on 29 September 2012
Norman Davies' 'Europe at War: No simple victory' covers the European portion of the Second World War. Davies covers the military and political aspects of the entire European War and argues that the politics and diplomatic actions of the Eastern Front were the primary focus of the war. Davies argues that the Soviets were the clear victors of the war, that the efforts of the Eastern Front are largely downplayed in the west, that the war was not one of good vs. evil, and that the west is largely ignorant of the fact that the Soviet regime was just as evil as the Nazi regime.
Davies work is largely well written and easy to read, although there are numerous occasions were uncommon French sayings, German and Russian words and terms are used and translations are not provided. A key example is the use of the German term 'Ritterkreuz', over the more common English translation of 'Knights Cross'. Davies work is well researched with pages of endnotes providing the location of the sources he has used; although few primary sources appear to have been consulted resulting in what appears to be a reanalysis of already published secondary sources rather than a re-examination of actual evidence. There is a lack of a clear and complete bibliography and Davies notes early on that he would not cite everything as "there seems no point" due to the nature of his work.
The opening chapter presents Davies core themes: that the Soviet Union was just as evil - or even more so - as Nazi Germany and that the lion's share of the fighting took place in Eastern Europe. These themes are discussed in length and expanded on throughout the book. Davies argues his point well that the war was no battle of good vs. evil, in the end there was no moral victory in Europe. Everyone, even those who went to war with the best of intentions were smeared by the evils that is war. In the long run a background of all participants is provided: of the contradicting democratic-imperialistic western powers, the fascists of central Europe, and the communists of the USSR. The USSR soon becomes the focus of the book and Davies provides a damming assessment of the communist running of the USSR before and during the war along with the USSR's foreign policy. The argument is put forth that with the rise of Nazism and fascism across Europe, Stalin and the communists were able to dupe the western world into looking the other way about their appalling human rights record as they provided the prospect of an ally to fight Nazi Germany and later, once attacked, in fact did provide this crucial alliance. With the opening of the Eastern Front Davies attempts to balance the issue, as he sees it, of placing the centre of gravity of the war in the east: the heaviest fighting took place in the Ukraine and Belorussia and these populations, accordingly, suffered the most. These points are all well argued, however Davies also states he believes Hitler lacked a long term goal of going to war with the USSR. This particular point I feel is Davies weakest argument, the position contradicts an awful lot of other works that is out there and little in the way of solid evidence is provided to support it.
The second chapter provides a concise look at the various campaigns waged across Europe, between September 1939 and mid-1945, and the reasoning behind why they were launched. Compelling arguments are made on why Stalin undertook his various campaigns, prior to June 1941, and the importance of the Eastern Front is clearly highlighted throughout. On the whole the chapter provides a good general rundown of the various campaigns of war. It also highlights that Hitler was not the only leader launching wars of aggression against neighbours: Stalin attacked Poland, took on Finland, absorbed the Baltic States, and grabbed land elsewhere. However, Davies looks at the Western Front in a very simplistic and extremely bias way. While in the grand scale of the war the Fall of France took place in a very limited timeframe, only six paragraphs are used to detail the 1940 campaign. This short summary appears to be a grossly simplified attempt to detail what happened and lacks any of the arguments put forth by Julian Jackson's (The Fall of France) excellent work that highlights that the defeat of France was anything but simple. Likewise Davies argues that Hitler stopped his tanks from completing the defeat of the British Army, on the beaches of Dunkirk, for political reasons without providing so much as a single piece of evidence to support this position when the weight of the historiography on the subject states it was due to various military reasons that the German tanks were halted and an excellent rear-guard action that allowed the British army to escape. In a similar vein, Davies opines that Operation Sealion would have been a complete success and claims that the British Isles were almost completely defenceless, but fails to highlight the defensive efforts that were being made by the British, the Dominions and the Empire to defend the United Kingdom. Furthermore, an overly simplistic opinion is made that - regardless of historical logistical constraints - if Hitler had wanted to, troops and tanks could have just been pumped into the North African desert and the Middle East captured without much trouble. For a work attempting to downplay myths, Davies repeats the myth of Italian troops being next to useless. The accomplishments achieved in Normandy, by the allied forces, are belittled and the rate of advance is criticised as being a result of poor soldiers and leadership with a need to rely solely on rockets and big guns to move forward (although ironically, later in the book, the Germans and Soviets are hailed for their use of rockets and big guns) yet the German effective in-depth defences and terrain that suited the defender (which removed the power of the offense, and resulted in the same problem when the Germans launched their own attacks in Normandy) is barely mentioned. The allied drive across France, post Normandy, is described as being at a "snail pace" regardless of the fact it was conducted just as fast as the German conquest in 1940. Operation Market Garden is deemed as a "reckless" move, but such criticism are not levelled at the various German or Soviet disastrous operations launched on the Eastern Front.
