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As if you were actually there,,,
on 29 May 2009
This book was written in 1965. Such a book dealing with the Second World War period potentially has the disadvantage that it does not have the benefit of the latest scholarship and material (such as the former Soviet records, available on the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s). On the other hand, it has the advantage of being written while many of the participants of these great events were very much alive, and could provide eyewitness accounts and even dialogue. Naturally the author has to allow for memory failures and distortions (both inadvertent and deliberate), and this requires meticulous fact checking.
With this book, Mr. Toland seems to have been wildly successful on all fronts. To me, it seems that the later material hasn't detracted at all from his account. Moreover, the book has a freshness and immediacy that takes one right into conferences, discussions and battle situations as if one were actually there, sitting at the shoulder of Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Stalin, Zhukov, Eisenhower. In a way, it is reminiscent of Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day", also written when many of the participants were still available for interview and the events still relatively fresh in mind, yet sufficiently removed for some reflection.
It is particularly good at disentangling the complicated threads of communications failure, conflicting ambitions and wishful thinking inherent in all large human enterprises - the Nazi's fervent belief that the Allies must surely turn with them against the Soviet Union and save "civilisation", and the poker-playing between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union as the former tried (in vain) to extract from the latter its real intentions and to prevent its domination of all eastern Europe. It also puts a human face on some of the greatest monsters of the 20th century, such as Hitler and Himmler, showing what pathetic excuses of humans they really were.
There may be more detailed, perhaps more accurate, accounts of the final 100 days of the European war. However, it is difficult to imagine anyone ever doing it better than this always fascinating, immensely readable account, which holds the reader's attention from page 1 to the end.