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tv   Giles Milton Checkmate in Berlin  CSPAN  November 12, 2021 6:38pm-7:21pm EST

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any time. you're watching "american history tv." >> up next, the author of checkmate in berlin looks at post world war ii berlin and the conflicts that arose between the four allied countries and controlled sectors of the city. this is hosted by the tattered cover bookstore in denver. >> hi there, welcome to tattered covers virtual events series, my name is honor. hard to believe, but we have been open for 50 years this year. so we have some great authors to share some time with us. tonight we have giles milton, the international best-selling author. his most recent book is soldiers spy, how the allies won d-day, churchill's ministry of warfare,
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milton's work published in 25 languages. he is going to be in conversation tonight with caroline zancan, shes is author of local girl, and guiding her own writers through the wild ride of publication. acquisitions for holt include a reese witherspoon book club pick, the parking lot attendance, which was a "new york times" notable book, and short-listed for the center of fiction's first novel prize, and victoria, welcome, giles, welcome caroline, good to see you tonight. >> thank you so much, anna. so nice to be here. and hello, giles. >> hello. hello to both of you. hello to everyone. great to be here.
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>> i'll let you get on to what is best. >> i think giles and i are going to dive right into our conversation and our questions, rather than reading something. we have so much to talk about, i think we want to go right there if that's okay with you, giles. >> that works for me. >> all right. wonderful. you know, so i worked with giles on this manuscript, so it's my great pleasure to read it a handful of times, and it was fascinating every time. it really does read as a thriller, as a page turner as much as it does a work of history. it's really a wonderful book in that way, and the book is set in berlin right after world war ii as the war was ending, and just after. and it is, you know, during the time berlin was divided into four sectors, of course, and the book follows the leaders of those four sectors, and the four sectors, that germany was divided into, and it was just so entertaining and shocking how
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many big characters there were kind of ruling this place during this time. they really are larger than life. it almost felt like i was in a quintin tarantino movie, and you capture them in wonderful minute detail. i'm curious if you knew that the time and place was famous for having these big characters and that's what drew you to the subject matter or you kind of discovered it as you were doing the research and just ran with it? >> so many books are published each year about the second world war, you know, hundreds and hundreds, and yet almost nothing is written about the immediate post war period. for me it's such a fascinating period, basically the whole world is up for grabs. the war has been won by the allies, who's going to win the peace, and stalin has almost got what he wants. he's got the whole of eastern europe and much of central europe as well. and everything is going to focus on the city of berlin because
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starling is controlling east germany, it's been agreed that the victorious allies, the americans, brits and russians are going to share control of berlin, but berlin sits squarely inside the soviet controlled area of occupied germany. so the tensions and the potential disasters and fallouts that can happen are really set by the geographical position of berlin. you have the western allies coming into the city. they are entirely surrounded by a territory controlled by starlin's red army. that's the sort of setting for everything that's going to happen and it's a fabulously dramatic story that's going to unfold. >> and it really is just a fascinating situation. and we get, i think, one of the great things about the book is that giles makes it clear what the stakes are right away. we know how important all the
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showdowns are. we understand on a human level, you know, the interpersonal conflicts but also the larger things that are at stake, and i'm curious, you mentioned stalin, definitely a character here in the book. there are a lot of other villainsous characters that have less household name recognition. people that are fun to cheer for, names that i hadn't heard before but that i really came to love by the end, and i'm curious if you had a favorite person, even if it was one of the bad guys. some of them are so colorful and interest, it was fun to share their company for a while on the page even if they were doing bad, and in the world and history. if you had a favorite, if there were a person you were drawn to, if there was a person who really captured your attention and you would want to meet him? >> the main character in the book who's also an all american hero who's completely been air brushed from history is of course colonel frank "howling mad" howley.
