Saturday, 9 March 2013

Book Review - The Second World War by Antony Beevor

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

New York : Little, Brown and Company, 2012     ISBN 9780316023740 

This magisterial work had humble beginnings, according to the author. Beevor writes in the Acknowledgements section of this book  "I always felt a bit of a fraud when consulted as a general expert on the Second World War because I was acutely conscious of the large gaps in my knowledge, especially of unfamiliar aspects."

Beevor's fame as a writer of narrative history is very much based on his histories of Second World War battles - Stalingrad, Berlin : the downfall 1945, and D-Day : the battle for Normandy - so it seems only natural that he would attempt to condense the entire bloody history of the War into a book, and although the book comes in at over 780 pages, condense it he has.

Beevor opens and closes his history with the story of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean who fought in the Japanese, Russian and German Army before finally being captured  by US troops at Normandy in 1944. His remarkable story emphasizes both the truly global nature of the war, and the unremitting horror that it brought to so many lives.

Beevor begins his history of the war (after an Introduction that sets the scene) not with the invasion of Poland by Germany, but with the battle in Mongolia between the Russians and Japan where Yang Kyongjong was captured. The importance of this battle was perhaps minor at the time, but in convincing the Japanese High Command to avoid entanglement in Russia it played an important part in enabling Russia to focus all its might on Germany when the time came to do so.

Any author that tries to cover the Second World War in any meaningful way in a single work faces a gargantuan, if not impossible task. Beevor pulls it off as well as anybody. There is no major theme, campaign or battle in the War that he overlooks, and he redresses many lapses in previous broad histories, with a good focus on the war on the South-East Asian mainland, which has had a tendency to be overlooked by other authors.

The minor players in the War, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and even Brazil, get an appropriate amount of notice, as does the fate of civilians, both Jew and Gentile. The recent advances in our understanding of the history of the Final Solution are well described. The newer revelations from Russian archives are well used also.

In typical Beevor style, many personalities are summed up pithily. Gordon Bennett, the controversial Australian Major General, is summed up as "tempestuous and paranoid", General Alphonse Georges, who oversaw the area where the Germans broke though the French lines in May 1940, is described as a "sad-faced old general much admired by Churchill". These brief pen-portraits give the reader a good feel for these characters while keeping the narrative flowing.

And flow it must, as we move from Europe to the Middle East, the Far East, and back again. Beevor has structured the book in a basic chronological fashion, with many chapters moving across the world, while some focus on a particular theme, such as the Holocaust. As is usual for Beevor, he tries to select apposite quotes from other sources to add a sense of immediacy and tension to the narrative.

The connections between seemingly far-flung events are also noted. Beevor is at pains to note that so-called sideshows such as the Italian Campaign, North Africa, and even the strategic bombing campaign waged by the Allies all helped to defeat Germany, not so much in tying up fighting men, but diverting all-important aircraft from the Eastern Front, where Stalin and Hitler were engaged in their horrific duel to the death.

Beevor skillfully weaves his way through the difficult, internecine and secretive politics of the War as well. While there was little true co-operation between the Axis powers (Italy didn't inform Germany before its invasion of Albania, Germany didn't inform Japan of its invasion of Russia, Japan didn't inform Germany of its intent to attack the US Navy at Pearl Harbour), Beevor discusses at length the attempts by the Allied supremos - Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin - to co-ordinate their efforts, and to out-manoeuvre each other in working out post-war settlements. While Beevor is an Englishman, he is quite scathing of Churchill, praising his strategic vision while showing in great detail his penchant for absurd and impractical schemes that wasted his General Staff's time and tested their patience. He likewise shows Roosevelt to be not as clever as he thought he was. Stalin, portrayed as the monster he undoubtedly was, is shown to be the winner at the politics, as well as on the battlefield (albeit with absolutely appalling lack of consideration for the amount of blood spilled by his troops).

Military commanders get short shrift from Beevor as well. Montgomery was timid, Rommell was reckless, Stillwell was bitter, Macarthur was narcissistic, and several Japanese Commanders were possibly insane.

While views will naturally differ on many issues, Beevor lets the facts speak for themselves in most cases. And facts there are in plenty - the sickening slaughter builds and builds, and as Beevor shows, much of it was avoidable and some of it completely pointless.

The book is supported by good notes and an excellent index, although disappointingly the bibliography is not in the book (it is available online). Maps in such a work are always hard to get right - the maps that appear in the book are good, but in my opinion there could have been more of them.

I don't think I'm exaggerating to state that Beevor has done it again: this book is a tour-de-force, and if I was to suggest a single book to someone who wanted to know more about the Second World War - what happened and why - it would be this one.

Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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