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The Second World War Hardcover – June 5, 2012
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Over the past two decades, Antony Beevor has established himself as one of the world's premier historians of WWII. His multi-award winning books have included Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945. Now, in his newest and most ambitious book, he turns his focus to one of the bloodiest and most tragic events of the twentieth century, the Second World War.
In this searing narrative that takes us from Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 to V-J day on August 14th, 1945 and the war's aftermath, Beevor describes the conflict and its global reach--one that included every major power. The result is a dramatic and breathtaking single-volume history that provides a remarkably intimate account of the war that, more than any other, still commands attention and an audience.
Thrillingly written and brilliantly researched, Beevor's grand and provocative account is destined to become the definitive work on this complex, tragic, and endlessly fascinating period in world history, and confirms once more that he is a military historian of the first rank.
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This book is a typical descriptive historical narrative of the war. It is great single source for those who haven't read a comprehensive history of it. It fairly and with good balance describes the political background and military events and while the writing is somewhat prosaic it is not 'dry', and it gives a well detailed overview of the events.
Hastings book "Inferno" (published in Britain as "All Hell Let Loose") carries with it a lot more personal observations from diaries, letters, etc of the participants, and clearly is written with the authors own subjective interpretation or points of view on the events, rather than being a pure description of the historical events. The writing is more elegant and provocative, as befits the journalist background of the author.
If one has no knowledge of this titanic struggle I would start with Beevor's book so as to capture the events and timelines as they historically occurred, written in a very readable manner. On the other hand if one is familiar with most of the history I would recommend Hasting's book as a source of opinionated (but supported) insight, along with the many descriptions of the war by participants that are included in his narrative and relate to the historical events.
Both are excellent in their own ways. They provide: 1)in the terms of Beevor's book a well written and accurate single volume historical description of the war and 2) in Hastings a more 'op-ed' description with personal stories of the conflict that he has derived from letters, diaries, interviews etc.
Firstly, Beevor delivers the raw strategic and historical facts with a relentless, crisp pace, covering all major events, participants and theaters of war. The history is informed by a treasure trove of material cited in the notes, including personal sources such as the invaluable diary of Soviet correspondent Vasily Grossman. There are 50 chapters and the title of each chapter reflects the one or two key events narrated in it. The brevity of the chapters makes the book accessible and great for bedtime reading. A particular skill of Beevor's is in condensing the most important information in relatively brief paragraphs. Rather than provide separate extended quotes from the prime participants, he excerpts these quotes within the paragraphs. Even a book that is 800 pages long cannot possibly spend too much time on every single event; Beevor understands this and is remarkably facile at saying much in a minimum number of words. It's also worth comparing this volume with the acclaimed recent book by Max Hastings. Hastings's is more of an on-the-ground perspective detailing the travails and triumphs of ordinary people. Beevor's is a higher-level account that nonetheless includes enough personal details to bring out the brutality of the war. Both are outstanding.
Unlike many other works, Beevor begins his story not with the traditional German invasion of Poland in 1939 but with the Soviet defeat of the Japanese in Manchuria one month earlier. In fact one of the major strengths of the book that sets it apart from many other volumes is its constant focus on the conflict in the Far East between Japan, China and the Soviet Union whose origins preceded European events. This theme surfaces regularly in the book as it should since the Japanese invasion of China, as exemplified by the horrific Rape of Nanking, was as momentous for the future of the war as anything else. Along the same lines, while Beevor does cover major battles in Europe and the Pacific like the Battle of Britain, France, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Italy, Midway and the U-Boat conflict with verve and clarity, he also has separate detailed chapters on (relatively) minor but still key war zones like Egypt, Greece and Burma. An especially rousing story is of the small Finnish army virtually demolishing the overwhelmingly large Soviet forces at the start of the war through guerrilla warfare. Large, clear maps displaying movements and sites of major battles accompany every account. Descriptions of weapons systems, code-breaking and terrain-specific equipment all benefit from Beevor's concise style. In chapters on the Holocaust and Soviet purges, he chillingly documents the incalculably horrific crimes of the twentieth century's two genocidal tyrants, Hitler and Stalin, even as he does not fail to detail their shrewd genius in manipulating human beings and events. Stalin especially clearly comes across as an egomaniacal but calculating strategist who ensured his share of the postwar spoils during meetings with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, Tehran and Potsdam.