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he's dropped into berlin at the end of the year, and he's going to end up as commandant of the american sector. he's a fascinating character. he's just full of energy. he's dynamic. he's driven, and he's determined to get his way in berlin. he finds himself head to head in a clash with his soviet opposite number who is to be general alexander, these two men will never see eye to eye. what's really interesting about colonel howley and underpins the book is that the americans and the brits went into berlin with instructions from their government to get on with their soviet wartime partner. this partnership that's helped win the war is the government in washington and in london, are determined to keep this going. but colonel howley realizes almost immediately when he arrived in berlin, hold on a minute, these guys are not allies, the so called soviet allies are no longer allies, and
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he actually writes in his diary and memoire, i came to berlin thinking that the germans were the enemy. and he said, i realized straight away that it's the soviet that are now the enemy. and he's right because the soviet general, his opposite number, the soviet commandant is there under instructions from stalin to kick the americans and british out of berlin. the russians don't want them there. they want to take over the whole of berlin as a prelude to making over the whole of germany. you begin to see the stakes are massive. the whole of europe is up for grabs, basically, and colonel howley is determined to prevent the soviet from taking control of berlin. so you have this almighty clash. what i love about the story, and i suppose what drew me to it, you have the wider, geopolitical battle taking place between, you
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know, you've got stalin, roosevelt and truman, and churchill in london. that's the big picture, and you have the picture on the ground, the microcosm, where the battle is being fought between these commanders who are at each other's throats, so you have a fantastic and very personal way of telling a big geopolitical story. >> it does feel very personal, and i felt like i knew these men so well as men, not just characters from the larger saga in a way that was so well done, and you're right, it seems like howley had kind of a heads up on everybody else in realizing that these men were not going to be his allies. he knew right away there's a conflict in his own country and his own allies because they want to work with the soviets. he realizes that is not possible. what would you say is the big turning point when everybody realizes, you're right, we're not going to come to an an agreement here? what would you say is the big turning point in the book and the story? >> so howley has been telling
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washington, we've got to change policy, but it doesn't happen. some big things happen in the spring of 1946. winston churchill comes to america, truman invites him to make his famous speech in fulton, missouri. this is sort of a wake-up call to the world. churchill says stalin can no longer be trusted. these are no longer allies. we have to change the foreign policy. his speech caused total scandal in america. the idea was to keep working with stalin. churchill puts it very, very firmly, he can't be trusted. there's a second thing that happens. one of the soviet clerks working in the soviet embassy in canada, defects to the west, and he defects with a huge bundle of highly explosive documents that reveal that the soviets had been spying on the american nuclear program, and stalin knows everything about what's been taking place with the americans with the developing a nuclear
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warhead. so these two events are really important. and the third thing, i don't know how well it's known in america, it's certainly not known in my country, in england, and george kennen, writes his famous long telegram, in a similar sort of tone to churchill, sets out the fact that the soviet cannot be trusted. so in 1946, these three things happen in the spring of 1946 with howley continually banging on the drum saying we've got to change policy, and this is when, you know, truman begins to change his foreign policy completely, and you're going to end up with the truman doctrine, which is to protect interests threatened by the soviet union, and then followed on by the marshall plan, which is a dramatic turnaround in policy, which the idea is suddenly to rebuild germany and rebuild germany in a democratic western
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form, basically. so everything begins to change, and howley is to play a massive role in this. because he's in berlin. he's seeing things, you know, firsthand, and he can really crank up this new policy and get policy changed in washington. >> howley is such a huge character. he is, as you say, kind of the main guy here, and i was surprised as someone who is a student of american history, my whole school career had never heard of him. i'm kind of wondering -- i love that you gave him such attention and brought him to life. i'm curious why you think his legacy is what it is, and. >> yeah, i think the show has somewhat been stolen by general lucious clay. he was, of course, in charge of the whole of germany. and everything that's written has tended to be written about him. if you go to berlin today, there are streets named after clay, he's mentioned all over the
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place, whereas howley, i feel, has been written out of the history books. during the course of the book, i have been in touch with one of his sons in california, who has felt aggrieved over the years. his father has never got the credit that he's due, and he was delighted of course when i went to the archives, and it should be said that of course he published a memoir about his time in berlin but kept a very detailed daily diary of everything that happened. and i imagine he writes as he speaks. no holds barred. wonderful to read, and i discovered this in the army college archive in pennsylvania. i traveled there. i just photographed this massive diary, which is wonderful. setting out his singlehanded
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warfare, really, again his soviet opposite. so yeah, some people do get written out of history and it takes something to, you know, bring them back into life again, really. >> yeah, absolutely. and you definitely mentioned this archive, and i know there are some, you access a lot of materials here, and some of them are new, right, and some are using new materials here. documents that aren't cited very often, and i'm curious if you could tell us a little bit about your relationship with those documents, what of them are new, what you learned from them, and kind of how you found them, and how long you worked with them, and the research process, a little insight into that. >> i'm a bit nerdy. i spent a lot of my life in the archives. of course, both in london and in dc. i was at the national archives there. and it's quite interesting for those who don't go into archives every day, what happens, you often order up a box file, and you have very little idea what's going to be inside it because the catalog records for these things are not great, so you know, you can order up book
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after book, and there's nothing of any interest, and you open one, and it's gold dust and it's just fantastic, you know. one of the things i discovered was crime was ripe in berlin. it was a gangster's paradise, and one day i turned up this box file, and it was just marked operation sparkler, and this was the story of a detective from london, from scotland yard in london, who was sent to berlin with a team of people to try and crack the crime ring. and detective inspector, tom hayward, he arrives in berlin. basically finds himself investigating the biggest crime ring in the history of crime. it's absolutely fantastic because this city is full of gangsters, pimps, you name it. they're all there. they raided everything.
