After the publication of my review of his excellent book Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights (Caliber), Martin Dugard kindly accepted to answer some questions for this blog. I feel privileged for the interview with an excellent and engaging author, who is also the coauthor of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Series.
Here is the content of our exchange.
Mr. Dugard, where did the idea of writing Taking Paris originate from?
The book actually started as Taking Rome but as the research expanded it became obvious that the story of Rome worked more nicely as a small section in the larger context of the 1940 fall of Paris and 1944 liberation.
I initially wanted to reviewTaking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lightsby Martin Dugard last February, but then Vladimir Putin launched his troops against Ukraine and I had to shuffle my publications calendar. As you will see, there are fascinating parallels between the fate of France in World War II and the current situation in Ukraine, if only at the leadership level.
After the invasion of France by the Germans in May 1940, the country is in disarray and its statesmen have given up. In the ashes of defeat, a temporary brigadier general will rise to the occasion. Fleeing his homeland on board an airplane provided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle left with a “[…] hastily packed suitcase contain[ing] four shirts, one pair of pants, and a single photograph of Yvonne and the children, whose current whereabouts he does not know.” I couldn’t help but think of the same predicament in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found himself on February 24th. As did de Gaulle, he chose to fight, but from home.
As I grow older, I realize that history is one of the surest guides to navigate the present. While many adhered to Francis Fukuyama’s theory that the demise of Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, represented the end of history, others lamented what they perceived as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
Old habits die hard and Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern Worldis an excellent representation of that idiom. “”America is now the primary enemy,” said one of Marshal’s Zhukov’s general at the time of the capture of Berlin. “We have destroyed the base of Fascism. Now we must destroy the base of Capitalism – America.”” Things haven’t changed much in the last 77 years.
Mr. Moorhouse, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, despite your busy schedule. While reading Poland 1939, I kept wondering if and what Western countries did to help the government of Warsaw in the crucial weeks and months leading to World War 2. Could you tell us more about that?
Not enough, is the short answer. There were military alliances signed with both the British and the French – the French one in May 1939, and commitments were made – specific in the French case, more vague in the British – to assist in the event of an invasion. The French committed to send “the bulk” of their forces across the Rhine on Day 15 of mobilization, and the British talked vaguely about sending RAF squadrons to Poland. Little of it, of course, came to pass once Germany actually invaded. The French made a half-hearted advance across the Rhine, and the RAF dropped leaflets over Germany politely asking that the Germans cease and desist. They then shifted the narrative from one of defending Poland to one of promising to restore an independent Poland at some time in the future. It was driven by circumstances, of course, but it was also morally rather cowardly.
Andrew Roberts is the contemporary authority on Winston Churchill. He gave an interview yesterday to Michael Crick for the Mail Online about the similarities between the Greatest Briton and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his contemporary disciple.
Here are a few lines from this insightful article:
“Not only has Zelenskyy stayed in Kyiv, as Churchill did in wartime London, but he is seen on the streets, rallying his people with speeches, and recognizes all the perils and risks.
‘It’s straight out of the Churchill playbook,’ Roberts tells Mail+. And Zelenskyy is showing extraordinary bravery when a team of Russian assassins dressed in Ukrainian army uniforms is said to be out to kill him. That’s not a hazard Churchill faced.”
22 years ago, tonight, Vladimir Putin ambled in history and became President of Russia after Boris Yeltsin retired. Since then, many have spent countless years scrutinizing his every moves. In a sense, the new master of the game largely contributed to Kremlinology’s survival as a discipline. And the prospect of him seeking another term in two years means that Putinology still has bright days ahead. His exercise of power remains one of the most fascinating questions to any student of Russian politics.
I just finished reading a most excellent book about the Russian President, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russiaby renowned Columbia University Professor Timothy Frye. In a documented, clear, and eloquent style, the main conclusion of the author is that Vladimir Putin’s main political quality is his ability to navigate the stormy seas of Russian politics.
Few journalists and observers are more versed in US presidential history than Bob Woodward. In his latest book, Peril, written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, they write that “Most [presidential] candidates struggle with the message. In his case [Joe Biden], he was the message.” The former Vice-President was the best positioned to carry the day in front of President Donald Trump, a man who didn’t and probably couldn’t grasp the magnitude of Covid-19 (“I wanted to always play it down”, he said to Bob Woodward in March 2020), or the basic tenets of politics. About the latter aspect, “[Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016] was surprised that Trump, of all people, did not seem to get that Republican leaders were self-interested.”
In a nutshell, Trump – who did not have a story to tell – couldn’t possibly compete with a man whose own life was and is the story – Joe Biden. “There is no news I can walk in and give him in the morning that is worse than the news he’s been given many other times in his life”, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told the authors about President Biden in what is probably the best book published about US politics this year.
After German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the articles of surrender on May 9th, 1945, “Soviet officers shook hands with their allies from the west.” World War II was officially over, and a festive spirit descended upon the victors. “Vodka and champagne flowed, freely, and buoyed by the joyous atmosphere, [Soviet Marshal] Zhukov even performed a Russian folk dance on the parquet floor of the officers’ mess.”
Passages like those abound in Volker Ullrich’s most recent book Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright). Between the covers of this absorbing and sometimes revolting book, the reader is immersed in the tragic hours when the grandees of the Nazi horde maneuver to cling to power under the leadership of Admiral Karl Dönitz, while trying to save as many German soldiers as possible from the advancing Russian soldiers who are – legitimately, one could say – thirsty for “revenge and retribution”.
While the objective of the author was to detail and explain the functioning of the Peninsular Army and give a portrait of the overall machinery of war, the most interesting aspect of the book is the portrait of the warlord. Wellington, it is a known fact, was a micromanager. For instance, the author explains that “[…] he was his own Director of Military Intelligence”. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand that he must have been quite a difficult character to deal with – like most famous personalities in history. About the interrogation of prisoners of war, he reduced one of his subordinates, Stewart, to tears because the latter wrongfully thought it fell within the province of his responsibilities.
In June 1987, just shy of my 13th birthday, international affairs were already part of my daily interests. I would clip newspaper articles about the Cold War from our local paper before my parents even had the chance of reading it, much to their despair. During that month, on the 12th to be more precise, US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and pronounced a major speech calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. “He’ll never do that”, my father replied to me. Retrospectively, anything is possible of course. But few people could imagine back then what would happen only two years later when the Wall crumbled without a single shot being fired.
Fast-forward to 2015. After 9 grueling months stranded as administrative prisoners in Poland due to lack of efficient bureaucracy (to put it mildly), we finally received our coveted residency cards. First order of business was to plan a serious change of scenery for everyone. I could finally take a few days off. Berlin was just a couple hours away by train and I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.