III: Memoirs of Important Participants

32. My Early Life by Winston S. Churchill.

Written and published in 1930, just as Churchill’s political career was going into what must have felt like terminal decline. He was in his late 50s, he had held all the high offices of state bar the premiership and in 1929 he and the Conservatives had been turfed out of government. His prospects for a comeback looked slim. My Early Life is a terrific read, written in Churchill’s unmistakable prose, full of unconscious clues about how he would act and behave a decade later when he was a war leader. Best of all, for me with my peculiar preoccupations, was Churchill’s anecdote about the time he came across his own double, an American writer called Winston Churchill. By heck, I knew I was on to something then …

33. Bomber Offensive by Sir Arthur Harris.

Harris was known as ‘Bomber’ Harris by the press and the general public, but his aircrews, who knew more about what was really going on, called him ‘Butch’, short for ‘Butcher’. Harris was an unimaginative and stubborn man, apparently without many redeeming qualities other than a determination to flatten as many German cities as possible. He rarely went to RAF stations to meet the crews, and he invariably pronounced the names of the German towns he was about to destroy with contemptuous Britishisms. E.g., he would call Wiesbaden ‘weezbayden’.

34. Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer.

Speer was seemingly not involved directly in any war crimes, but he presided over a huge slave workforce and was therefore tried at the Nuremberg Tribunal and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He wrote this book after his release in 1966. He liked messing about in small boats. Towards the end of the war, when it was obvious what was going to happen, he cooked up a scheme in which he would row across to Greenland in one of his sculls and lie low there until things calmed down. He was one of the saner Nazis.

35. Bounden Duty by Alexander Stahlberg (Brassey’s, 1990; first published in Germany in 1987).

Stahlberg was a German Army staff officer for most of the war, and claims to have been involved with the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler. Stahlberg reveals that had Stauffenberg succeeded, far from suing for peace with the Allies, the war would have been stepped up, properly led by the Prussian Guard. John Keegan, incidentally, rates this as one of the more important and interesting books to have been written about the war from the German side. I agree.

36. The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941 by Joseph Goebbels, translated and edited by Fred Taylor (Sphere, 1982).

I could hardly believe my luck when I started reading this short (and incomplete) extract from the vast diaries Goebbels kept all his life. Goebbels was writing for posterity, intending that his diaries would be published in a postwar Germany after the Reich had been triumphant. For this reason he is all on his own a kind of alternative history of the war, exaggerating and lying on almost every page. His intemperate language, extreme views, inconsistency, outbursts of bad temper, cloying sentimentality, scurrilous treachery and much more make his journal as compulsive as anything I have read. What a gift to a novelist!