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on June 11, 2012
There are two interesting recent books out that detail the vast scope of WWII. I've bought both (and read other histories of the war), and can give some details as to their differences.

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.
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The sheer immensity of the Second World War is even now, after more ink has been spilt on it than on almost any other event in history, almost impossible to grasp. The war affected countless people in every conceivable small and big way, it changed the fate of innumerable nations and set the tone for issues with which we are still grappling, and it showcased the very best and very worst in human nature. Very few historians are capable of capturing this epic panorama of tragedy and triumph on paper. Happily for us, Antony Beevor is one of those chosen few who can. In the past few decades he has established himself as a war historian of the first rank. This volume can be seen as the culmination of a stellar career during which he has introduced us to the very nature of war and its human elements. Beevor's sweeping, magisterial account of this great conflict excels in three ways that are characteristic of his past scholarship on D-Day, Stalingrad and Berlin.

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.
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on July 20, 2017
No author writing about WWII can cover the entire conflict in one volume without choosing to emphasize certain material and paying less attention to other material. After all, Churchill took many volumes to discuss his experiences and points of view. Having read enormous amounts of WWII material over 50 years, here are what I feel Beevor chose as emphases and which led to both the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

Strength-- the detailed descriptions of the China-Japan conflict with more attention paid to it than in other one volume works...
Strength-- An attempt, though overdone and repetitious, to discuss the use of rape and the casualness of killing civilians by all armies and at different intensities. War dehumanizes.
Strength--Chapters on the Shoah (Holocaust) by shooting and by gas as two different and differentially organized events.
Strength--Use of statements by common soldiers about what their experiences were on the different fronts. This is also a...

Weakness--vastly overdone quotations from ordinary soldiers about their experiences. How many times did we need to hear about lice and trench foot? Once was enough and other instances could have been referenced to one original description. Repetitive and overdone.

Weakness-- Horrendously judgmental character sketches of the major players written in a couple of sentences with no backup.

Weakness--Overly focused on British activities.

Weakness--Presentism--Judging the events of the past using perspectives unknown at the time of the events.

Weakness- Beevor just does not like Churchill and commits character assasination at every opportunity. One wonders if he even read Churchill's memoirs of the war to discover his thinking.

Weakness--Writing Roosevelt off as a naive lightweight.

Weakness--the maps, oy vey, the maps. Beevor commits the sin of using maps that often do not have the units he writes about in the text present on the maps. He regularly makes statements like "it was obvious that General X had to attack on the line from A to B without either town on his maps. Frustrating!

Weakness--Assuming that the US lack of desire to make troop movements to attempt to block the Red Army were silly and naive and the Cold War was the result. As the Italy campaign showed, attacks from the Mediterranean theatre might never have ended the war. And Russian troops had orders to start WWIII if we tried to take Berlin.

Worth reading for its scope and unique contributions just don't swallow the human judgments and one liners about people's characters as gospel.
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VINE VOICEon August 26, 2012
This single-volume history is entering a field crowded with contributions by historians with stellar credentials. Certainly, Beevor's own credentials as an historian of the Second World War are of the first rank. In fact, they are simply beyond dispute. His meticulous work on several WW-II topics (including his neglected book on the Spanish Civil War) have been extolled in many reviews. This is a good introduction to his more specialized studies of the Second World War.

Beevor's previous works focused on the Nazis and this is his area of demonstrated expertise. This book balances both war theaters. Origins of the conflict are very briefly dealt with. It features interesting material on the Japanese invasion, occupation and destruction of parts of China. There is a succinct overview of Nationalist-Communist machinations.

The author does not delve deeply into the genesis of the conflict nor the ideologies of Nazism and Japanese militarism/colonialism. However, the book provides a succinct (and devastating) summary of the outrages these regimes perpetrated and contextualizes them by noting, for example, the array of prejudices, virtually endemic amongst German soldiers (of all ranks) that enabled these outrages. These attitudes were cynically amplified by Nazi propaganda to create a self-reinforcing framework for mass murder, which occurred on both an extemporaneous basis and later on as carefully planned and coordinated mass murder, conducted on an industrial scale. Beevor accurately notes (revisionists, beware!) widespread complicity of the Wehrmacht in not only the "Hunger Plan", but also in the more intimate details of Holocaust actions as well as those undertaken against leadership groups in (amongst other places) Poland. This section is worth quoting in its entirety: "'This is a war of extermination', Hitler told his generals on 30 March (1941). 'Commanders must be prepared to sacrifice their personal scruples.' The only concern of senior officers was the effect on discipline. Their visceral instincts - anti-Slav, anti-Communist and anti-semitic - were in line with Nazi ideology, even if many of them disliked the Party and its functionaries. Famine, they were told, would be a weapon of war, with an estimated 30 million Soviet citizens starving to death." This, of course, gives lie to the post-war attempts by various members of the Wehrmacht and even of the Waffen SS to exonerate themselves, as fatuously stated by SS General Paul Hausser, "Soldiers like any other". Japanese militarism-colonialism is subjected to similar scrutiny.

