In December 1944, the Nazis looked like a spent force: The U.S. and its allies had pushed Hitler's armies across France in the fight to liberate Europe from German occupation.
The Allies were so confident that the Forest of Ardennes, near the front lines in Belgium, became a rest and recreation area, complete with regular USO performances.
"There would be entertainers coming through, including Marlene Dietrich, who was frequently at the front lines," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Rick Atkinson. "It was very cold in mid-December and she had wool underwear with drop drawers behind them, which was very racy for the soldiers."
Atkinson's latest book describes what happened next: To the surprise of the Allied forces, the Germans counterattacked in what is now known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Guns at Last Light is the final volume of Atkinson's trilogy about World War II and covers the events between D-Day and the final Allied victory. He joins NPR's Steve Inskeep to discuss the German attack, its influence on a literary figure and how World War II still shapes us today.
On how the Allies were caught off guard at Ardennes
"There was no real consideration that the Germans were going to do what they did. There was a belief that the Germans were badly beaten, and no one believed that the Germans could pull together the kind of attack that they mounted in the Ardennes. ...
"It was horrible. It was ferocious. Very heavy firing of all sorts, from machine guns to heavy artillery to tank fire. They blew through the front lines rather quickly. There were units that were overrun and massacred, essentially. There were other units that managed to fight a pretty good rear guard action, and it very quickly disrupted the German timetable, both in Belgium and farther south in Luxembourg, and I'd say within 72 hours the senior German commanders, other than Hitler, believed that it was going to be impossible."
On the famous writer who was there for the Battle of the Bulge
"One of the young soldiers in the 106th Infantry Division was a fellow from Indiana named Kurt Vonnegut — Kurt Vonnegut Jr. He was captured, along with most of his division, actually, and he ends up in Dresden, of all places, and he's in Dresden two months later when the terrible firebombing occurs. ...
"The description that he has [in Slaughterhouse-Five] of that horrific scene in Dresden, with the firestorm that destroys this fabulous baroque city and kills thousands and thousands of Germans, is because he was there."
On what inspired Atkinson to write about World War II
"I stumbled into it a bit. I was a foreign correspondent in Berlin in the mid-'90s. I was born in Munich; my father was an army officer. So I always had an interest in both the war and in European politics and European warfare. I found that it got into my imagination in a way. The characters are fantastic. The stresses of war reveal character: You can see what they're made of. You can test their mettle because their mettle's being tested under the most adverse stresses of combat."
On whether he was intimidated by the number of World War II books already out there
"Of course it's daunting. I think Amazon.com lists 60,000 hardcovers on World War II. So that is a daunting thing. On the other hand, I think the greatest events in human history are really bottomless. So for World War II, the archive is stupendous. The U.S. Army records alone for World War II weigh 17,000 tons, and even the best historians have not done more than just scratch the surface. The story is such that 500 years from now people will be writing and reading about it."
On how World War II is still a part of our culture today
"It's 70 years later, but it so imprints us. Almost everything about American society is affected by World War II: our feelings about race; our feelings about gender and the empowerment of women, moving women into the workplace; our feelings about our role in the world. All of that comes in a very direct way out of World War II."
On how his coverage of recent wars has influenced his historical writing
"I went to Iraq in 2003 with then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division, and I think spending a couple of months at his elbow watching him grapple with all of the stresses of command. ... Now, it's not World War II. He's not fighting the Battle of the Bulge, as he would readily acknowledge. But things like sleep discipline, light discipline. ... Sleep discipline is if you're so tired you're making poor decisions, it means that you've not been disciplined about your sleep — making sure there aren't lights burning so that the enemy can't see you. These are as old as Thucydides, and watching them play out on a contemporary battlefield, I think, really gives me, personally, a clearer understanding of exactly how it works. And when I write about it historically, I have a better, I think, intuitive and visceral understanding of the relationship between commander and commanded and all of these critical things that help put together warfare."
On how Americans' relationship with the military has changed since World War II
"The soldiers are farther apart from the rest of us: 313 million people in America today; you've got about 2 million in uniform. Compare that to a country of 130 million in 1944 with 16 million in uniform. Everyone had skin in the game then. Almost none of us have skin in the game now."
On how Americans look back wistfully on World War II
"It set in right away, that kind of dreadful nostalgia, and I think that that residually is still with us in some ways. For the military, the lines were clean then — you knew who the enemy was. It's a much different kind of warfare that we're involved in in the 21st century. It's much murkier; it's more difficult.
"And I think it's more difficult also if you have a feeling that you are somewhat distanced from the rest of the country. You're the one who's fighting in a remote part of Afghanistan; it's not the country. Whereas if you [were] in the Battle of the Bulge, I think you really had a sense that you had the entire nation with you. I think today if you're a soldier, yes, you are respected, yes, people applaud you at baseball and football games, but what does that really mean if you're a soldier in Afghanistan? And I think that's an issue that the country has not really come to grips with."