During the Political chapter, the earlier themes are expanded upon. Davies piles on the evidence to highlight the terrible domestic conditions within the USSR - mass murder, collectivisation, man-made famine etc. - and the ever-changing foreign policy of a shrewd and paranoid Stalin. This point is hammered home by Davies who wants the reader to be well aware of the crimes of the Soviet regime were akin, or more so, to the crimes committed by the Nazi government. The pre-war contradiction that was democratic-imperialist western powers is further discussed, and how the problems that cropped up between them were ironed out through treaties and diplomatic manoeuvring rather than threats and war as seen by the fascist and communist powers. The lack of a unified front among the western powers when it came to dealing with the Soviets is discussed and Davies argues that the west basically 'dropped the ball' with Stalin and gave him a free hand to mould post-war Eastern Europe to his own liking.
The next chapter covers the military power of all sides from 'enlistment to war grave'. This chapter covers a variety of subjects ranging from the weapons utilised, short biographies of generals and war heroes, to how war cemeteries differ across Europe. The entire chapter seems somewhat out of place to the rest of the book, does little to further the earlier arguments of the book (other than a veiled attempt to reinforce the point of the importance of the meat grinder that was the Eastern Front), and somewhat feels like filler. The various subjects covered are done so in a very simplistic way, and deal with generalities rather than hard facts. Davies comes across as rather naive about the Anglo-American military, their commanding officers, and how they conducted the war. Davies states quite clearly that due to new access to the ex-Soviet archives, the heroics of Soviet heroes has come under close scrutiny and it appears most are pure propaganda stories. However, the same level of scepticism is not levelled at the Germans. For example Hans-Ulrich Rudel's list of achievements are presented, but the same type of questions are not asked of his accomplishments. The impression is that German propaganda is more legitimate than Soviet propaganda.
'Civilians' is the longest chapter of the book and, outside of the central argument regarding the Soviet regime, the most powerful. The chapter is split into numerous sections covering many aspects of civilian life during the war ranging from the various types of occupation civilians found themselves under, the various types of camps operated by all parties, bombings, culture, crime, genocide and ethnic cleansing etc. Davies argues that life for a civilian was determined on a number of factors including social and ethnic background, to where in Europe one lived. For some, the war could pass by almost as if it did not happen whereas the majority were at the whim of Nazi or Soviet security forces, caught up in the midst of numerous civil wars between ethnic groups, or lived were the frontline happened to be passing through and for years life could be almost hellish. The chapter is also used to further the central argument and the crimes of the Soviet regime committed upon civilian populations before, during, and after the war are brought to light. While the chapter is the most powerful, painting a picture of continent-wide brutality, it is also rather vague in places with some sections being weaker than others. While the crimes committed in central and eastern Europe are highlight, it feels that in places those that are committed in the west are somewhat downplayed. The chapter is also littered with various errors, in regards to both Western and Eastern Europe. For example, Davies argues that more civilians died during the 7 July bombing of the French city of Caen than did on D-Day. Most online sources place D-Day civilian losses in the range of a few thousand whereas the 7 July bombing resulted in less than 500 fatalities, the only higher estimates come from immediate wartime British reports - later recanted following thorough investigation - and Soviet propaganda that placed casualties in the region of 20,000.