So, what (if anything) distinguishes this book? Is it a "me too" endeavor? No, it is not. It is a carefully written and intellectually robust study. It is also a relatively comprehensive synthesis. It is readable. In line with Max Hastings' recent books, Beevor properly pillories the arrant hypocrisy of the "anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist" Japanese and brilliantly highlights the extraordinary brutality of the Imperial forces. Their campaign was aptly and succinctly characterized by "The Three Alls: kill all, burn all, destroy all"; those being the immortal words of Kwantung Army General Okamura Yasuji. Indeed, this pithy and succinct phrase just about summarizes the entire program of the Imperial Japanese forces throughout the course of the war. Personality traits of the principal leaders (Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, etc) are succinctly but (in the case of Roosevelt particularly) brilliantly summarized: "Roosevelt was undoubtedly a great man, but while deploying charm and a contrived impression of intimacy to great effect, he was essentially rather vain, cold, calculating." These traits played to inimical effect in his relations with Stalin. It provided some interesting personality sketches of several commanders. Two examples are Romme, characterized as a power-grabbing publicity hound (to paraphrase General Halder) and British/New Zealand Major-General Bernard Freyberg who is exposed as a bungling and generally incompetent leader whose response to the German attack on Crete resulted in disaster for the British. Stilwell is vivisected. Beevor demolishes the claims made by Vinegar Joe's supporters (e.g. Barbara Tuchman) that Chiang ("the Peanut" in Stilwell's phrase) was lazy, corrupt, indifferent and husbanding his forces for a later fight against Mao. In fact, Beevor advances the claim that Mao (to the fury of the USSR) manifested all these traits and financed some of his forces via opium sales.

The author reveals one (to me, anyhow) "stunning" insight, namely his perspective on the seminal but obscure August, 1939 Battle of Khalkin Gol (also known as the "Nomonhan Incident". This took place between Japanese Kwantung Army and Soviet forces in the far-northern Trans-Baikal military district. USSR forces were lead by the justly famous General Zhukov and resulted in the defeat of the Japanese in about 3 days. The eventual result was a Soviet-Japanese "non-aggression" pact. The battle also galvanized the "strike south" faction in Tokyo, thus leading to Pearl Harbor and enabling Stalin to shift northern forces to the Moscow front. So, a single incident influenced the outcome of the war. There are other new and interesting perspectives (e.g., transfer of about 4.5 billion US dollars worth of British assets to the US at the beginning of Lend-Lease was a major contributor to American recovery from the Depression...and British impoverishment, capture of French transport enabled the German invasion of the USSR).

Beevor manages to arose many of the emotional responses one might anticipate from reading about a conflict that killed upwards of 50 million people, ruined the lives of hundreds of millions and permanently changed the political, diplomatic, moral and ethical framework, mostly in the chapters on Wannsee, Rassenkrieg and Barbarossa; to a lesser extent in the Pacific Theater and little on the American or British home fronts. A trait of many modern military histories, seemingly inserted to "humanize" the serious matter under study, is to insert a bevy of annoying personal vignettes (meant to illustrate the whole whilst featuring the particular). An archetype is the popular history, "The Second Word War" by Martin Gilbert). Beevor also indulges this trend but far less often and much more adroitly. Extensive quoting from Vasily Grossman's first-hand reporting during the Eastern Front campaign serve as the notable (and noteworthy) example. The young Andrei Sakharov appears a few times. So does Ilya Ehrenburg and Alexei Kosygen. Unfortunately for the less informed reader, Grossman (the brilliant and brave front-line Soviet journalist and major writer) is not introduced or contextualized and Nobel Prize winning physicist Sakharov presents as a junior player. Not a word on who Ehrenburg or Kosygen might have been.