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they carted off rare metals, works of art, priceless things. and so tom heyward is sent in there and works with the americans to try and bust this crime ring. and that was all in this file, and in fact then when i came to washington, there was another file on operations sparkler in the national archives as well in washington, so i was able to build the whole chapter of the book, this story of busting this crime ring. just things like that. just fantastic. never written about before. completely unknown territory, and that's one of the joys of working in the archives. >> and you do all of your research first before you set pen to paper, do you make sure you have all of the information and citations and know exactly what shape the story is going to take, or do you kind of write as you go? what's your process? >> i do the overall research, so i know the structure of the book. i find that i'm doing so much research, if you turn your head, it's a mashed potato.
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i have the overall research done, and then i'll research a part of a book at a time, and then write it because otherwise it's just impossible. you cannot retain that much information. another thing i love doing is meeting the defendants of these people. the british commandant, called brigadier robert "looney" heinz, i chased down his elderly daughter that's in scotland, oh, i've got his archives in a suitcase, in a spare bedroom. that was an adventure. she was countess corridor was her name. she's a descendant of the macbeth family. she spilled out all of these archives, and wonderful stuff and of course she had traveled to berlin age 16 to go and visit her father and had her own memories of going into this city of complete ruins.
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still dead bodies lying in the ruins. horrific stories. but very, very powerful stories of what berlin was like in 1946, 1947 when she went there. >> and how far were you into the process of researching and writing the books, i imagine that's a major find finding this person who will kind of talk with you and give you this firsthand material, and just, you know, firsthand stuff? how far were you in the process when you met her and discovered that she was around? >> that was quite early on in the book, and it was an important discovery. i did not want this book to be about men. because of the time period, it's obviously men dominated because the lead players tend to be male, but there is a story of the women of berlin. now, berlin, in 1945 when the red army arrives in berlin, berlin is a city of women and children because the men are either dead or they're prisoners. there are very, very few minute
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in the city. and i uncovered a lot of harrowing memoirs, diaries of the women in berlin who suffered enormously when the red army came into berlin, literally drunk on victory. they were drunk and they came through and they raped and they abused many of the women in berlin. it was very important, although it's a difficult story to tell, and it's a difficult story to read, it was very important to tell that because this is part of the story and the trauma that women of berlin would live with for decades afterwards, and it also explains partly why the women of berlin were so desperate for the americans and british, and later the french as well that came in, they were so desperate for them to arrive to bring a sense of order to the city. because this is not only a city
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in ruins, it's a city without any government at all. without electricity, without gas, without water, without anything, no law and order, you know, so the americans, when colonel howley, and brigadier arrived in the city bringing in some 25,000 troops each, they're coming into a place of absolute total anarchy, and it's important for people to realize just how trashed the city was at the end of the second world war. the whole of europe was trashed, but the soldiers had never seen anything like berlin. nothing left standing in the city. >> and there's such a fascinating contrast in the book, between the complete ruins, you do a gorgeous job of laying out in intricate detail, and i had a picture of what that that was like, and some of the houses that the people took over. the leaders of the army set themselves up in some nice headquarters and of course, you
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know, stalin set up in very posh settings, and i'm hoping that you can talk a little bit about that opulence that the soviet kind of took for themselves. >> the soviets and the british and americans as well. this is really a tale of two cities because you have on the one hand, you have the berliners who are starving. they're on minimal rations and they were in a bad way, the western allies move in, and the soviets move in, and they are records. they have access to endless cigarettes. cigarettes become the currency on the black market and they have access to endless cigarettes, to alcohol, to endless sources of finance as well. so they can buy absolutely anything they want from sex, which is certainly one thing that the soldiers felt they deserved after fighting their way through to berlin, that they can also buy any sort of food, any sort of alcohol. night clubs spring up almost immediately when the allies move