The final chapter 'Portrayals' looks at wartime and post-war culture regarding the war. Like the chapter on the various militaries that fought the war, this one feels out of place and does not further the central arguments. The chapter, while interesting in places, is mostly a dull list of authors and filmmakers. In fact Davies breaks away from one of his central arguments - that the west downplays/does not understand the eastern front - and highlights that both the east and west promote their own actions (or demote some, such as the GUlags) during the war. Davies highlights that while Hollywood and western literature focus primarily on the likes of Normandy or the Battle of Britain, Soviet movies and literature likewise focused on the actions of the Red Army. It is somewhat surprising to see Davies call Max Hasting - a journalist by trade and author of several historical works - to be one of the best historians out there. Davies, as vague as in other sections of his book, briefly comments on Stephen Ambrose and AJP Taylor yet he does not mention in detail the controversy surrounding them: such as the allegations, against both, of fabrication and ignoring evidence that did not suit their opinions. It is also interesting to note Davies label Guy Sajer's `The Forgotten Soldier' as fiction when there is still controversy surrounding the book as whether it is fictitious or not.
There are numerous errors throughout the book (i.e. the fictional account of the "MV Hela"). Not only does Davies appear not to understand the meaning of 'Wehrmacht' (meaning 'armed forces', and not the German army), he continually provides the incorrect designation for American, British, and Canadian field armies. A brief swipe is made at the reparation payments enforced on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, but Davies position is one that has long been dismissed by the works of Sally Marks and Stephen Shuker. One of the major issues has to be the inflated figures Davies repeatedly uses in regards to the death toll as a result of the bombing of Dresden. Davies comments how it is the historian's job to attempt to present the truth about a subject, and how for the last 70 years the Eastern Front has been neglected, the truth not told, half-truths and lies presented instead. With Dresden, Davies does the complete opposite of what he claims he is fighting against. The rationale for the attack, as provided by the RAF and USAAF, is ignored and not provided, the cities defences are not mentioned, nor is its importance to the defence of the Eastern Front discussed. While everyone has the right to disagree with whether the attack was justified or not, Davies only presents one side of the coin in regards to this issue and uses inflated death figures every time Dresden is discussed. Lower established estimates and statistics, which were available before 2006, are not provided to the reader and Davies inflated figures have subsequently been shown to be completely inaccurate by the release of more official statistics by Dresden city officials. To add insult to injury, to support his information on Dresden, Davies utilised the work of the disgraced David Irving. Furthermore the discredited work of James Bacque, 'Other Losses', is used to question the American handling of German prisoners of war at the end of the war.
Davies central thesis is that in the western world the efforts of the Eastern Front are largely downplayed and not given the recognition that they deserve while also not highlighting that the Soviet regime was just as criminal as the Nazi regime. While both points are correct, they are not as revolutionary as the book makes out, and for the last twenty years a steady stream of information has come forward that has brought balance to the historiography of the Second World War (a point only briefly mentioned in the chapter `Portrayals'). However, Davies argues his points well about the crimes of the Soviets and of the bloodshed that was the Eastern Front. While the central theme of the book is the politics of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and the Eastern Front, it seems only fair that the balance of opinion of this review focuses on these areas. In this regard Davies has produced an enlightening look at the war in Eastern Europe, the politics of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, as well as their crimes. However, in highlighting the vast importance of the politics and war in Eastern Europe the role of the west has ended up being downplayed. Ironically, while the author states he is attempting to iron out the myths that have been built up about the east, a vast amount of misinformation is presented about the Western Allies. The opening chapters and 'Civilians' provide, on the whole, excellent arguments - if vague and repetitive in places - however the other chapters feel out of place and could have been excluded. In all, this is a work that ends up making one rethink their views of the war but at the same time is a flawed work.