Part of a speech given to the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto about writing his bestselling book:
Our Fathers’ War
When I was sixteen years old, I was sitting on the toilet in my boarding school long after curfew one night in 1946, when I heard the main outer door to the washroom sigh closed. Slippered feet approached my cubicle. A stern male voice said, “Who’s in there?”
It was the housemaster, Mr Biggar.
“Bacque sir,” I said.
“Open the door.”
I stood up and opened the door. He held out his hand. I gave him the big heavy book I had been reading. He read the title. War and Peace. He handed it back and said, “Do you like it?
“Oh yes sir. It’s really good.”
“Yes it is. Now go to bed, and don’t stay up after lights out again.”
If I had been caught with Sunbathing magazine, or Uncanny Tales, I would have been confined for a weekend alone with the binomial theorem, but literature had saved me.
Reading War and Peace I understood and liked peasants, soldiers, aristocrats, men, women and adolescents in Russia 140 years before. I was seeing life as it was seen by the truthful Tolstoy and it was fascinating. I was learning stuff I could learn nowhere else, through a new tool of understanding–literature.
About then I began to resolve to venture some day on a big book about families in wartime and in peace. I would carry on the work of that great writer. I was sixteen.
I knew it was beyond my powers, but if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth doing. But I could not let go of the idea. I was caught in the paradox–writing requires ego while it enforces humility. For years, I diverted my ambition into other projects.
Then my publisher, Jack McClelland, one of the twin saints of English language publishing in this country, encouraged me to write two of the books that gave me the confidence of humility. These were Just Raoul and Other Losses. In both those books, I had to enter into foreign languages, minds, lives and experiences, in the one case, into the life of a hero of the French Resistance. In that book, entitled Just Raoul, I penetrated the life-history of a man from a different and secret society so well that he begged me to conceal certain things about him which he had been hiding from me. That helped to give me the objectivity to do the next book, which enters into the world of the allied armies of 1945 and the million German prisoners who suffered and died under them in American and French camps after the war.
The research for those books led me to the city we call Cologne and the Germans call Koln. On a warm summer evening in 1986, I was in the central square gazing up at the mediaeval buildings with their heads leaning together and their casement windows open when a British voice beside me said, “They look old to you do they?”
“Yes,” I said.
“They’re all new. Built since the war they are. Look down.”
I looked down. My feet were planted firm on words incised into a big bronze plaque that said something like this, in English and German, “This city was destroyed from the air on the night of February 22, 1942.”
That it was in English as well as in German was the only imputation against the good guys of world war two. Us. And one of Us was my sister, a Squadron Leader in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who had almost certainly helped to plan the raid. In that raid, I knew, thousands of people had died during a firestorm that was deliberately set to kill civilians.
I was appalled. I had known this, and had forgotten. I had known this and approved. Cologne was one of the black pins stuck in my boyhood map of Germany, a target for my sister’s bomber crews, for she was in command of hundreds of airwomen at the RCAF’s Number Six Bomber Group, at Allerton Hall in Yorkshire.
To me she had always been a hero, like my brothers and my father who all fought the Germans.
Together with my discovery of the postwar atrocities that the allies committed against Germany, this forced a complete and dizzying revolution in my thinking. Now, wartime Germany advanced towards me through smoke and fire until I could smell its stink and feel its heat and fear its power and pity its suffering and admit its heroes and hate its crimes. And since to see is also to wish to understand, I wanted to know more about what had caused that war that crippled a whole nation and cripples it still.
In my late sixties, having completed my German histories, I had a feeble income from my writing which had been seriously diminished by the German-haters in Canada and elsewhere who hated me and my work only because they hated Germans. But I still had that relentless ambition. I tried to evade the idea by saying that I would write a potboiler, but Elisabeth said, “Write that big book you have always been dreaming of.” And suddenly all excuses were off; I had the training necessary to attempt such a feat. And I was too old to put it off. It was now or never. So we rented our house in Toronto and moved to a wood-stove cottage in the wilderness.
I was now able to face the very uncomfortable fact that there were two enemies in that war. Them, and us. Seeing the Germans as enemies as I had done all my life, I thought that being objective meant that in order to understand the German mind, I would have to hate us, and see us as enemies. I couldn’t do that. So there was only one recourse. Abandon hatred. Present us as I knew we had been. That way, I could rely on reality. Recount what happened. And accept the consequences. Present the Germans as they had believed themselves to be
I would have to make it possible for my readers to see, through the noise of war, the true faces of the Germans and our own people, to hear in the bedlam of the 1940s their voices, and despite the propaganda and hatred rotting our minds and infecting our history to this day, to comprehend their thoughts. I would have to describe the minds and feelings of Hitler and his generals, to feel as soldiers do in wartime, to leap across the great barrier of history and culture erected in the 1940s between the Germans and the Canadians and other allies.
