War historian Max Hastings: ‘I’m not a pacifist but all wars are ghastly’
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Ahead of the Ham&High Lit Fest, the ex-Telegraph and Evening Standard editor tells Bridget Galton about the French Resistance and why he would never want to be a spy.
Most would be content with one brilliant career, but at the last count Max Hastings was onto his third.
As the son of a war reporter it was perhaps inevitable the 69-year-old would become a foreign correspondent, covering conflicts; from Vietnam to the Falklands where he was famously the first Briton into Argentinian-held Port Stanley.
He went on to edit both The Telegraph and the Evening Standard, but somehow also found time to write 25 books, mostly of military history.
As you’d expect from an ex newspaper man, they are packed with forceful opinions, social observation and a knack for winkling out the most intriguing characters.
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His latest The Secret War: Spies Codes and Guerillas is no exception, ranging from the well-trodden codebreaking at Bletchley Park to the exploits of lesser known Soviet and German spies, it uncovers a host of rogues, eccentrics and professors.
Asking what contribution intelligence made to the outcome of World War II its characteristically opinionated style concludes that spying is no substitute for hard military power, superior tactics and technology.
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“Most existing books deal with one country’s spies or code breakers, but it’s more interesting to look at it in a global context,” says Hastings.
“We know that Bletchley Park achieved amazing things, but Hitler has his own Bletchley Park and some pretty good code breakers who cracked a lot of our messages. In 1940 there were breaking 2,000 British Naval messages a month.”
Between the fantasist machismo of James Bond and recent films such as The Imitation Game, Britons have a false idea that we are brilliant at spying.
“The Imitation Game gave the idea that Alan Turing was the lone genius at Bletchley Park but it was actually a team effort by one of the most remarkable groups of people and couldn’t have been done without them.
“It also gave the idea that the British could access all German communication all of the time when it often took them weeks to break messages which was too late.”
He adds: “In the 1950s we felt rather sorry for ourselves about our diminished place in the world and liked to think spying was something we did very well. But I don’t think our spies made that much difference. By contrast Stalin had fantastic spies but it didn’t do him much good because he was so paranoid he didn’t believe most of the stuff they discovered.”
Spying attracts “a certain type”, he says; risktakers who “like knowing things that other people don’t”.
“The business of spies is to live a lie and the business of spy masters is to promote treachery. It’s pretty weird but they are fascinating people.
“Most loved what they did, and it could offer a fantastic extravagant life of girls and drink as with Soviet spy Richard Sorge who hugely enjoyed his role and was a larger than life character who made James Bond look pretty pathetic.”
But Hastings firmly believes it doesn’t matter what you find out but how much difference it makes.
“Probably only 0.01 percent of the information gathered from secret spies influenced the war but that tiny fraction was so valuable none of the countries begrudged the money expended on getting it. Even at Bletchley Park only a tiny fragment of it – the Battle of the Atlantic for example - made a difference.”
“Knowing things is no use unless you have the power to make things happen. All the nonsense talked about whether we should have known the Luftwaffe were about to bomb Coventry when it wouldn’t have done any good because we didn’t have the fighters to do much about it.”
Controversially he concludes that resistance movements like the one in France made little impact beyond restoring lost national pride.
“The British and Americans came out of WWII feeling pretty good about themselves but the French came out feeling terrible. De Gaulle created a master myth to revive the self respect of the French people. Resistance represented the soul of France when in reality collaboration represented the soul of France – most were captured after being betrayed by other French people. Only a minority resisted until 1944. Those who did deserve enormous respect and admiration but France would not have been liberated one day earlier because of their work.”
Similarly the special Operations Executive known as ‘Churchill’s secret army’ which recruited operatives to conduct espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe were largely ineffective.
“It was right to create SOE what its agents did was fabulous I admire them enormously while recognising in the big scheme of things it contributed mostly to let countries such as France know we hadn’t abandoned them.”
It was SOE agent Ronald Seth who gave Hastings “the best story in the book”.
Codenamed Operation Blunderhead this natural liar and fantastist was parachuted into Estonia to start a resistance movement but no-one wanted to know. Immediately captured by the Germans he evaded execution by convincing them he would be an asset as a double agent.
“His activities didn’t change the war in the smallest degree but his exploits were fatntastic. How that wretched man survived three years in German hands and managed to stop being shot by both sides by talking his way out of things would have won him an Oscar in peacetime.”
In probably the most ruthless tale of intelligence manipulation, the Russians fed details of their own military plans to the Germans via double agent ‘Max’. As a result 77,000 Soviets died at the battle of Rzhev and Stalin won the battle for Stalingrad.
“Espionage has teetered on a seesaw between high tragedy and low comedy but one should never forget when laughing at some of the failures that a firing squad was waiting if they screwed up.
“I have never had the smallest ambition to be a spy. I would never get it out of my mind that if I put a foot wrong I would be dead.”
Hastings grew up in an era when his father’s generation romanticised the good versus evil dogma of the 1939-45 war.
He hopes his books portray the conflict more realistically.
“I am not a pacifist. I think one has to be prepared to use force to defend one’s vital interest, but our absurd idea that WW1 was worse than any other or WWII ended with the good guys winning is laughable.
“Wars end messily for everybody. All wars are ghastly. Perhaps a very few manage to profiteer or have a good time but generally speaking the experience of people in most wars is unspeakably dreadful.”
Max Hastings is at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival at South Hampstead High School on on November 16. Visit handhlitfest.com