Conversation with David Stafford | HistoryNet MENU

Conversation with David Stafford

By Gene Santoro
4/25/2018 • World War II Magazine

In 2004, British historian David Stafford’s Ten Days to D-Day: Citizens and Soldiers on the Eve of the Invasion tracked Normandy through ten participants, focusing less on leaders and heroics than on the period’s murky uncertainties. Now Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II brings a similar approach to the end of the war. Stafford’s in the-moment history draws on his varied background and talents. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, he was Executive Director of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, a nongovernmental think tank. A former diplomat, he is a television and radio consultant who has written documentaries on, as well as studies of, espionage. Holding degrees from Cambridge and the University of London, he is project director at the Centre for the Study of the Two World Wars at the University of Edinburgh. He is currently writing the official history of the Special Operations Executive in Italy.

This is almost a spinoff from Ten Days to D-Day.

People liked that approach, telling the story through the interwoven narratives of a handful of characters. It was new for me, but I’d enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try it for V-E Day. That turned out to be a little more difficult, to be honest, because V-E Day is not really a precise moment like June 6, 1944. Victory, it turns out, was not a precise moment.

Isn’t that your point: history isn’t as clear as hindsight makes it seem?

In Ten Days to D-Day I wanted very badly to show that the participants did not and could not know the operation was going to succeed. I went out of my way not to rely on memoirs but to look at contemporary letters and diaries to get inside the heads of the people involved. That’s what I wanted to do with this book, too. For the characters, the past seems very confusing and uncertain. They don’t know the future.

Why these nine characters?

I decided pretty quickly not to deal with the eastern front, which we’ve had a lot of books about recently. And I had a thesis. The western half of Europe was liberated by the Western democratic powers, which had a long-term effect: Western Europe had a far, far happier postwar history than Eastern Europe. So it was important that Rome was liberated by the West and not the Russians. I definitely wanted Italy in the story, since it is often forgotten. Once I got into the raw material, what really struck me were the “displaced persons,” millions who are often overlooked now, though they come up again and again in contemporary diaries and accounts. So my story had to include civilians as well as soldiers. Then I had to search for individual narratives that illustrated that story. Sometimes I just happened upon a character, like Francesca Wilson. I did a search on books on the aftermath of the war and hit upon this 1946 book by Wilson about her work with “DPs” in Bavaria. It’s a very direct first-person account. Clues in the book led me to her relatives, who had more material. It’s a hit-or-miss process, but it’s the only way to do it.

The characters breathe vivid life into clichés, like the Russians raped, gangs of DPs looted, cigarettes serving as currency.

That’s the idea. Historians all know the basic story. The average readers think they do, but don’t really, or they know it only in a certain way. For example, the diaries and letters show most of the people involved did not experience the end of the war as a moment of joy; it had a pretty somber effect.

Like American troops worrying they’d be shipped to the Pacific.

They were still under arms and in uniform and they all dreaded that prospect: it dominated their waking lives, once the immediate relief of not being fired on was over. They knew what the fighting in the Pacific was like—as savage or more savage than what they’d just experienced. I bring in Okinawa to show that this was very, very much on the minds of all of these guys. Again, I wanted to let readers today experience the feelings of people at the time. The shock and horror at the revelations of the concentration camps, for instance, is palpable in the contemporary accounts, even those from hardened reporters who’d seen plenty of horror. This carries over to pretty harsh judgments on the German population as a whole, a wide spread feeling at the time, which conveyed itself to my book’s characters. The Russians come across as a more unknown quantity. In the press then, the Russians were looked on very favorably: they are allies, the Soviet army is a heroic army, all of which reflects wartime propaganda. But for some it already wasn’t like that.

Like Fred Warner.

Warner, a German Jew in British uniform who parachuted into Austria, comes up against the Russians early. Clearly, he has a favorable opinion of the Red Army: above all, they smashed their way into Germany and crushed the Nazis—who he blames, quite rightly, for everything bad in his life, since he only narrowly escaped from Germany. Yet very quickly you see him changing his opinion as he has to deal with the Russians: they’re pretty ruthless, fairly brutal, and, from his point of view, not very trustworthy. That was very much part of the time, though many people think the cold war doesn’t begin until 1947 or 1948.

This isn’t standard history or historiography.

I set out to muddy the waters here, because standard history has its downsides. With the benefit of hindsight and scholarship, we organize the past into neat little blocks. We might disagree about precisely where the blocks go—that’s historiography. But doing that, we run the risk of failing to convey the texture of the past, what it was like to be there as someone who went through this. Like Fred Warner, who allowed me to treat the story of the European exiles—political opponents of the Nazis who were not British or American, who fled Germany or elsewhere in Europe to fight against Hitler. That story is an important part of the war, perhaps not in numerical terms, but in what it symbolized. I interviewed Fred in Hamburg, where he was born and died. He returned there after he retired because he wanted to make a point: I will not give Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he could expel me and the Jews from Germany. Then there’s Leonard Linton, whose memoir I discovered accidentally in an archive in Berlin. I knew I wanted my book to finish in Berlin in July 1945, so this American with the 82nd Airborne who got into Berlin in 1945 was perfect. Born to white Russian parents who fled the Bolsheviks, he ends up in northern Germany, a sector that becomes the Soviet sector, in confrontation with the Bolsheviks himself. Warner, a German Jew, ends up doing intelligence work for the British identifying Nazis. In part they reflect how I’m always struck by history’s ironies.

What in your research most surprised you?

The diary of Robert Ellis of the 10th Mountain Division. I hadn’t appreciated how dreadful the fighting in Italy was, though I should have. Italy is often regarded as a sideshow or secondary theater or even unnecessary, but it was closer to the First World War than what we often—and mistakenly—assume about the Second: movement, Panzer tanks, air craft, and so on. Italy was mud and rain and trenches and hand-to-hand battles: an inglorious war of attrition. That comes through very vividly in Ellis’s story, one of the best by a combat soldier I’ve ever read.

I was surprised too—and again, I shouldn’t have been—to discover how unreconstructed so many Germans were at the end of the war. Like the former Reichsbank director disclaiming all knowledge of the camps but dismissing BBC broadcasts about them as Jewish propaganda. That came as a shock: here we are, 1945, the camps have just been liberated, and people are completely unapologetic. They just don’t get it; they don’t understand the story they’ve just been through.

Finally, there’s the backdrop of the war in Iraq. The very day it was reported that the Baghdad Museum was looted, I was poring through United States military histories of World War II when it almost leaped off the pages: an American officer protesting about the looting of Munich’s museums in April 1945. I had been totally unaware of the large-scale looting of muse ums and art galleries in Germany in 1945, and I might have otherwise skimmed over it except that I was so sensitized by the news from Iraq. In other words, when you write history the present always affects how you see the past.

 

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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