Given the literally countless books on WW-II and assuming the reader is not interested in a focused study (e.g., on one particular war theatre, campaign, aspect or event) and further assuming an "integrative" approach is desired (i.e., how does the "whole thing fit together"), there are several contenders for "best book". Planning to read only one? I favor, "Inferno" by Max Hastings: its trenchant insights, verve, incisive commentary and unembarrassed judgements free the mind. Its intellectual elegance excites the reader to really explore the seminal calamity of the 20th century. Gerhard Weinberg's "A World at Arms" is more encyclopedic and it is extraordinarily well written. Searching for a workmanly and uniformly objective overview of both theaters of war? This is a good place to begin, but Beevor's book is distinctly deficient in maps (number and positioning in the text). Nonetheless, those that appear are nicely done: the paucity of maps is perhaps its major deficiency. In short, this is a very solid introduction to a very complex topic.
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on August 6, 2017
A very good one volume history of the Second World War. While the sheer scope of the book means it must gloss over some theaters and battles, it also makes one aware of little discussed things, such as Stalin's ambitions for the conquest of parts of Western Europe and the practice of organized cannibalism among some Japanese army units. The end of the book which critiques the hold the Second World War has on modern memory is also worth notice and consideration.
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on January 21, 2013
Following the download of this book, I had a moment of buyer's remorse. Why was I purchasing yet another history of The Second World War? Having read many covering the entire war and greater numbers on various aspects of the conflict, was I really going to discover anything I had not already learned?

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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on September 2, 2012
I do not think it wise for those who are World War II buffs to criticize historians for not unveiling some oddly new truth uncovered about the war. Instead I think it valuable to judge over-all accounts of the war for their veracity and their particular handling of key points in the war. Some issue must be taken because this overview seems to slight the naval battles fought by the Americans in the Pacific, but I think that the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway get as much treatment as Pearl Harbor, and the Soviet counterattacks around Moscow at the same time. So I don't think we should be overly critical as American readers. After all, Mr. Beevor has made it clear that he wrote this book to attempt to synthesize the war for himself, and to discover more about the parts of the war about which he had little understanding. I think he accomplishes this. There are innumerable books on Midway and other specific campaigns in the American war in the Pacific to make this an area where you will not be bereft of material, if you don't like Beevor's treatment.

What I do like is his detail in relaying the aspect of the Chinese defense against the Japanese. I have read a few of these overview history, and the campaign in China is always overlooked. Beevor does a fine job of detailing the savagery of fighting among the Nationalist Chinese, the Maoists, and the Japanese. The details of Japan's incursions in 1939 against the Soviets and the political/economic war going on inside China and the many issues dealt with there is quite good, and in my mind makes up for the lack of detail supposedly on midway.

As an overview, I think it papers over the mistakes of Monty during Market Garden. But this work otherwise gives a fine account of the war in macro, which as a study is done okay. If you want to read a more detailed work, get the Weinberg. If you want more analysis, go with Max Hastings, but if you want a valid and fast-read account of The Second World War, Mr. Beevor provides it.
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on December 29, 2015
Note on the Kindle Edition: The maps in this book are pretty unclear and really need rescanning in line with the higher resolutions now possible in Kindle books. The quality and clarity of maps in Kindle non fiction books are one of the biggest areas needing improvement, both in making it easier to navigate to them and in clarity. They really need to be based on vector data rather than scanned images - they'll then look perfect in each format!

Antony Beevor's general history of the Second World War is a momentous achievement. Weighing in at 880 pages it provides a comprehensive, well considered and well written account of a truly momentous set of events in world history. Writing a general history of one of the twentieth century’s ‘Total Wars’ is a formidable task. Although the timeframe for the First and Second World Wars are individually relatively narrow, the geographical breadth and sheer range of events make it difficult to construct a readable narrative. Writers can focus on particular regions or campaigns at the expense of understanding the chronological links with events elsewhere. In focussing on military strategy, the political context or contingency of individual decisions in battle can be lost. The other challenge is writing quality prose for the general reader which doesn’t descend into armies and corps colliding and repositioning like pawns on a chessboard. Finally an enormous quantity of secondary research must be assessed.

This book manages to accomplish these difficult requirements with flair. It compares favourably with Keegan’s history, whose prose is a bit turgid and where coverage of aspects such as Japan’s excursions in China in the 1930s is a bit light. The structure of focussing on particular geographic areas for periods of a few months, noting connections with other parts of the globe where appropriate, makes the narrative flow more naturally than Martin Gilbert’s strictly chronological structure. Finally Beevor, having submerged himself in researching aspects of the Second World War for over thirty years, is able to write gripping prose with the right amount (for this reader anyway!) of opinion and interpretation to make a gripping story.