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into this city, and you're right, they can also requisition any property they want. and in the west of the city where the americans and british are, this is where all of the great villas of the industrialists of berlin used to live. the americans and brits alive with their requisitioning forms. they take over these houses, and the story, it's absolutely fascinating, the story of the high life lived by both the western allies but also the soviets, of course, and that's contrasted -- the banquets, the stories, the champagne, the caviar. >> almost parties sometimes, right? >> it's party time, you know, and the stories of that contrasting with berliners on minimum rations. a lot of people would say, the germans deserve it. they lost the war. they treated their conquered territories appallingly and a
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lot of the americans, british and soviet felt like that. but when you read some of the accounts of these women and children who had not had any part in fact war, some of them had even been working for the resistance, wow, it's a difficult story to read. >> and would you say the british commandant bringing his daughter over, was that an outlier, or how much would you say there was family life going on for the generals and leaders, did that happen a lot or can you speak about that, how they brought their whole life to berlin. cou speak a little bit about that? >> yes, by'46 or'47, the americans brits and french were all bringing their wives, partly to cut down on sleeping with the local berlin women, as i said. they brought their wives, their children over. they set up schools. schools precisely for the children. so people like frank howley, he went to school in berlin. there was a huge influx, but
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there was a huge tension. i don't know how much time we've got to talk about the blockade, but things reached a crisis point and the americans and british allies and say, hold on, we are in a dangerous situation. we've got lots of women and children, potentially stuck in the city under siege conditions. some of them left at that point as stalin declared the berlin blockade. >> that's fascinating. again, all of this is drawn into beautiful detail in the book, and intention and contrast. and so it sounds like you've met at least two defendants of the book. or is there anyone you met who is less excited to tell those stories? i'm curious about what happened. >> one is really worth speaking about. it's a bit like howley, he's been slightly ripped out of the
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story. the americans have often taken complete credit for the airlift, and justifiably, because without american man power and planes, they are list could never have happened. but was it possible to feed a city of 2.5 million people by air? it had never been done before in history. you've got to remember that stalin and the soviets have declared a blockade of the western sector of berlin, it's been completely isolated. it's a bit like a medieval castle, with the drawbridge. the american and british and french are stuck inside the city and they have no access to the city because the road and rail links across occupied germany have been cut. so the only possible way of keeping the city alive, and it's 2.5 million inhabitants, is by air. can this be done? almost everyone said it's impossible. but, you know, i like to think in times of crisis, it's always good to call a true --
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they have this chap called reginald wait, a brilliant mathematician. he never leaves his slide role. he sits down and works out what is actually feasible, and whether it is feasible, possible, to feed them by air. he goes to the military official howley, and says, this is going to involve using six airfields in western germany, occupied by the americans and brits. and to air fields in the west sector of germany, and this will be the most extraordinary event in the history of aviation. this will require planes landing, flying in at five levels, into the city, planes landing at every part of the two air fields in the western sector of berlin, to keep the city alive. and he has been -- reginald wait has been totally
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written out of the story, particularly an american counts, he doesn't get a mention. and i have quite long chats with his granddaughter. she had quite a lot of documentation. >> but the americans, without a doubt, played the major role. but i like to think that had watts been rehabilitated, who had said that it is possible to do this -- >> i would think it's hard and almost impossible to do by air. this is one of my favorite parts. because you do a good job of painting how difficult it would be to pull this off in one space. but even though it is possible, it's a big plan, and everything needs to go right at all times. >> one statistic really tells the whole story.
