Book Review: The Second World War
by Anthony Beevor
Little, Brown, 2012
The new century has seen a rash – one might almost say a bombardment – of big, comprehensive one-volume histories of World War II aimed at the general book-buying audience (conventional bookstore wisdom has it that customers almost always buy such books for other people – for ‘dad,’ in most cases – although surely some of those customers are buying for themselves). Some have been great, others have been very good, and occasionally one is, one way to put it, conceptually flawed. And it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they’re all serving more or less the same purpose (apart from gratifying their authors’ interests, that is), salving the qualms of Western readers extremely wearied of quagmire wars of indistinct morality.
Antony Beevor’s latest book (after a string of superb studies of individual campaigns and battles of the war) is yet another comprehensive one-volume history of World War II, and he’s as aware as anybody of the charges that could be levelled against him:
Some people complain that the Second World War still exerts a dominating influence nearly seven decades after its end, as the disproportionate number of books, films, and plays shows, while museums continue to spawn a remembrance industry. This phenomenon should hardly be surprising, if only because the nature of evil seems to provide an endless fascination. Moral choice is the fundamental element in human drama, because it lies at the very heart of humanity itself.
The freedom with which he uses terms like that ‘evil’ might be envied by any popular historian of later by-proxy brush-wars and sectarian police actions, but the ease of the word is misleading, especially if applied to this huge, powerful, furiously intelligent book. There’s a reason why the U.S. edition cover of Beevor’s book displays a tactical map of the war in which the east coast of the United States and all of Great Britain are minuscule specks compared to the looming bulk of eastern Europe (and the vastness of Russia and China beyond that): this is very much a grand-scale global account of the war, and its ethics are scaled to match. The boosterism of some recent accounts of the war is absent here, and emphasis is rightly placed on the truly titanic struggles that happened hundreds of miles to the east of beleaguered England and occupied France. The book’s strongest segments deal with the still less well-known battles (and disgraces) of the Soviet army. Although of course our author brings things into sharp good-v.s.-evil focus when his narrative warrants:
It was not long [during the invasion of Germany in 1945] before the full horrors of the Nazi regime became apparent. On 4 April American troops entered Ohrdruf concentration camp, part of Buchenwald, to find apathetic, skeletal figures surrounded by unburied corpses. Eisenhower was so appalled that he ordered soldiers to visit the camp, and brought in war correspondents to witness the sight. Some of the guards had tried to disguise themselves, but when they were pointed out by prisoners Allied troops shot them on the spot.
Beevor has tirelessly researched his well-known subject, and as readers of all his previous books will know, he can be relied upon to find the memorable quips and side-stories. What’s very enjoyably enhanced in The Second World War is his strength at linking such side-stories to the main elements of the bigger picture he’s painting:
Major General James Doolittle’s bombers smashed the town of Battipaglia [in 1943] just behind the German lines so thoroughly that General Spaatz sent the message: “You’re slipping Jimmy. There’s one crabapple tree and one stable still standing.’ But a new bombing doctrine was being born, which the Americans called ‘Putting the city in the street’. This meant deliberately smashing a town to rubble so that enemy reinforcements and supplies could not get through. This would become a key tactic the following June in Normandy.
This is a hefty book (which will be a matter of indifference to any customers who simply download it, but Dad may be a holdout), alive with the insights and interpretations of a historian at the height of his powers. It comes to readers as the latest in a long line of similar histories, and it’s the best of them so far. It’s enthusiastically recommended, and not just for Dad.