Beevor doesn’t conceal his views. Most participants face criticism or praise without too much evidence of partisanship. Stalin is rightly castigated for his truly cruel regime and failure to anticipate the German invasion in 1941, however Beevor rightly highlights his effective (if Machiavellian) manipulation of the rivalry of Zhukov and Konev in the race for Berlin. His criticisms of the way Roosevelt played into Stalin’s hands are well made, and there is certainly an argument that Churchill’s warnings about Stalin’s intentions should have been paid more heed. Beevor certainly doesn’t whitewash Churchill though. After his 1944 visit to Moscow Churchill felt the trip had been a success - Beevor pronounces that “his self-delusion could at times match that of Roosevelt”.

“Bomber” Harris is one commander who receives particular criticism (Montgomery, MacArthur and Mark Clark are others). He portrays Harris as possessing an obsessive belief that the destruction of German cities by bombing would win the war. “Harris was … not prepared to take any criticism, or willingly accept other requests from generals or admirals, whom he was convinced had tried to undermine the RAF since its independence”. Beevor portrays Harris as deliberately deceiving the public and his superiors that bombing targets had military singificance. As Beevor points out “Harris was now openly defining success by the number of urban acres his bombers had reduced to rubble”. In my opinion, expressing such views backed up by the facts is an appropriate function for an historian, providing explanation and interpretation.

Beevor concludes his book with a strong section on the legacy of the war, and the importance of “recogniz[ing] the millions of ghosts from the mass graves as individuals”. Throughout the book he manages to convey both the major strategic dilemmas, whilst also deftly interweaving individual stories and experiences from all sides. For example in discussing Harris’ “remorseless campaign” he gives a vivid description of the bombing of Cologne on 29 June 1943. Albert Beckers describes how “you cannot imagine what it is like to cower in a hole when the air quakes, the eardrums burst from the blast, the light goes out, oxygen runs out and dust and mortar crumble from the ceiling”. Readers of this book, despite the enormous scope of this horrendous historic event, will have a solid understanding of the rights and wrongs, causes and course as well as the experience of the Second World War.
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on July 19, 2016
An excellent book with tons of interesting information that are not readily available elsewhere. I liked that it struck a good balance between what was going on in the battlefield and the politics that were deciding the fate of the war. However, as I am not a huge fan of war strategy, I found the parts about army movements somewhat dry and there were too many commanders' names that they all became a blur eventually. Finally, the book's inclusion of reporters' stories (such as Vasily Grossman's) made the war come to life and really drove home how devastating the toll was on civilians and soldiers. Highly recommended for anyone interested in World War 2.
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on March 11, 2015
I read many documents about WWII and was quite convinced that not much new materials could be added. This book is a proof how wrong I am.

This book by Antony Beevor shows why indeed WWII should be considered a world war: He achieves this by giving equal space also to the theaters of war in China and Manchuria, South-East Asia, North-Africa and south Europe (the Balkans, Greece and Italy), instead of covering mostly only the war in Russia, Western Europe and Japan. The story of the 2nd World War begins here in 1936 with the Sino-Japanese war in Manchuria, and not in August 1939 in Poland as is the case in other books about WWII. Also, Mr. Beevor's is very convincing in his arguments that, with perspective of the 21 century, the the 2nd World War (1939-1945) and the 1st World War (1914-1918) should be considered as one world war, with a pause of less than 20 years between them.

I also found the descriptions in the book of the personalities of the leading political figures (Churchill,, Roosevelt, Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Tojo, and many more) as well as the army generals and admirals (Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, Nimitz, Stilwell, Patton, Montgomery, de Gaulle, Zhukov, Rommel, Paulus, Yamamoto, and many more) most illuminating.

I would like to add that I found Chapter 34 "Shoah by Gas" in Beevor's book one of the most chilling descriptions of the Nazis crimes during WWII. Also, I found Mr. Beevor's observation towards the end of his book that the reason Stalin did not stop his army in Berlin in 1945 and did not attempt to conquer also West Europe was because he was afraid of the American response with their newly developed A-bombs, a strongly convincing explanation that I have not come across before.

The bottom line, it is highly recommended to read "The second world war" by Antony Beevor.
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