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Antony Beevor, military historian: "The war in Ukraine can unleash a global catastrophe"

2022-07-03T10:49:06.085Z

The researcher publishes his new book, 'Russia. Revolution and civil war'. "Terror and cruelty are essential elements as a weapon of war," he maintains in an interview



Antony Beevor (born in London 75 years ago) has become a reference for anyone trying to understand 20th century military history.

Battle after battle—Stalingrad, Berlin, Normandy, the Ardennes, or Arnhem—it has brought World War II closer to millions of readers.

His latest book is

Russia.

Revolution and civil war 1917-1921

(Criticism, translation by Gonzalo García).

His publication could not be more timely, in the midst of the Ukrainian war.

The British historian recounts the February Revolution of 1917 that put an end to tsarism, but also the Bolshevik coup d'état in October, which unleashed a civil war of atrocious savagery on both sides, which caused millions of deaths from combat, the hunger, displacement, looting, massacres.

"Europe has not seen such conspicuous cruelty, used as a weapon of terror, since the wars of religion," he writes.

On page 358 he describes the “terrifying” white commander Andrei Shkuró, “anti-Semite and sadist”.

On page 361 he dwells on Saenko, a local Cheka boss, "famous for his pathological sadism."

His specialty was "the glove": skinning the hand of a poor victim while she was still alive.

More information

Antony Beevor: "Courage in war is spent"

This interview was conducted this week by videoconference.

Beevor had to cancel a Madrid visit after contracting coronavirus and was hospitalized.

Already recovered, he was again able to display his encyclopedic knowledge of the most horrible moments of the twentieth century.

Ask.

His book contains scenes of unleashed cruelty: torture, massacres, murders... Why was the Russian civil war so savage?

Response.

It is a very important question.

With the war in Ukraine at the moment, it is a hotly debated issue.

David Aaronovitch published a very good article in

The Times

in which he raised what he described as "the systemic savagery of the Russian troops."

And what is the origin of this?

You have to be careful, obviously, because you can't generalize about any country, much less one with as many nationalities as Russia.

But the idea that Russian brutality in warfare dates back to the Mongol invasion in the 13th century I think has some validity.

Russia has always felt threatened from abroad.

It is also important to be aware that terror and cruelty are essential elements as a weapon of war.

We see this over and over again.

We don't know all the details, because many of them weren't recorded, but we can get a pretty good idea of ​​how brutal the Russian civil war was.

And it's not just something from the past.

In the nineties about 5.

000 conscripts committed suicide each year in Russia due to the brutality of hazing.

The number of defections in Ukraine right now tells us a lot about how poorly soldiers are being treated.

Also very significant is the fact that they are not repatriating the bodies, they are burying or burning them to hide the number of casualties, which shows an astonishing contempt for their own military.

Victims of the Russian civil war in Siberia.

Heritage Images (Getty Images)

P.

Can parallels be drawn between that civil war and what is currently happening in Ukraine?

For example, in the matter of weapons.

Then Churchill wanted to intervene directly or send more weapons, but the British Government did not let him...

R.

Certain parallels can be drawn of course, but you have to be very careful.

Especially since Putin has completely distorted history in every possible way.

Putin is behaving much more like Hitler than Stalin, despite his obsession that this is somehow a repeat of World War II, against what he sees as some kind of fascist state.

He is a totally distorted version of the past.

This is why parallels are dangerous.

It is true that one of the lessons history teaches us, of course, is the danger of getting involved in any civil war.

But this is not a civil war.

It is a state-to-state war.

To suggest that it is a civil war is to play along with Putin.

I don't think the West can do anything at this point, beyond arming Ukraine.

A parallel with the Spanish Civil War and the non-intervention committee, which, thank God, does not exist now, would make more sense.

I think that sending weapons to Ukraine is absolutely vital because it would be very serious if it were forced to sign a peace agreement, which in reality would only be a very temporary ceasefire.

Putin would love to see a ceasefire.

In fact, he responds to the old Napoleonic idea of ​​withdrawing and then attacking again.

And that is certainly his plan in case there is a truce.

So the West has to be absolutely firm not to force Ukraine to negotiate, which would put it at a disadvantage, not only in a few months, but also in a few years.

I think that sending weapons to Ukraine is absolutely vital because it would be very serious if it were forced to sign a peace agreement, which in reality would only be a very temporary ceasefire.

Putin would love to see a ceasefire.

In fact, he responds to the old Napoleonic idea of ​​withdrawing and then attacking again.

And that is certainly his plan in case there is a truce.