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the absolute minimum subsistence level for berliners, for that they needed to fly in 4500 tons of food every single day. every plane could carry 2.5 tons. so you had planes flying in around the clock. once they greenlight the airlift, basically, it's really exciting -- from honolulu to alaska to hawaii, everywhere, across america, planes are brought in -- >> oh! >> likewise, from across the british empire, from india, from the pacific, the brits bring in airplanes as well and it's this mass convergence of planes. and they are going to keep the city alive. it's a really heart rending story. >> it's a beautiful uplifting story. and what they do and how they work together.
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it's beautiful and uplifting. and that they were able to pull it off, it's wonderful at the same time. a great impression. that's great. >> so another question i had, you are surprised then, you learn so much. you've written a couple of books about it. this is your area, your era, and i'm curious that as you were doing your research, he thought, okay, this is the right time to do this story. when were you surprised, when you started putting all this down? >> well what surprised me, i learned a lot about the big conferences, the big three, the yalta conference, when churchill and roosevelt and stalin met in yalta in crimea. and --
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what surprised me is the extent to which roosevelt and then churchill and then truman and churchill, they really believe that stalin was a man of his word. but he had no intention whatsoever of living up to all the promises he made. particularly including the promises he made that yalta. and then the war comes to an end, and the red army's swept into eastern europe, and stalin has basically got everything he wants. so truman and churchill, they are really in a back foot there. because stalin has everything he wants. and they are still wanting to work with him. and that's where the real tension comes in, with colonel howley on the ground, saying, hold on a minute, this is ridiculous. this guy cannot be trusted. and it's his persistence, really, that starts to change
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policy. and it's all happening on a very subtle level, you know? >> -- ready to be firm right away? do you think that other peoples resistance to stalin -- or how eager everyone was, to end the turmoil and fighting? >> well, stalin was an absolutely brilliant -- well, i say, he was a very evil individual. but he was brilliant at getting what he wanted. and you've got to remember that yalta, he was a couple of months away from dying. there are meetings with him in his bedroom with him in bed. maybe he was not in his best form. and with churchill, likewise, i don't think he was in his best form. he was drinking unbelievably heavily at the yalta conference. one of his aides described him
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as drinking bucket falls of champagne. but he says, i like that man, i like that, mine i can work with him. and i think stalin use that to his advantage. i read also after the potsdam conference. and the soviet account of potsdam -- they say, we really got everything we wanted. so i'm just fascinated by stalin. because he was so evil and yet he was so charming and he's to do so many people, and i think he seduced churchill and truman. >> fascinating. i'm curious, we are almost out of time, so we will move to some audience questions. and i think we have time for one more. this is history that took place of long time ago but one fascinating thing about this book is that it shows how we got to hear.
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kind of the legacy of this time, how it led indirectly and seemingly directly to the way we live now. i'm curious what you think the most lasting legacy is that you cover in the book. >> well, today, our relations with russia are almost a new cold war, period. the russian ambassador at the uk describe them as close to frozen the other day. so i don't think the story has gone away at all. it is ever-present. how do we deal with his country, particularly now with putin in charge? completely lawless gangsters running the place. i think it's a very relevant story. what do you do? what came out of the event in my book was nato, you know? which was the guarantee of the safety of the west, for the entire cold war period. and i think it's interesting to
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look at how our relations with russia are going to evolve over the next few years. and how we as the west work together to contain this very volatile situation inside russia. >> to do again when we did. >> right. and you realize, how each character accounts in these historical episodes, i think. character plays a major role in these big, dramatic events in history. >> absolutely, and that's one of the best, best things i love the most about the book, is that it comes through, the individual shapes kind of, they come through the history. even just their habits. i will turn it over to questions, that we have first, from our audience. the first one is from carl, and he says, are there any more minor characters you wish you could have spent more time on? >> any minor characters? you come across so many in the
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course of your research, it's very difficult to know which ones to focus on. some of the soviet ones that i might have -- it might be nice to google more information, it's extremely difficult to get access to the russian archives these days. but, i mean, one story i was quite pleased with in the book, and which i managed to get from the russian archives, because i have a very good friend whose russian, and he did some of the research for me -- it was a story of a small platoon of soviet soldiers who captured the reischsdag and hung out the soviet flag on the roof of the reichstag. -- the ones that had captured the building, they had these awards
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and everything, but -- and -- are one of the main characters. but they never got the recognition. so it's stories like that which -- i don't know, i feel like giving them very belated and often posthumous credit. and they felt bitter that they never got the credit in their lifetime. so that's one of the stories. >> i'd like to know how did the pandemic affect your writing system. did it make it more difficult? >> i was extremely fortunate. and i know many writers that had a real problem during the pandemic, because obviously all the libraries were closed. but as we said earlier, i sort of do my research -- i mean, i write the book. but it's a year of research and regular writing, sometimes. and what i do when i go to the archives these days, is i drop everything of interest. i loaded onto my mac.
