.