John Keegan's 'The Second World War' is the pre-eminent military history of the war that, for better or ill, shaped our times. Written in a concise and innovative style, the book is an essential starting-point in understanding the military (and some of the political, diplomatic and socio-economic) aspects of the conflict. The strategic points of view of each of the combatants are studied in some detail and the analysis of key battles and campaigns is incomparable.
One of the things I like about this book is that it serves a dual purpose for the reader and researcher. It's compact enough to be read cover-to-cover, if you like, but at the same time it is also worthy as an authoritative reference that you can dip into from time-to-time for key facts and for insights that you will find nowhere else.
The Second World War still casts a shadow over our society and, even today, discussion of the subject has the power to incite great emotion. Keegan's perspective is uncontroversial and conventional. He delivers his subject in an academic but accessible prose that only serves to underline the disturbing picture presented. This was a world literally gone mad. Here was a brutal war waged by four ruthless political leaders in which up to fifty million souls would perish. Usually the passage of time serves to afford the comfort of distance, and with it, a greater objectivity, and that is indeed the case with these events. Yet Keegan's calm, relentless understatement is akin to a quiet hymn and as we read, our fear, shock, astonishment and incredulity at the cruelty and inhumanity of these events grows.