Secondly, just as he did in past works, Beevor is remarkable at documenting the human element in the war in all its terrifying cruelty and redeeming glory. All the horrors of the war are on full display here; the NKVD murdering its own people by the hundreds of thousands, the Japanese mutilating Chinese women with bayonets, the cold killing soldiers so swiftly that they resembled grotesque ice sculptures, the citizens of Leningrad eating their own children in the face of desperate starvation and madness, Russian soldiers raping every female between eight and eighty after "liberating" Berlin, and of course, the systematic, industrialized mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. One of Beevor's more gruesome new revelations is the rather widespread practice of cannibalism among the Japanese, with both the local population and POWs being consumed to various extents throughout the Pacific occupation. Another particularly disturbing and startling fact which I was not aware of concerns horrible experiments with biological agents performed on American POWs by Japanese doctors, often with fatal results. The disturbing thing is that Douglas MacArthur granted immunity from prosecution to these doctors in the hope that they would provide detailed records to the Allies. This story only drives home the fact that the war which Beevor writes of was unimaginably horrific and blurred moral boundaries, and particularly because it is unimaginably so, the passage of time should never blind us to it. While many deeds in the war were undoubtedly immoral, ambiguous morality was also a constant theme, whether it concerned MacArthur's behavior or the strategic bombing of German cities. We are still debating these issues.
But there are also acts of incredible altruism described in here; ordinary Germans sacrificing themselves to protect Jews, hopelessly outnumbered Jews rising against monstrous despots (as in the Warsaw uprising), and people transcending religion, class and political sentiments to save the lives of total strangers. These accounts are accompanied by characteristically vivid - and at times amusing - character sketches which concisely showcase the essential qualities of major participants; for instance, Chamberlain is out of depth with his "winged collar, Edwardian mustache and rolled umbrella". All major human alliances, including the famously successful relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, are chronicled with wit, compassion and insight. Another of Beevor's talents is in conveying the sheer absurdity and surreal nature of war; for example there's Hermann Goering complaining about the price of shattered glass panes during Kristallnacht, and the French gingerly broadcasting a song named "I will wait" even as German forces amassed across the border in plain sight in 1940. Most emblematic of how downright bizarre war can be is the story of a Korean private named Yang Kyoungjong who was captured and conscripted successively by the Japanese, the Soviets and the Germans.
Finally, Beevor does a stunning job at giving us an idea of the sheer irrationality and utterly brutalizing nature of war and how it changes everyone and everything. Fifty or sixty years after the fact, the Second World War appears like a series of rationally realized if tragic incidents culminating in the victory of good over evil. It's accounts like this that dispel that illusion and tell us that so many events were just based on good or bad luck. But in concluding this magisterial narrative, Beevor leaves us with the caveat that in the irrationality of war lies hope, the possibility that things could have been different had people acted just a little differently. In case of the Second World War that would have translated to France, Britain and the United States recognizing Hitler's ominous and growing power in the 30s and banding together to stop him. Of course it is convenient to conclude this in hindsight, but it still makes a case for always being alert in recognizing the wrong turns that human nature can take. Indeed, Beevor reminds us in the end that "moral choice is the fundamental element in human drama, because it lies at the very heart of humanity itself". This is a lesson we should remember until the end of time.
My interest in this period can be traced back to the books in my father's den. Among them was a collection from Time-Life on the war. I can still visualize the photo of Wavell & O'Connor discussing strategy in the desert, the Japanese tanker's flame-thrown skull, and the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square. Those images were the catalyst for decades of military history reading. Thankfully, historians like Beevor, Atkinson, Evans and others have done us a service with fresh, rich research and writing.
Beevor's decision to tackle this "amalgamation of conflicts" must have been daunting. The scale of the conflict boggles the mind. The complexity of decision-making and the range of personalities involved will never truly be comprehended. I have tended to follow the Western conflict more and specifically the ground battles but Beevor does an admirable job in the Pacific (and with the air and sea wars). In fact, he contends and shows how the German and Japanese conflicts deeply influenced each other and states that the "Second World War defies generalization".
Not only was the Second World War an amalgamation of conflicts, it's origins were an amalgam of issues dating back to the Treaty of Versailles and earlier. Beevor's treatment begins with a satisfying analysis and review of those issues whereas so many histories commence with Germany's invasion of Poland. It was a war of ideology on the surface but when it is objectively analyzed, economics were underpinning both Germany and Japan's motivations and decision-making.
There is one thread in the book that is not emphasized by Beevor and that is the impact of the fall of France and the resulting Vichy government. Throw in the performances of Petain, Gamelin, Darlan, Wygand, Reynaud, and de Gaulle and it becomes difficult to find one single thing that is positive about French conduct. Even the storied Resistance is being exposed as not as widespread or effective as it has been credited. It may be that post-war propaganda created an inflated mystique to make up for the sins of Vichy.
