"At this point, Beevor begins to tell me some of the savage details of American revenge. Their first targets, he says, were SS soldiers, who were often shot out of hand. He also talks of at least one platoon that vowed never to take any prisoners at all: whenever the Germans raised a white flag, a sergeant would stand up and beckon them closer before giving his men the command to fire. At Chenogne the 11th Armoured Division shot 60 German prisoners: “There was no secret about it – Patton even mentions it in his diaries.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this culture of revenge is that the American commanders were not only complicit but actively encouraged it.
“There was anger among the commanders that they had been taken by surprise. There was a large element of embarrassment. When something like that happens, you get very angry, and you refuse to accept responsibility for what you’ve done.” Several of the American generals openly approved of the killing of prisoners, and gloried in the gruesome nicknames the Germans were beginning to know their troops by, such as “Roosevelt’s butchers”.
As we talk, it is clear that Beevor struggles with these issues. Outside academia, there are few people who are prepared to look unflinchingly at the less flattering parts of our behaviour – and certainly no one with Beevor’s large readership has. What’s more, it is one thing to state that such events happened – an admission that many historians have shied away from – but quite another to know how to react to them. The whole subject runs counter to our most cherished communal myths about British and American heroism and gallantry.
Beevor knows instinctively that he must tread carefully, neither condoning the revenge nor reaching for outright condemnation.
“I think what one should try to do is to leave the moral judgments up to the reader. There’s no use in being judgmental. Far from it; we can only speculate as to how we would react in the circumstances ourselves,” he says.
For the first time in our conversation, he displays a flicker of discomfort.
“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I ask. Surely there are less disturbing ways for a historian to make a living – ways that do not involve the study of violence, atrocity and inhumanity? He answers with a single word: “Fascination.” He says it casually, in the same way that he spoke about his sleepless nights, but after everything we have spoken about the word is impregnated with layers of meaning. There is his fascination with the war period, which, he says, defined the world that he grew up in. There is his fascination with man’s ability to endure the most incomprehensible violence, and his fascination with what makes some men break while others are able to rise above their most primitive instincts. And beneath it all, there is that compulsion to lean over the abyss and gaze into the heart of darkness. “I’m afraid the whole nature of evil is something we are all fascinated by.”