“December 1941 is not about how it seemed to the guy on the ground in Malaya when the Japanese came down the road with their headlights on in the middle of the night,” he says. “I’m far more interested in why things happen, why decisions are made, and this can often only be understood by seeing the same events from different points of view. “
The book, he says, was unlike any other he had ever attempted. “My last one (World War II: A New History, 2009) was a one-volume global history of events from the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 to 1945, so it was a change to write about just 12 days.”
An honorary research professor in international history (and professor emeritus) at Glasgow University, where he taught for 40 years before retirement in 2010, Mawdsley is a specialist in modern Soviet history, especially that of the Soviet elites. He has also written a well-received 2005 history of the Eastern Front, Thunder in the East, for which he was able to draw on new material from the Russian archives in the brief interlude of perestroika before they closed again to western historians.
“Why do the Germans lose the battle for Moscow? It’s really all down to their underestimation of the forces ranged against them. That’s one of the archival things I could do, comparing German estimates of the strength of every Russian division with its actual strength on the ground. And you could only get the last bit after the Russian archives opened in 1991.”
One danger in telling that story from all sides, he admits, is that you end up knowing more about events than the participants. “That’s why it’s a useful corrective to read the diaries of someone like Roosevelt’s secretary of labour about the sheer confusion in Washington as the news broke about Pearl Harbor.”
The big counterfactual question often asked about Pearl Harbor is why Hitler declared war on the US when ostensibly he had no real reason to do so. What does Mawdsley think would have happened if America hadn’t joined Britain in the fight against the Nazis? “The war would have lasted a lot longer and been a lot less decisive. But Roosevelt was working hard at provoking the Germans and they would have probably come in to fight on Britain’s side sometime in the spring of 1942.
“That may be counter- factual, but for a statesman at the time, everything is. I mean, the opposite of counterfactual is deterministic – you know exactly what is going to happen, there is a clear line of cause and effect and everyone can see a long way into the future. Well, it doesn’t work like that. Even when you think you have learnt all the lessons of history, you haven’t. Almost all the top German officers invading the Soviet Union in 1941, for example, go there with de Caulaincourt’s memoir of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in their pockets, determined that what happened to the French isn’t going to happen to them. And of course it does.”