I am not that harsh and recognize that though strategically and tactically bested, many French formations fought with valor in 1940. For me, it is the fact that France's capitulation had such huge and far-flung ramifications. Without the captured French motor-transport, Hitler would have been severely limited in mobility during the invasion of the Soviet Union and Japanese aircraft flying from Vichy airfields in Indochina would not have sunk British vessels. Perhaps more fascinating is how France's fall impacted its colonies including laying the groundwork for the extended Vietnam conflict. So much turned on the Fall of France that it is worthy of a separate treatment.
But many aspects of World War Two require their own study given its magnitude. The conflict in China is another example. The Communists did not deserve to win the country given their strategy and performance against the Japanese - it was both cowardly and opportunistic. Certainly the Nationalists were corrupt but at least they were fighting for China and running the country at the same time. And that fighting tied up close to 700,000 Japanese soldiers that benefited the Allies' Asia campaign immensely.
Another aspect needing its own history is Ukraine and the Nationalist movements who tried to use the conflict to gain independence. According to Beevor "older, more religious Ukrainians had been encouraged by the black crosses on the German armoured vehicles, thinking that they represented a crusade against Godless Bolshevism." We now know that these Nationalist movements fought the Soviet forces midway through the 1950's with some battles being of regiment size.
Beevor's research has turned up new material. Among the most contentious is Japan's dehumanizing of troops in their militaristic society and revelations of that army's use of prisoners as food sources. He rightfully points out the Peleliu is the battle in the Pacific that deserves more recognition. It was the worst and unbelievably could have been bypassed. Nimitz's rare mistake accounted for nearly 10,000 Marine casualties. This is similar to Monty's decision after the capture of Antwerp not to immediately clear The Scheldt that ended up costing the Canadians 12,873 casualties.
Other intriguing aspects include Italy's preparations, strategies, and performance being extremely poor. Even the well-trained Italian Alpine Corps, the Alpini, were badly supplied and resorted to making footwear from the tires of Soviet vehicles. Incredibly, 8,000 Allied bomber aircrew died in training accidents equaling roughly one-seventh of their total casualties. During the war years in France, "The average height of boys dropped by seven centimetres and of girls by eleven centimetres" due to food shortages. And the Kursk battle has always focused on tanks but Beevor notes that "the aerial engagements were among the most intense of the whole of the Second World War." The book is replete with these facts and observations.
The author points out that, "Alliances are complicated enough in victory, but in defeat they are bound to produce the worst recriminations imaginable." That is because wars produce such amazing personalities, both good and bad. My enjoyment of history has evolved into the study of human behavior in extreme circumstances. For me, that brings history to life and historians who can write with this dimension in mind are to be lauded.
George Marshall never ceases to amaze me with his quiet statesmanship and outstanding organizational skills. Then you have Fredenhall - the incompetent, Kesselring - the Luftwaffe leader who exceled at the defensive ground war, Wingate - the manic-depressive eccentric. There are just so many characters and personalities including Bradley who never impressed me so it was interesting to see the author reveal him as ruthless and ambitious even though he was presented as down-home folksy. It turns out that public relations was very sophisticated and used liberally with Rommel posing for magazine photos, MacArthur making monumental press-worthy pronouncements, Monty taking all the credit for success (he owes the RAF much for the desert victory), and the buffoonish Mark Clark who had a team of 50 public relations professionals burnishing his image in Italy.
Increasingly General Vatutin of the Soviet army is being viewed as one of the war's more creative commanders (especially in the Soviet forces). He might have been the one entering Berlin had he not succumbed to injuries in 1944 after being ambushed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (in 1920 he had fought against the Ukrainian peasant partisans of Nestor Makhno).
Clearly, the war was won on the Eastern Front. The sheer size of the conflict there is confirmed in the losses of soldiers, citizens and materiel (the statistics become mind numbing in scale with half a million dead at Stalingrad alone). For the Soviets to bounce back, it took not only feeding men into meat grinder battles (which they have been appropriately criticized for) but also the ability to put their economy on a war footing and to gain sophistication in intelligence gathering, camouflage, battlefront deceptions, and inter-service coordination. Certainly, the scale of forces and their vast geography ultimately made for the Soviet victory but so did a conscious decision not to be rigid in doctrine.
So after reading my buyer's remorse dissipated. There are fresh insights and research and the author's style always engages. However, it is clear that Beevor is overwhelmed. The last quarter seems rushed which takes away from the fact that the conflict was actually escalating towards its end (the German army lost 451,742 dead in January, 1945 alone). As extraordinary as his talents are, it is just too daunting a topic. This amalgam cannot be generalized and given its scale, difficult to distill without losing its complexity.
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