Review: The Second World War

The Second World War
The Second World War by Antony Beevor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At the excellent talk given by Anthony Beevor I was lucky enough to attend this last summer here in Aarhus (Denmark) (just before the release of ‘The Second World War’, or ‘Anden Verdens Krig’, if you’re Danish), one of the – extraordinarily perceptive, considering English is not their first language – questions asked by the Danish audience went along the lines of: “Given the profusion of World War II books in general and histories in particular, what will make yours’ different?”

I won’t go into Anthony’s reply (look, I met him, chatted with him and liked him a lot, so it’s ‘Anthony’ from now on, ok?), but it is a question that I’ve been thinking about the answer to, while reading this truly extraordinary book.

But it’s immediately obvious.

Histories of – for instance – the Second World War are written mostly from the point of trying to make sense of something that the more historians write about, the less sense it actually makes. Anthony Beevor makes absolute sense of it all, by showing how little sense it all made. At the time and today. I don’t think it’s a case of not being able to appreciate the thought processes of societies at 80 years distance. It made no sense to the ordinary people at the time. It makes no sense now.

With ‘The Second World War’, Antony Beevor is at the top of his game. He writes with a sureness and clarity of style, a deftness of touch, that not just for covers the grand scale of a conflict that stretched across continents, but also has a sharp eye for the the telling detail, the splash of colour that adds nuance to the stark facts and innumerable shockingly senseless figures. And to reveal the ordinary human despair of people adrift at the bottom of a world totally out of control.

So, I’ll now bore you with how I read the situation after reading ‘The Second World War’ (and these opinions are my own, and possibly not those of Antony Beevor, or those he intended his reader to form after reading the book). How do I see the Second World War?

There are shocking tales of blunders, mistakes, ignorance, arrogance and total failure to take or give the right orders. Failure to understand the significance of events or moods among the Generals and politicians, that will have you wondering how anyone won this war, let alone the ‘good guys’. But by the end, I think most people will draw the conclusion that the real ‘winners’ were Stalin and his…well, maybe just Stalin then.

In my estimation, German planning and execution of their plans seems to have been better than the Allies’ for the most part. But they were eventually overwhelmed by superior, mostly Soviet, numbers and by Hitler’s insistence on incompetant interfering where he should have left it to people who knew what they were doing.

I don’t really have a frame of reference for the conflict with Japan and in and around the Pacific. I am naturally, because I’m European, more fascinated by the war in Europe. However, one fact and opinion that struck me in Beevor’s description of the conflict that shows that even on a different continent, there was no difference:

“It has been estimated that six in every ten of the 1.74 million Japanese soldiers who died in the war succumbed to disease and starvation. Whatever the scale of their war crimes against foreign nationals, the Japanese chiefs of staff should have been condemned by their own people for crimes against their own soldiers, but this was unthinkable in such a conformist society.”

So, far from understanding why we won, after reading this and also Max Hastings‘All Hell Let Loose’, it is in my opinion, possibly more accurate to say; how on earth did we win? Well, it’s always going to sound glib trying to sum up the unsummable in a sentence. But let’s have a go anyway. I have of course never previously questioned, or even thought to question, that we won World War II, because we were right and we better than them. However, one of the things that has impressed me after reading ‘The Second World War’ and ‘All Hell Let Loose’, is this: We won, or rather we didn’t lose, because our leaders were slightly less incompetent than theirs’.

Even though i know a lot about the Second World War, as my generation must, and have read many other books about the conflict, the enormity of the events brilliantly presented by Antony Beevor here are almost too much. The facts and figures are so large, so brutal, so numbingly shocking, that it’s almost too much to comprehend and absorb. Even though he is obviously describing true events, it’s almost too much to believe that it actually did happen. The book contains the kinds of examples of deliberate death and destruction that if the author said he was writing about the Middle Ages, you’d believe him. That it happened within the lifetimes of millions of people still alive and around us today, is hard to square. It’s like we’re reading about another time and place, yet it was Europe, where I live, within my parents’s lifetime. For me, that makes it even more shocking.

I did feel almost literally stunned when i finished the book. I had to take some time to let it all sink in and get my views of it put to rest. Yes, it’s an exhaustive and exhausting experience, but it’s also a richly rewarding one. As I said above, while the book discusses and analyses the broad strategy sweeps of course, but it also makes us think about and remember those individuals less fortunate than us, who were caught at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and were the ones who paid for others’ stupidity, incompetence, megalomania, arrogance, intransigence, ambition and more, through no fault of their own, with their lives. Sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s ambition. Maybe we will be in danger of learning and even improving, by reading books like this.

If you’re only going to buy one book on the Second World War, make it this one.

And Max Hastings’ ‘All Hell Let Loose’.

Buy ‘The Second World War’ at Amazon.co.uk

Buy ‘All Hell Let Loose’ at Amazon.co.uk

View all my reviews

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