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Erudite, Scholarly and Analytic
on July 25, 2006
John Keegan's World War II is a superb one volume history of the military aspects of World War II. There are three primary strenghts to Keegan's work: (1) his graceful style, which makes reading this work a pleasure, (2) his ability to use detail to illuminate broader themes, much like a talented newspaper reporter, and (3) the depth of his historical knowledge, which allows him to place the events and campaigns he is writing about into a broader and deeper context.
As other reviewers have noted, this is not the definitive shot-by-shot history of every battle. Rather, Keegan provides an overview, zeroing in on detail to make illustrative points; nevertheless he covers virtually every major theater of operations, including some peripheral ones. I don't regard his decision to summarize as a weakness; had he tried provide a more close-grained analysis, the book would have reached thousands of pages at the sacrifice of general readability. Keegan generously acknowledges, both in the text and in his notes, his reliance on narrower and more detailed explorations of many of his subjects and the notes contain many excellent suggestions for further reading.
Furthermore, to try to provide a day-by-day history of the war would have blunted the strength of his analysis and historical comparisons. And this is where Keegan truly excels, in helping the reader understand both Hitler and Nazism in the broader sweep of the aftermath of World War I, Bismarck and other European wars. Writing about Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's attempt to conquer Russia, for example, Keegan draws upon his knowledge of the campaigns of Frederick the Great and the Napoleonic wars. In discussing the Yugoslav partisan operations against the Nazis, Keegan makes the connection to Ottoman wars of independence fought by the Serbs. Other histories of World War II generally fail to provide the same measure of connected analysis, largely, I suspect, because their authors lack the depth of knowledge that Keegan has.
From the standpoint of an American reader, the book will appear to have something of a Euro-centric and British-centric feel, which is not surprising. Keegan was for many years a lecturer in military history at Sandhurst, the English equivalent of West Point. And for the English, World War II was overwhelmingly a European war. And for all his evident admiration for American efforts, it is clear that he regards Roosevelt as a mystifying and distant figure, and Eisenhower as a blunt but too-cool commander. If you think about Keegan's observations, his complaint appears to be that the American leaders weren't passionate enough, didn't hate the Nazis enough, a conclusion that is probably not shared by American scholars and readers.
But these quirks are also what makes this work so great: it is not simply a bland recitation of names and dates. It is writing infused with knowledge and a point of view, which is what makes this work so valuable.