Book Review: World War Two
by Norman Stone
Basic Books, 2013
Over 70 million dead, countries vanished, whole continents laid waste – it almost seems like an affront somehow, that anybody would write a 200-page history of World War II. Certainly readers are accustomed to great whomping tomes on the subject (this one, for instance, and this one, and this one) – books in which 200 pages would scarcely be enough room for the end-notes and bibliography.
Nevertheless, voluble and enormously entertaining historian Norman Stone has done just that: he’s written a 200-page history of WWII (his own end-notes and bibliography are combined into one segment at the back of the book called “Some Sources” – it’s six pages long), a kind of companion volume to the commercially successful 200-page history of the First World War he did in 2007. The Second World War‘s got a 27-page index, nine black-and-white photos, and three maps.
All of which raises two immediate and interconnected questions: First: is it possible to do justice to the subject of World War Two in 200 pages of basically undocumented prose? And second: if so, does this book do it?
The answer to the first question is almost certainly ‘no’ unless we stretch beyond recognition the concept of ‘doing justice’ to something. D-Day has a one-page appearance in that index; Hiroshima has two; Kursk has none. So the answer to the second question has to be ‘no’ as well, which raises a third question: what exactly is this book?
Tempting – salvaging – to say it’s less an actual history and more a series of ruminations on the war by a masterful and always interesting historian. A series of evening lectures, say, delivered in that author’s signature soft Scottish burr. Readers not incensed by the troublemaking subtitle “A Short Hisotry” are encouraged to think of the book this way, and to mentally supply the alternate subtitle “One Man’s Impressions.” This would go a ways toward exonerating the book’s many subjective flourishes (for instance, “Churchill was reactionary, and true reactionaries detested Adolf Hitler, the most revolutionary figure in German history”), and it would relieve the book of responsibility “A Short History” has to function as, well, history. The main business of history is context, and context is almost entirely missing from this book. Lacking that context, what WWII novice would find this helpful:
The strategic planning of Barbarossa was slapdash, and almost no one objected. Hitler was a provincial figure, and had shot far beyond his natural level; success like this turned his head. A Bismarck or a Churchill could control success of this order, a Hitler could not.
And possessing that context, what WWII expert would find it sound? And if not a quick, provocative aside like that, how much less a longer and far more seriously flawed pronouncement like this, on the British guarantee of aid to Poland in the event of a Nazi attack:
It was of course an ill-advised thing to have done and when they realized what they had done, the British themselves tried to escape. They gave the Poles almost nothing in the way of financial help, and then they wandered round cheapening the guarantee currency by guaranteeing anybody and everybody, including Greece, Turkey, and Rumania, the foreign minister of which raised an alarm. All of this in retrospect looks mad. But Hitler had driven the world insane.
Nobody who’s read any of the handful of works cited in that “Some Sources” section (most definitely including the work Stone himself singles out, the late John Keegan’s 1990 book The Second World War) will know what to make of such a passage. That every line of it is basically, factually wrong is only the most obvious objection; that a historian of Stone’s calibre could commit something like “Hitler had driven the world insane” to paper is a cringe-inducing, but beyond that, we’re driven again to the question of how to categorize any of this. Stone’s narrative verve never leaves him, and he’s never anything less than a lively host:
Roosevelt and almost all Americans did not approve of empires, and would certainly not pay to sustain them: there was endless haggling over the terms of Lend-Lease so as to stop the British from using the help to promote their own exports (Churchill protested: Empires don’t haggle; his opposite number said: Republics do).
But there’s a good reason why so many single-volume histories of the Second World War are as long as they are; we’ve already touched on it – context. Almost all of Stone’s little book is written under the assumption that the reader already knows everything he’s being told. That assumption allows Stone to launch himself on almost stream-of-consciousness tangents that are undeniably entertaining, as this surrealistic quick glimpse of Hitler’s last day:
Hitler staged his final scene: the wedding in the early hours of 30 April, complete with white-uniformed servants handing out open-faced sandwiches with Sekt, sparkling wine; the bystander hauled in from outside, who was able to perform the wedding ceremony because he was a civil servant, in his case deputy chief of rubbish collection for Pankow; his solemn question to the couple, ‘Are you of Aryan origin?’; the vegetarian wedding breakfast; the suicide; the clumsy disposal of the remains, which ended up in boxes with other bits of bunker corpses, including a dog and its puppies on which the suicide pills were tested because no one trusted the SS doctors to supply proper cyanide (the dogs’ trainer later went mad).
Readers aren’t being told any of this – the sandwiches, the ceremony, the vegetarian breakfast, the dead dogs – they’re not being told these things happened, they’re being reminded these things happened; like so much of the rest of this book, it’s all offered with a knowing wink and a little sneer, an insider’s slang that’s meant to entertain, not educate. The result can’t honestly be called a short ‘history’ of anything, so all this talk of Churchill and Hitler and Roosevelt becomes no more yielding but a dream, one very learned man’s series of off-the-cuff commentary on a big subject that should always be treated with more respect than it gets here.
An Evening with Norman Stone, then, and with any luck he’ll return to serious work next year.