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so i have absolutely everything i need. so i have thousands of documents on my mask. but i was very fortunate and for me the consignment was that i could bury my head, up to my eyelids, really. so i know so many riders who basically missed a year of the writing lives. during that period. so i was very fortunate. >> i remember you are right on time, with the book, the day, even though the pandemic was happening. so many authors were behind and you are right on time. i remember reading the first half of your book on the 4th of july. and it was like the whole country was kind of closed in a way. that had never happened on the 4th of july in my lifetime. for gatherings, so it was nice to be celebrating the 4th of july, when a lot of things were
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sort of moved. >> do you have a favorite archive? >> which is my favorite archives? that's a very tricky one. i like, in london, where we have a great museum of warfare. all the many wars that we've fought over the centuries. their archives are particularly good. because it's largely diaries, letters and memoirs. it's stories of individuals. and for me, these individuals, these stories of men and women who often are not very well-known, they achieve remarkable things in their own lifetime, these are the stories that interest me more than a collection of all the documents of state, which of course are important and interesting for the framework of the book. but what's really gives the me, i suppose, of the book is a story of an account, the people
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who are in berlin in july when the americans and the british arrived. and remember, they describe all the details of, it what the weather was like, with a for lunch that day. those little physical details that enable you to just bring life to the story. so the imperial war museum our causes one like that. and it's the army archives in pennsylvania, it's another one like that. because unlike the national archives in d.c., the nara, they've gone out of their way to collect memoirs, and that's where i found howley's memoirs. and it's not just the politics of the time. it's what he's wearing, with the atmosphere on the meeting was like. so learning all about that is absolutely wonderful. it should be said, there are these four men, they met every week, in the building called
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the -- for the four sectors of the government in berlin. and the great thing about this building, is that every single word spoken about it was recorded. because secretary, stenographer, 's they are writing down everything. and so it's everything from the cordial politeness into absolutely outrageous arguments. between how lee and -- and they were all recorded, and it's a wonderful resource. we really sort of gripping. you feel that you are in the room at the time. the explosive row that is taking place. it's a miracle, perhaps, they didn't start punching each other actually. because by 1948 they were -- >> that's very cool. did the book affect your view on world war ii? >> well, it certainly sheds a
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very different light on the sort of wartime alliance, a story that absolutely fascinates me. delights me. when america and britain went into alliance with the soviet union, this was the most unlikely alliance in history. i mean, america and britain, just a few decades earlier, they had their own troops on russian soil, fighting against the very people now in power. and now they found themselves in the wartime alliance. that's absolutely fascinating. of course, it ends explosive laden that's really how the bookends as well, with a blockade. the airlift as well, when the wartime alliance falls apart in quite dramatic fashion. >> wonderful. well, thank you. i think that's all of our viewer questions, so i want to thank giles milton for joining us here at tattered cover --
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before you go, do you guys want to tell where we can find you online? >> yes, so my website is simple,, so it just my name. you can find me on twitter, gilesmilton1, and the book itself you can find it on twitter. bonds are noble, graded a penny bookstores, an amazon as well, they all have it available. so if you've enjoyed this top, i would love you to go out and buy it. and also, if you've enjoyed the book, please leave a review, wherever you normally leave your reviews. it's very important for me and of course others. a big very grateful if you did that. >> and anyone who reads in for a real treat, it's rich and fascinating stuff. >> well, thanks so much, anna, for having us on.
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it's been a real pleasure to be able to talk about this. >> thank you. >> all right. >> but by. historian winifred gallagher examines the role women played in america's western expansion, this was a virtual event hosted by smithsonian associates. >> let me tell you about our speaker tonight winifred gallagher's include, "how the post office created american", "just the way you are", a new york times notable book,


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