So the West has to be absolutely firm not to force Ukraine to negotiate, which would put it at a disadvantage, not only in a few months, but also in a few years.

I think that sending weapons to Ukraine is absolutely vital because it would be very serious if it were forced to sign a peace agreement, which in reality would only be a very temporary ceasefire.

Putin would love to see a ceasefire.

In fact, he responds to the old Napoleonic idea of ​​withdrawing and then attacking again.

And that is certainly his plan in case there is a truce.

So the West has to be absolutely firm not to force Ukraine to negotiate, which would put it at a disadvantage, not only in a few months, but also in a few years.

responds to the old Napoleonic idea of ​​withdrawing and then attacking again.

And that is certainly his plan in case there is a truce.

So the West has to be absolutely firm not to force Ukraine to negotiate, which would put it at a disadvantage, not only in a few months, but also in a few years.

responds to the old Napoleonic idea of ​​withdrawing and then attacking again.

And that is certainly his plan in case there is a truce.

So the West has to be absolutely firm not to force Ukraine to negotiate, which would put it at a disadvantage, not only in a few months, but also in a few years.

P.

So, do you think that the thesis that it is better to reach an agreement in the face of the disaster that is coming, because of inflation or because of the lack of wheat, is a mistake because Putin will start over?

R.

Putin cannot be trusted for a moment because he has lied.

He has broken all agreements.

And he has an obsession, and he's not going to stop until he gets that obsession.

P.

At the beginning of your book you explain that the tsars lived completely oblivious to reality and that they did not have the slightest idea of ​​the revolution that was brewing.

Does he believe that something similar happens with Putin, who lives oblivious to the world around him?

A.

I think there is a strong element to that.

I suspect that the start of the war came as a

shock

to Putin, even though some of the people around him had tried to explain the situation to him more or less gently.

Putin is obsessed with the past, just look at the images of that ridiculously large table, the statues of the tsars.

The very fact that his palace on the Black Sea is filled with double-headed eagles.

Putin is obsessed with the old Russian empire.

he is also a

snob

in many ways because all this is very paradoxical for someone who has repeated ad nauseam that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

In many ways, he seems to be much closer to the belief that 1917 and the fall of Tsardom was actually the greatest tragedy of this century.

Although he has been clever in the way that he has managed to play both sides of the Russian civil war, for example, with the way that he repatriated the bodies of some white generals to rebury them in Russia.

This shocked many members of the Communist Party and those still loyal to the USSR.

But at the same time he has also played the other hand.

Although basically, a lot of his instincts were with the whites.

Red guards near the Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd, during the Russian civil war.Bettmann

Q.

Is there anything more dangerous, as you say in your book, than underestimating a character like Stalin?

R.

Of course, many underestimated Stalin.

I mean, those who met him during the war, like Churchill, realized very early on how smart he was and also that they had probably underestimated him in the past.

Although I would like to qualify one thing: what does it really mean to underestimate?

When you talk about 1938 and Munich, you have to remember that the problem with the British and the French was that they had not only underestimated Hitler, but they had underestimated Hitler's ambitions simply because they judged him from their own point of view, they thought that no one in their right mind would want to start another world war.

But in 1938 he was furious when Chamberlain relented because he really wanted a war with Czechoslovakia, and he felt he had been duped.

Now we made the same mistake with Putin because we feel that no one would want a state-to-state war in Europe.

Well, we should have learned the lesson from Chechnya and, of course, from Syria and even Libya.

We forget Putin's determination to unleash a conflict whenever he gets the chance if it is going to increase his power and influence.

That is why I think that on February 24 there was a kind of

shock

when it became known that Putin was going to go to war.

Very few people had realized that he was willing to go to war.

Q.

Can the Russian Civil War and the Revolution be studied without taking into account the emotions of the present?

Many people continue to reject the idea that the October Revolution was actually a Bolshevik coup...

R.

Well, what you call emotions are myths.

And very powerful myths were created because Soviet propaganda was very clever in the way it promoted them.

People's image of the storming of the Winter Palace is entirely based on Eisenstein's film.

When you see any documentary on television, the storming of the Winter Palace automatically appears because it is a great film, but it is totally false.

It has nothing to do with reality.

The other myths, of course, were that the Bolsheviks were all selfless.

The idea that there was always some kind of privileged hierarchy was obscured by propaganda in the years that followed.

But the reason for the emphasis on the October Revolution is that, of course, in the February Revolution the Bolsheviks played no part.

They did not expect that first revolt.

Stalin was in Siberia.

Lenin and others were in Zurich with Trotsky.

