The Second World War continues to hold readers, publishers and historians in its grip. Few weeks pass without the appearance of another book on the subject. Heroism from a bygone era sells – so does villainy. Hitler remains an ever-popular subject for biographers; so, too, do the exploits of Allied soldiers. Consider, for example, Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent bestseller Unbroken, about a downed American airman who survived the horrors of Japanese imprisonment.
If some readers are growing weary of this relentless procession, it should be said we are living in the best of times for Second World War history. For all the froth and sentimental heroics and quickie cut-and-paste jobs, there has been an extraordinary burst of serious work that captures the intricate moral, strategic and diplomatic tangle of a global conflict that, in the end, claimed 70 million lives.
Antony Beevor, along with Max Hastings, is foremost among military historians writing about the Second World War today. Over the last few decades, the two Brits have matched each other book for book, Beevor with admired works on the battle of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin, Hastings with his outstanding accounts of the final phases of the war in the Pacific and battle for Germany in 1944 and 1945.
Of the two, Hastings is the better stylist and grapples more fully with the moral complexities of the war. His account of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an agonised moral treatise that takes up nearly 50 pages of Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, is still the best defence I’ve read of the controversial decision to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese.
Beevor is a formidable researcher who has exploited German and Russian archives to great and original effect (The Fall of Berlin 1945 offered revelations about the mass rape of German women at the hands of the conquering Red Army). In his new book, Beevor tackles the entire Second World War in all its ghastly immensity. Addressing those who might be weary of the subject, Beevor writes: “No other period in history offers so rich a source for the study of dilemmas, individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the egomania of commanders, betrayal, perversity, self-sacrifice,
unbelievable sadism and unpredictable compassion.”
The expansion in scope from his previous works – The Second World War runs to nearly 800 pages of reading text – doesn’t always show Beevor at his best. He is better on European theatre, particularly the titanic battles of the eastern front, than he is on the Pacific
campaign. Some American readers may be dismayed that the Battle of Midway, which decisively checked Japanese naval supremacy, gets a mere two pages. Beevor is a former British army officer, and this is very much a soldier’s book; somewhat stiff in tone – name, rank and serial number matter here – and concerned with strategy, tactics and the movements of men across the battlefield.
Yet there is much to be praised in this enthralling narrative. He makes unexpected links between the multiple theatres of the war, noting how the war was “an amalgamation of conflicts”. Beevor writes superbly on the Allied leadership and the jockeying of US president Franklin D Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to shape not only the course of the war, but also the post-war order (Churchill and Roosevelt thought they were playing Stalin but it was very much the other way around). He is excellent on Allied generals such as the strutting showboat Briton Bernard Montgomery (Monty), whose “armour-plated conceit” drove fellow commanders crazy.
He also keeps China firmly in the picture. It was at war with Japan from 1937 to 1945, and its losses – some 20 million dead – are
almost impossible to comprehend. “The Sino-Japanese conflict has long been the missing section of the jigsaw of the Second World War,” Beevor observes. “Having begun well before the outbreak of fighting in Europe, the conflict in China has often been treated as a completely separate affair, even though it saw the largest deployment of Japanese ground forces in the Far East, as well as the involvement of both the Americans and the Soviet
Beevor does something altogether novel by opening his account on the China-Mongolia frontier and a hitherto obscure battle that pitted Soviet forces against the Japanese army in the summer of 1939. The Soviets won in a rout. The geopolitical consequences were profound. Japan altered its strategy, taking aim at the US navy, as well as South-east Asia and its French, Dutch and British colonies. This brought the US into the war and denied Hitler a second front against the Soviet Union when he took on Stalin in 1941.
The historian is at his best describing the unfolding of the war in Europe. Churchill, reluctant to commit troops to a land war on the continent, nibbled around the edges in North Africa. Whatever the heroics of El Alamein, Stalin was infuriated that the British leader would not commit to invading France in 1942. Yet Churchill offered Stalin a kind of second front from the air. Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who directed the bombing campaign against Germany, remains one of the most notorious Allied figures of the war; indeed, in another of his unexpected comparisons, Beevor likens him to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Moral considerations aside, his decision to firebomb German cities achieved very little. Yet, as Beevor notes, the campaign nonetheless forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw planes from Russia, thus allowing the Soviet Union to take control of its airspace.
Beevor’s writing reaches a horrific pitch as he follows the
Wehrmacht and SS units into its disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler, haunted by the ignominy of Napoleon’s retreat in 1812, forced his commanders to accept suicidal orders. Entire German armies were encircled and destroyed. The fierce Russian winter consumed all. One Russian witness described a scene near Kursk: “An enormous space stretching to the horizon was filled with our tanks and German tanks. In between them were thousands of sitting, standing or crawling Russians and Germans frozen solid. Some of them were leaning against each other, others hugging each other ... many of them had their legs chopped off. This had been done by our infantry, who had been unable to pull off the boots from the Fritzs’ frozen legs so they chopped them off in order to be able to warm them up in the bunkers.”
Here was combat at its most inhuman; war without pity or mercy. In two concise chapters, Beevor describes how warfare in the east allowed Nazism’s murderous fantasies about Jews to become grim reality.
Mass shootings led to the clinical horrors of death by gas in Auschwitz. Both German and Soviet soldiers fought with a savagery that shocked the British and the Americans. The fanaticism of German soldiers, “indoctrinated from early youth into the Nazi warrior mindset”, proved a severe test for troops from the western democracies: “One could never imagine British or American prisoners of war wanting to die for King George VI, Churchill or President Roosevelt,” Beevor remarks dryly. Democracy forced the western allies to use air power indiscriminately: British and American commanders, under severe pressure to reduce casualties, ended up killing thousands of French civilians – “the unsung victims of Normandy” – with high explosive bombs during the invasion of France.
Beevor has largely met the challenge of writing about the Second World War. There is little triumphalism here, only the careful elaboration of events that still cast long shadows.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.