I needed a vast amount of knowledge. If I were to describe my characters, I had to understand them, so….. Hitler was a problem. I began to study and to imagine my way into the mind of Adolf Hitler, trying to decide for instance if he was deceitful or honest when he offered peace to the British and French in 1939, after the conquest of Poland. He also offered peace to the British in the spring of 1940, after the collapse of the French army. This was the man who thought it was very funny when Joseph Goebbels told him that he had just realized that Germany had broken every treaty signed by the Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop for ten years. When Hitler heard this, he laughed so long that he was late for his vegetarian lunch. So, was he sincere in offering a peace treaty at those crucial moments of the war? If so, the response of Winston Churchill mattered more than if not, and the advice of his best friend, the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook would play a crucial role.
Churchill was a problem. Some thought he was a war-mongering megalomaniac who wanted to go on ruling most of the world, some thought he was an arrogant racist, some thought he was a hero who united the British Empire to defeat the forces of darkness and evil.
I needed a theory of history that accounted for such men. In brief, the theory was that the Second World War was inevitable but it was not necessary. Which is to say that there were better alternatives. How to discern those alternatives? By discerning the self-interest of each nation at all the decision points of the war and of the peace. For instance, what was Britain’s self-interest in deciding her answer to Hitler’s peace offer in October, 1939 following the conquest of Poland? Certainly one view in cabinet was to accept the offer and negotiate, in order to save the empire and encourage Hitler to attack Russia, which of course he was already planning and soon did.
I was a novelist who had also written some history, and thereby discovered one truth about writing: in history you see the crowd, in art you see the face. Having felt the malign influence of the war on my brothers and sister, I was particularly eager to show the people at the top–Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt–issuing the orders that sent young people into battle knowing that many would die. But there was an interesting Canadian variation here–all my Canadians were volunteers, as were virtually all the Canadian soldiers of the war. One such character is Ed Burns, a professor of history at the University of Toronto in 1939, and a communist. Burns, nicknamed Red Ed, gets into deep trouble with the university president, a friend of his. Burns is being disciplined by the president at lunch in the Faculty Club on June 21, 1941, when the club steward tells them that Hitler has attacked Russia, so now all communists of whatever stripe are automatically converted from enemy to friend, just like that. Red Ed’s job is saved between the celery sticks and the roast beef, but he quits anyway in order to fight the Germans, whom he hates for Spain. Something I liked about Red Ed Burns was that one evening in September, 1939, at an isolated boys’ summer camp in northern Ontario, lacking both radio and telephone, while all the campers were singing Abide with Me, Ed sat alone on the steps of the lodge and sang the Internationale. At the end of the hymn, everyone stands still as they listen to a train whistle sounding miles away through the dark woods, whistling the letter W, a signal which tells the camp director that war has started. Here’s how it affected them: “The whistle sounded louder, and to everyone it was no longer the wild shriek of a lighted train rushing through the forest in the night, but their fate.” So by joining up, they sentenced themselves according to their beliefs.
How did I invent these people? From knowing many kinds of people, and a little from symbolism. Red Ed was born of the conjunction of two forces–world communism, and the independent spirit that I believe was common in that self-contradictory movement in 1930s Canada. Red Ed’s fate–early and violent death–symbolizes at once the wasted violence of world communism and of war.
In order to show the character of each individual, I had to tell you why each of the Canadians volunteered. This would also help to avoid creating something I hate, a hollow book decked in stylish violence. Many joined because everyone else was joining, some joined to defend the British Empire, some joined to impress a girl, some joined for the adventure, one joined because he thought a naval officer’s uniform would make him look handsome; and another to get his senior matric without writing exams, plus a free university education afterwards.
I also wanted to show a little of the heroic irony of the German resistance to Hitler. In the ten years before 1945, there were at least eight assassination plots against Hitler by various Germans. So my characters Tatiana Miloslavsky and her friend Clara Dunn, from New Brunswick, who risked their lives in a plot to kill Hitler, stand among the heroes who believe in a free, peaceful, civilized Germany. Working in the Foreign Office in Berlin, they carried messages, spied on their seniors, organized meetings, typed minutes and led persecuted refugees to safety. They were Britain’s secret allies, but in the end, they are betrayed by the British who had originally professed not to wish to harm the German people, but only to throw out the Nazis. Tati and Clara are the hopeful idealistic youth of all countries whose lives are wrecked by the men at the top who do not know what to but do it anyway.
In my youth, after reading Tolstoy and Russian history at the university, I made the quip that Russian fiction reads like history because Russian history reads like fiction. But much later, as I worked on Our Fathers’ War, I realized that the same is true of us. Our historians by and large, create pleasing myths that bind us in a society, often by proving that the enemy is wicked. A wicked example of this is what Winston Churchill said in 1945, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
And he did, and he is much believed and admired. Churchill of course intended to win the war, and let the peace take care of itself. But that’s what I wanted to do, take care of the peace, which meant, telling the truth in all my books. I wasn’t afraid of the truth, because I believed in our western Christian virtues, which really only shows that the historians had done their job on me.
In the 19th century, Lord Palmerston, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, famously said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
I wanted to add, “And it is in their permanent interest to have friends.” This seems to me to be the simple truth. And I am with Jane Austen on this, who said that when reading her book of British history you would have to forgive her because “you might bump into some facts, truth being I think very excusable in an historian.”
Just as history is very excusable in a novel.