28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
"No Simple Victory" is an attempt to demolish many mistaken assumptions, misapprehensions, and misunderstandings about World War II in Europe.
The book begins with an interesting analysis of misperceptions on such a basic matter as when World War II started: The author argues that there is such an emphasis in America on its entry into the war in December 1941 (i.e., after Pearl Harbor) that everything that happened in the war before that is forgotten in the public consciousness. Thus, to the average American World War II started in 1941 and ended in 1945. Yet this emphasis overlooks the fact that millions of soldiers (primarily Soviets and Germans) had died in Europe by Pearl Harbor. For example, by the time of Pearl Harbor: Poland been invaded and partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union had taken over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Soviet Union and Finland were at war, the Germans had invaded and conquered the Low Countries and France, the Germans had come to the aid of Italy in Greece (as well as Albania and Africa), and the Germans, with an Army of an estimated 3 million men, had not only taken the rest of Poland (as well as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) from the Soviets but also invaded the Soviet Union itself.
This misperception sets up the author's two main themes for the book:
First, the West (i.e., the U.S., Britain, and France) has rewarded itself for its victorious campaigns (e.g., El Alamein, D-Day) by placing far too much emphasis on them so that the entire perspective of the war is lost. The war in Europe was not fought primarily by the West or even in the west. The war in Europe was primarily fought on the Eastern Front, where the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviets fought each other mercilessly in what both understood was a battle to the death. Some of the many statistics the author uses to support this appraisal are the numbers of soldiers who died on each front: On the Eastern Front the Soviets alone, for example, are believed to have lost 11 million men. This pales in comparison to the Western Front where all told the British lost 144,000, the Americans 143,000, and the French 92,000. Put another way, the Germans lost at least 2,000,000 men in the first two years of the invasion of the Soviet Union but suffered only 132,000 losses defending against the West's invasion of Europe (Operation Overlord). Or, by way of further example, the British lost 0.1 per cent of its civilian population to the war while the Poles lost an astounding 18% (and the Byelorussians an incredible 25%).
Second, World War II in Europe was not a battle of "good" versus "evil". Instead, there were really three sides to the conflict: the West (the "good"), Nazi Germany (the "bad"), and the Soviet Union (the "ugly"). Further, in this regard the author posits that the Soviet Union was in many respects far more evil than the Nazis. For example, the Soviets had far more concentration camps (and killed far more people in them) than the Nazis. (Indeed, the author implies that one of the great absurdities in history was the monstrous Soviet Union sitting in judgment at Nuremburg over the Nazis.) The author argues that the Nazis and the Soviets were both "gangster" states and the crimes of one should not be overlooked merely because it was victorious and happened to be allied with democracies.
In sum, the book is an attempt to get people to look at the war in Europe from a new perspective. One that takes into account the actions and suffering of each nation and/or people based on their overall roles.
The book explores its themes through separate sections on (1) military campaigns, (2) the role of politics, (3) the experiences of soldiers, (4) the experiences of civilians, and (5) the depiction of the war n books, films, and cartoons.
There are several shortcomings to the book. For one thing, there appear to be several instances where dates and other things are off (e.g., the year 1942 instead of 1941 when the Soviets began rewarding certain combat units by allowing them the designation of "Guards" for their bravery; misdesignations of army units (German Army Group A instead of Group B); naming Geoffrey Lawrence as the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials (he was the President of all the Judges and read the verdict). For another, the book sometimes lacks focus. It contains a number of interesting tidbits about people, places, and things but one wonders if the book would be more cohesive, and compelling, if everything had been contained within one structure rather than broken up into pieces. Also, perhaps in an attempt to make his point, there is perhaps too much emphasis, and argument, basically on how the western theatre of operations in Europe was but a mere "sideshow" that did not influence the outcome of the war. An argument that is surely debatable given that one outcome was the immediate absorption of a multitude of countries in Eastern Europe into the Soviet empire. An outcome that was prevented in Western Europe by the liberation of France, Italy, and other countries by the West.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Donald M. Bishop
- Published on Amazon.com
Norman Davies aims for two large goals in this powerful book that reframes the Second World War in Europe.
The first goal is to "re-center" (my words, not his) the war in Europe. Americans, for instance, usually view the Normandy landings as the war's crescendo, with the invasion leading to victory and liberation. Davies re-centers that view in two ways. He re-centers the war geographically, demonstrating that its center of gravity was on the Eastern Front. He also re-centers it in time, moving the critical hours forward in time to 1942 and 1943. In his account, the battle of Kursk marks the tipping point. This first goal, re-centering, is largely argued in the second and third sections of the book, "Warfare" and "Politics."
The second goal is to force readers to look beyond the national narratives they have absorbed and see the war as a whole. This is the challenge -- indeed the moral imperative -- for the next generation of historians, he says. He makes the case for this second goal in the sections on "Soldiers," "Civilians," and "Portrayals." He takes on many "untenable myths and legends." He urges readers to face the fact that the war was mainly a struggle between two murderous dictatorships.
Subsections of these three chapters are uneven. Some are well fleshed out with themes, historical and moral propositions, and the outline of a narrative. Other sections are little more than a string of suggestive anecdotes. The lapses and gaps disappoint, but they suggest how much more there is to think through even though the war is now more than 60 years in the past.
Davies usefully suggests looking at the campaigns of the war using our present-day maps, especially to disaggregate the wartime Soviet Union and see the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Baltic republics, and other areas separately. He is impatient with the usual characterization that it was "the Russians" fighting on the Eastern Front. His focus on Poland -- his own specialty -- is intended to demonstrate the need for a new look.
In covering a subject so vast, every reader will find errors of fact. Sometimes Davies' chronological rendering seems forced to make a point. On the other hand, he is the master of the anecdote that tells a larger story, and there are many lively turns of phrase.
Davies' recentered history bruises much conventional wisdom, inherited narrative, popular history, and national feeling. Different readers will feel different bruises. The sections on "Victims" (pp. 423-424), "Bystanders" (pp. 371-372), and "Collaborators" (pp. 377-379) provide examples. His treatment of the Holocaust in earlier books sparked a sharp scholarly debate, and comments about David Irving's scholarship in this book are likely to cause more.
Similary, American readers may find his criticism of the strategic bombing campaign discomforting. Those whose grandparents fought in the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, or the North Africa campaign may take offense when Davies judges that these campaigns were overshadowed by the titanic struggle on the Eastern Front.
Not since I read "The Fatal Shore," the history of the settlement of Australia by Robert Hughes, have I felt such a strong moral undertone to a book. It rests, I sense, on a deep sense of humanity. A short review like this one can hardly trace all its dimensions -- Davies' outrage at how the Soviet Union hid its crimes for decades, how scholars looked the other way because the Soviet Union had been an ally, the longevity of stereotypes, and reluctance to apply moral propositions to both sides. His outrage at the blind spots in accounts of the war comes through.
The moral tone is nicely captured, in an affirmative way, in the closing lines of the book, quoting Dr. John Martin's poem, "The Second Polish Corps." If you're unable to finish the whole book, look at the last page before you put it down.