Antony Beevor may be one of the world’s most popular war historians but, through little fault of his own, he’s also made some powerful enemies.
It all started with Berlin: The Downfall 1945, this award-winning writer’s book about the city’s fall in the final days of the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.
Although this master storyteller made heavy use of dusty Soviet documents from the Red Army’s own previously secret archives when researching his number one bestseller, it seems the current Russian regime doesn’t take kindly to showing its war heroes in anything but a wholly glorious light.
Beevor, 69, said: “I was described as slandering the commander of the Red Army and insulting its soldiers.
“It’s quite serious. Technically you are liable by law to five years’ imprisonment in Russia for such behaviour.
“My books have been removed from libraries. I’m won’t be taking my holidays in the Black Sea.”
But Beevor, who is also a leading academic at Birkbeck College, will be travelling to the safer surroundings of North Yorkshire shortly to give a talk as part of this year’s Harrogate History Festival.
As anyone who has read any of his other books such as D-Day, The Second World War or his current hit Ardennes 1944 - Hitler’s Last Gamble knows, Beevor’s work is many things – authoritative, detailed, enlightening, gripping. Biased, they’re not.
"A writer's marriage"
Despite the sometimes brutal nature of the events they describe, publications like Ardennes 1944 are very human works, something which may help explain why Beevor has sold six million copies worldwide so far.
Married to fellow author and successful biographer Artemis Cooper, as is so often the case with famous writers whether in fiction, non-fiction or music, even, it turns out there is an equally creative partner or wife behind the successful man.
Antony said: “It’s so wonderful being married to another writer. Artemis reads and edits everything I write before it goes to the publishers.
“She will write “what?” or “boring” at the side. She tells me if I’ve got something badly wrong. It’s a writer’s marriage.”
"I nearly had a nervous breakdown"
Descended from a long line of writers, to hear this quietly compassionate man talk about the writing of his ‘breakthrough’ book, the monumentally moving Stalingrad, is to see the emotional side of this otherwise cool-headed academic.
Antony said: “It was a very fraught time writing Stalingrad. There was so much research and so many of the details I uncovered were so awful. I was nearly in tears a lot of the time. It would hit me a few nights later. For months afterwards I found it hard to look at a plate of food without remembering what I’d learned of conditions in the siege.”
Working on the ‘follow-up’ saw Beevor experience the other side of success and he admits he struggled to cope.
“I nearly had a nervous breakdown at the end of writing Berlin. The pressure of success was too much.
“I was having to go to sales conferences round the world to talk about the book before I’d even finished writing it. Combine that with the horrors of the material I was researching…”
Whether its Churchill or Stalin, Montgomery of Patton, Beevor writes without fear or favour, as his latest bestseller Ardennes, with its startling revelations about the US army’s shooting of German prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge, makes clear once again.
"Horrors of war"
Although commissioned in the 11th Hussars at Sandhurst before becoming an author, Beevor’s approach to his subjects is anything but lofty.
Readers are made aware of the broad sweep of history, the deeper causes and consequences.
But, as an acknowledged master of the micro as well as the macro, Beevor’s books are, ultimately, about real people, civilians and foot soldiers as well as generals and leaders.
Antony said: “I learned when I edited a book on Vassily Grossman (legendary Soviet Russian writer) that one of the horrors of war, especially in the totalitarian clashes of the 20th century, was how they took away people’s individuality.
“With Stalingrad, I realised you had to see what happened from above and below. You have to avoid categorisation. It’s the duty of historians to put back people’s individuality and identity.”
This distinguished but approachable historian has recently been ploughing through staggering quantities of documents in the US in preparation for his next book, Arnhem.
Although the end results will undoubtedly provide the definitive story of this ‘bridge too far,’ Beevor himself describes the process as “three months in a ghastly Holiday Inn.”
"You've got to be true to yourself"
Having fallen into deep water with certain quarters on the other side of the former Iron Curtain, the writer is reluctant to court controversy in public these days.
He has very clear views on the Brexit vote and the state of politics in modern Britain but will speak of these matters purely off the record, which must say something about the times we live in.
Still, audiences at next week’s event at Harrogate History Festival, which runs from October 20-23, will find a man happy to grapple with big questions in an honest and open way. It should make for a fascinating event.
Even if his books do contain elements of oral and social history, Beevor himself still believes in the great British tradition of narrative history, seeing it as a branch of literature rather than a science.
Asked who he does it for, Beevor replies simply: “I write for myself. You’ve got to be true to yourself at all times. I write the sort of books I want to read myself.”
Antony Beevor speaks at the Old Swan Hotel as part of Harrogate History Festival on Thursday, October 20 at 5pm.
Tickets are available by calling 01423 562 303 or visiting www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com