What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
From a young age I have avidly devoured narratives and illustrated books on military history of all periods. I have been fascinated by the Second World War and it clearly has left its mark on the United Kingdom as a whole and specifically on my own family. I am no different to millions of others in terms of listening to aged relatives who served, fought and lived through traumatic experiences in the last war. Hearing their stories: Dunkirk evacuation, fighting in Burma, serving at home in Edinburgh castle, or meeting your future wife in an internment camp in Singapore. Without being flippant, I was spoiled for choice in terms of anecdotes that might hook a youngster to the subject of the Second World War.
As a teenager I was fortune to have parents who wanted me to see the wider world. I was sent on scout trips to East Germany (camping outside of Dresden) and in 1981 travelled to the Soviet Union with a group of students to stay in Leningrad (as was) now St Petersburg. The old Soviet Union I witnessed back then clearly left an impression as I have been fascinated by East European history ever since. I am lucky enough to publish history books as well as write them, so I have edited many titles focusing on Russia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with over a dozen specifically on the Great Patriotic War.
The battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43 has captivated me since I first read about it aged nine. History’s greatest single battle in terms of numbers involved and casualties and arguably the turning point of the Second World War. From Los Angeles to Delhi, New York to Cape Town and Sydney to London – everyone during this period was reading their newspapers and listening to their radio for news on this pivotal battle on the shores of the Volga in southern Russia. I lean towards first-person eyewitness accounts in the books that I publish, so I wanted to research and produce a new book that offered the reader something different to the dozens of books already published on this subject. That’s how The Lighthouse of Stalingrad began life in 2019.
Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
You have to remember I began my main research during the first lockdown in 2021. All museums and their archives were closed in the UK as well as Germany where I needed to go. My book focuses on the intimate struggle for the heart of Stalin’s city between two opposing, elite units: the Wehrmacht’s 71st Infantry Division (the ‘Conqueror of Capitals’), and, the Red Army’s 13th Guards Rifle Division. These would act as a metaphor for the whole battle itself in terms of the intimacy of the hand-to-hand fighting, as well as the enormous casualties. My task was to find witnesses and testimonies for both. In Germany I placed adverts in national newspapers for families of deceased veterans to come forward, which produced some remarkable primary material. I was then very fortunate to be awarded an academic travel visa to Russia I order to go to the archives of the Panorama Museum in Volgograd. This is a treasure trove of thousands of testimonies, letters, diaries and personal memorabilia the museum has collated since the late 1950s.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
To some extent, yes, in relation to Stalingrad. Once the battle was over in February 1943, the German survivors and their Axis allies were marched off into captivity, the majority of them subsequently dying of cold, malnutrition and disease. Very little was left behind to record their story, only letters home which had been sent before the end, as well as various combat logs of some of the various units. What we do have from a German perspective are the many post-war memoirs of the senior commanders, who obviously wish to give the reader their side of the story and protect their reputation: Field Marshal Erich von Manstein being a prime example. The Soviet Red Army were victorious, their deeds recorded by Stalin’s propaganda machine, and here is where research has to be careful to reveal the true stories from the many legends that were created at the time and subsequently enhanced throughout the Cold War years.
My focus in the archives of the Panorama Museum was to read the copious number of first-person testimonies from the rank and file, as well as frontline commanders leading them, which were submitted mainly in the Khruschev era. Many of these have an openness and frankness from the writer which offers the historian a different insight into the battle and the actions of their units. It did give me a new and enhanced overview, so in this instance the victors certainly have more of a say in the story I was telling.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
I was inspired by historians such as Richard Holmes in terms of his passion for telling the stories of the ordinary soldier in major conflicts. Equally Anthony Beevor really was the historian who opened up a new era of research into the Great Patriotic War and how one should go to Russia to access their archives if possible. The American academic William Taubman is an exceptional historian and interviewer of some of the great men of history in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Finally, I loved Stephen E. Ambrose’s approach to narrative storytelling of the Second World War and as a publisher I have been privilege to produce several of his books for the UK market, including Band of Brothers.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
Hands down, Joseph Stalin. Arguably the previous century’s most influential figure across his own country, Europe and the rest of the world. How did a one-time bank robbing revolutionary from Georgia become the undisputed Tsar of Russia. How did he survive inept leadership in the first years of the Second World War that almost destroyed his armed forces, but still managed to oversee ultimate victory, whilst still maintaining an edge over his erstwhile allies in the west. He was the true winner of the spoils by war’s end.
Saying that, I would have wanted to be in his office when he finally realised that Hitler had broken the pact and was indeed launching the greatest military offensive in history against him. Just to see the look on his face as he self-belief crumbled and he feared a fate he himself had already bestowed on millions of his own countrymen during the Great Purge.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
Probably go into more detail about the building of the Welfare State after the Second World War. Not trying to be party political at all, but today’s generation need to be aware of how spectacular a creation it was.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Be more confident in your opinions and don’t be afraid to put them forward in a group, seminar or to your degree tutor!
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
My latest book has only been out since the end of July. The Lighthouse of Stalingrad looks at history’s greatest battle and the turning point of the Second World War in Europe from the perspective of those fighting on the frontline. All told through new research and interviews in Germany and in Russia. The irony of the Ukraine conflict beginning two months after I delivered the final draft of the manuscript is not lost on me either!
Iain MacGregor is the author of The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle