Antony Beevor - 'Why the writing of History had to change'
Antony Beevor, winner of the inaugural Samuel Johnson Prize in 1999, shares his thoughts on a watershed moment for historical writing:
In the early summer of 1995, I was in Moscow researching Stalingrad in the archives there. With great interest, I followed the celebrations which were taking place at home for the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. A large number of books were published to take advantage of the event, but certainly in Britain, they all failed to sell. Most people – myself included – assumed that interest in the subject had finally collapsed. But we were all wrong.
What we had failed to perceive was that we had reached a different sort of watershed. History in the past had largely been written in collective terms. Then, in the 1980s a fashion for oral history emerged, with collections of interviews, diaries and letters, but they usually lacked context. Only a very few really worked. The point was that readers had started to look for the experience of the individual, both civilian and soldier, and men and women, caught up in huge events over which they had no control. Readers did not want the same sources churned out. They wanted fresh and original material from a wide range of archives which brought the experiences of the period alive.
The switch from the collective to the individual in fact was part of far greater developments which began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a remarkably short space of time we saw the Fall of the Soviet Empire, the introduction of the internet, the decline of unions, the collapse of exchange controls, Big Bang and globalisation, as well as a far greater emphasis on individual rights and self-expression. These changes, especially the new individualism, eroded traditional social structures and concepts of public service. The younger generation which had shrugged off the ideals of collective loyalty, suddenly wanted to know about the fate of ordinary people, not just about the leaders in the old top-down version of affairs.
I think it will take historians another fifty years before they will be able to assess with any accuracy whether these huge geo-political, financial, social and technological changes were intrinsically linked or coincidental. In any case, books which highlighted the fate of individuals within the great historical events reached far wider audiences than could ever have been imagined before. Who could have imagined women ever wanting to read military history? Old genre barriers were falling. This was a revolution in historical affairs which happened to coincide with the Revolution in Military Affairs and a far less predictable world order.