Edinburgh Writers’ Conference: Small tales help grasp epic scale of Second World War

HISTORY unfolds in events both large and small, and Antony Beevor’s remarkable new account of the Second World War encompasses both.

The scale is, of course, epic, a “monstrous state-on-state clash between major powers” that 
stretches from Northern Europe to the South Pacific. And within that, there is such courage and brutality, such stupidity, betrayal and self-sacrifice, that it “defies generalisation”.

The small stories, perhaps, are the ones we can grasp. Take, for example, a Korean soldier, captured by British troops when the German army surrendered in Normandy. His war began as a conscript in the Japanese army fighting in Manchuria. He was captured there by the Russians and sent to a labour camp, but was later drafted into the Russian army. Taken prisoner again, by the Germans, he found himself in a German uniform in Normandy. After a time as a Prisoner of War in Britain then the United States, he settled in Illinois, where he died in 1992. One life, transformed immeasurably by the drama of war.

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Or take the little boy, fleeing across a frozen lake in East Prussia to escape the advancing Red Army. The ice cracked beneath so many feet and some perished in the freezing water. The boy survived, but when he died some 70 years later, his last words were: “I can hear the cracking of the ice.” The impact of war never left him. Or take the children in Stalingrad, bribed with bread by German soldiers to fill their water bottles, only to be shot by their own people for perceived collaboration: small lives crushed between the machinations of great powers.

Then there are moments where decisions affecting the course of history turn on small events, or on the personality of an individual and their capacity for strength or weakness, pride or courage. Churchill’s decision not to seek peace negotiations with Germany via Italy in 1940 may have seemed stubborn, but in Beevor’s view was also courageous, setting the course for the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, the question of language was foregrounded in the morning’s poetry reading by Aonghas MacNeacail. MacNeacail made an impassioned plea at the Edinburgh Writers Conference on Sunday for a greater recognition for marginalised languages, arguing that writing in Gaelic is no barrier to referencing the poetries of the world, from Hiroshige to Neruda. His poetry encompasses large and small worlds, from the fishermen and crofters of his native Skye to the destruction of the lives of desert peoples in the 1991 Gulf War. But he resists the label “Gaelic poet”. Such a prefix is itself marginalising: “poet” will suffice.