Nobody expected it.

But that was, in a way, the real revolution, because it meant the overthrow of the old regime.

Preparations for the coup continued through that fall.

Lenin realised, with tremendous astuteness and insight, that it was not really a matter of numerical superiority.

What he needed to win was the apathy of the majority.

that it was not really a matter of numerical superiority.

What he needed to win was the apathy of the majority.

that it was not really a matter of numerical superiority.

What he needed to win was the apathy of the majority.

Recruitment for the Red Army during the civil war, in 1918. Slava Katamidze Collection (Getty Images)

Q.

Was terror Lenin's main instrument to control the country and seize power?

R.

Yes, although I think that is true in any civil war.

Queipo de Llano used terror in Andalusia and the nationals in all areas where they were in the minority.

Lenin did the same wherever he faced strong opposition, especially in the south.

Furthermore, he wanted to turn the First World War, the imperialist war, into an international civil war.

That was the strategy from the beginning.

He knew that he was going to meet a lot of opposition and that a peaceful takeover of power was not going to be possible.

R.

In your book there are neither good nor bad, the two parties behave with a brutality difficult to imagine.

He describes many characters who are sadists, who enjoy torturing and killing.

Does a civil war turn normal people into monsters or do monsters really come to light in wars?

R.

I'm afraid that usually always happens in times of great crisis.

It is always said that the dregs rise to the top in those periods.

The civil war was so intense and cruel that the most brutal generals tend to rise to the top.

There wasn't much humanity on either side.

But the duty of the historian is to try to portray things as accurately as possible and to leave the moral judgments to the reader.

Both the whites and the reds committed so many atrocities that there was really no humanity left.

Q.

Reading your book, one gets the impression that the whites almost won the Russian civil war, that the Bolsheviks could very well have lost.

It was like this?

R.

Well, they could only have won it if they had made certain concessions, forgetting the great Russian imperialist obsessions and building an alliance with the Poles, the Finns and the Estonians.

So they really would have had a chance.

But to Winston Churchill's exasperation, they treated the Estonians very arrogantly, as well as the Poles and the Finns.

They were not able to put together an international alliance that would have given them enough support to have had a chance of defeating the Bolsheviks.

Although the reds had a huge advantage, of course: they occupied the central zone, including Moscow.

They controlled the main arms factories and dominated the most important cities, where it was possible to recruit the population.

But the real problem was, of course,

that the whites formed a completely incompatible alliance.

It was a mixture of moderate socialists, right-wing revolutionaries and reactionaries.

Both sides did most of their recruiting through POWs, something not often seen in war.

The Whites held out for so long because of the massive supplies, particularly of British weaponry and equipment, that were being landed in the south or in some cases brought in via the Trans-Siberian.

Russian Civil War in 1918.Universal History Archive

P.

One of the reasons why the tsarist regime fell and the Revolution broke out is the famine that Russia suffered.

Do you think that currently the problems in food distribution caused by the war in Ukraine could unleash a global crisis with unforeseeable consequences?

R.

The real crisis will come more or less in September.

I mean, one of the key elements must be to what extent NATO can persuade Turkey to allow warships into the Black Sea to escort the big grain ships out of Ukraine.

Because you are right: the war in Ukraine can unleash a global catastrophe.

I believe that a vital step needs to be taken to ensure that the grain leaves the Ukraine in order to avoid a dire human crisis that Africa and the Middle East are heading towards.

P.

You maintain that the First World War represented “the suicide of Europe”.

Is it the catastrophe from which all other catastrophes arose, the Second World War, the Holocaust?

R.

Yes. Some historians have quite correctly identified World War I as the original catastrophe of the 20th century.

The importance, however, of the Russian Civil War, which in part grew out of the First World War, was the way in which it unleashed a dynamic of fear and hatred, leading to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, by creating that radical polarization between the left and the right, between fascism and communism, between Stalinism and Nazism… And it basically crushed liberalism and democracy that were in the middle.

And, of course, I am beginning to fear that a similar process will begin in a post-democratic age in this century.

In the end, Putin may have done us a favor by waking us up and showing us the dangers of autocracy and where it can lead us.

Because the Second World War and the era of totalitarianism are too far away, especially for a younger generation that does not remember what it was like.

So Putin may have done us a favor, he certainly hasn't done Ukraine and all those suffering from the war a favor.

But at the same time, with any luck, he has opened the eyes of the world to the real dangers that can arise when this form of polarization is unleashed, in this case not so much between left and right, but between autocracy and democracy.

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Source: elparis

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