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.