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No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 Hardcover – 6 Sep 2007

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a Infused with irony and paradox, qualities essential to understanding history . . . ["No Simple Victory"] rearranges and juxtaposes facts and events in often unexpectedly illuminating ways.a
a"The Atlantic"
a A lively and contrary historiography, skillfully written.a
a"Library Journal"

Infused with irony and paradox, qualities essential to understanding history . . . ["No Simple Victory"] rearranges and juxtaposes facts and events in often unexpectedly illuminating ways.
"The Atlantic"
A lively and contrary historiography, skillfully written.
"Library Journal"

? Infused with irony and paradox, qualities essential to understanding history . . . ["No Simple Victory"] rearranges and juxtaposes facts and events in often unexpectedly illuminating ways.?
?"The Atlantic"

? A lively and contrary historiography, skillfully written.?
?"Library Journal"

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Norman Davies is a supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Historical Society, and Professor Emeritus at London University. His books include Europe: A History (a New York Times Notable Book), The Isles: A History, and the definitive history of Poland, God s Playground." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x8ed31ae4) out of 5 stars 65 reviews
100 of 108 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e500228) out of 5 stars A vivid multi-faceted analysis of WWII in Europe 6 Sept. 2007
By Graham - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"Europe at War" aims to be a revisionist history of the Second World War in Europe. Davies argues that most Western historians tend to overly focus on battles like El Alamein and the D-Day landings while almost ignoring the much larger battles on the Eastern front, which Davies argues was the truly decisive front for the European war. Similarly, there tends to be an appropriate emphasis on the many crimes of the Nazis, but there is no similar assessment of allied crimes, especially by the Soviets. Davies asks why historians disregard the Soviet Gulag system when talking about "concentration camps" or why the invasion of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the USSR is so often described as simply "the German invasion".

Davies aims to provide a broad and balanced view of the war, stepping beyond a simple narrative history of the battles. The book is organized under five main themes, focusing in turn on:
* the military campaigns
* the politics, before, during and after the war
* the experiences of the soldiers
* the experiences of civilians
* the media portrayals of the war

Davies emphasizes that WWII wasn't a simple fight between Good and Evil. There were three players: the Western democracies, the Axis powers, and the Soviets. Davies characterizes both the Nazis and the Soviets as "gangster" powers and Hitler and Stalin as dueling monsters. In an accident of history, the Western democracies became the allies of Stalin, but Davies argues forcefully that this does not mean we should overlook his crimes.

Davies emphasizes the horrific scale of Stalin's repressions before WWII. In 1939 the Soviet Census Bureau rather unwisely published an article saying that 17 million people were unaccounted for and then, Davies reports, in a regrettably predictable response "the census takers themselves were shot". There was no relaxation either during or after the war. The NKVD operated more and larger concentration camps ("the Gulag") than the Nazis. The Nazis and the Soviets oppressed both occupied countries and their own citizens in surprisingly similar ways. (The invading Soviets quickly reused liberated German concentration camps for their own victims.) Davies argues that if you were an unfortunate Pole caught in the middle, there wasn't much to chose between them.

Davie argues that we need to step back from an overly Western focus and apply even-handed reporting and analysis across the whole of WWII. Battles and campaigns should be covered in proportion to their true overall scale and impact. War crimes and crimes against humanity should also be assessed evenly across all participants, not just the Axis powers. "Europe at War" is a good step in following those rules. Davies clearly aims to be provocative, but he makes his case well and in doing so he also presents a very vivid multi-dimensional view of WWII in Europe.
63 of 68 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e5244f8) out of 5 stars A comment on one review 23 Sept. 2007
By Mariusz Ozminkowski - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Perhaps there is no reason to refer in this brief comment to a review of another person (one star). After all, there is nothing wrong with an occasional disappointed reader. I guess it forces us to reexamine our own views and positions. However, one would expect certain fairness towards the author (any author, not just Davies as in this case). It would take too much space to try to correct one reviewer's corrections (or "corrections"), but a few points should be made.
One of the reasons for Norman Davies' book is to bring to our attention things that have been misrepresented, unknown, omitted, etc in our learning about World War. Whether it was a history class, a Hollywood production, or a television show, we have been getting somewhat biased and incomplete picture of the war in Europe and on the Eastern front in particular. It is interesting that the author of that one review tries to `correct' certain points back to the unknown and stereotypical view of the war in Europe. The role of the Bolsheviks expansionism in the early 1920s is minimized and the Soviet devastating policies in the Ukraine are denied. What is strong and valuable about Norman Davies' book is that he doesn't try to balance evils of Stalin's policies by the enormous sacrifice of the Red Army in gaining victory (or vice versa). The point is to understand the complexity of the situation. Yes, the Soviet war effort and casualties were incomparable with anything else (except the Germans, of course), but also that there is no reason to deny that a large part of the casualties were self-inflicted by idiotic policies and by political terror. And yes, there was a famine in Ukraine, the Soviet part of Ukraine, and it was caused by the Soviet policies. Whether one wants to use "man-made" or replace it with some euphemisms, the result is the same.
Although nothing compares to Stalin's and Nazis' crimes, Davies talks also about the record of the western allies that is not necessarily spotless. One example is the case of maltreatment of German prisoners in the U.S. military ran camp near Dusseldorf in 1945.
The complaints from that one reviewer about supposed errors in Norman Davies' numbers (casualties etc) are missing the point about the difficulty in getting the right numbers. For example, Davies writes that even the most accurate sources can differ in estimating Soviet casualties by as much as 1,000,000 (if I remember correctly). He illustrates these difficulties by another case: "At the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944 1,150 men of General Ander's II Corps were killed. They were Poles... By international law they were citizens of Poland. Yet, since eastern Poland had been annexed to the USSR in 1939, by Soviet law... they were citizens of the USSR. And at the same time of their deaths, they were members of the British Eighth Army..." Were they Poles, Soviets, or British?
I repeat, Norman Davies is not beyond critique and perhaps there are even some minor errors here and there. However, the chances are that the errors are trivial and of no consequence. What can bother some readers is that things are not exactly as they imagined or were taught.
What must be emphasized is that Norman Davies is not writing anything new in terms of facts. One other reviewer actually pointed to that. There are many excellent books that explore new findings (e.g., Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War or Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945). Davies reviews and reevaluate things that are well known to historians. Sometimes to our dismay.
46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8ecf5d38) out of 5 stars No Simple Answers 23 Sept. 2007
By Me, Myself, and I - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Towards the end of his book, Norman Davies quotes Chou En-lai's response in the 1950s to a question about the effects of the French Revolution. "It's too early to say." This, in a nutshell, is the central thesis of No Simple Victory. World War II is simply too recent for historians to properly evaluate without being influenced by politics, patriotism, and propaganda. As an example, Davies points out that American scholarship generally focuses on the years 1941-1945 (witness Ken Burns "The War"), ignoring the fact that the conflict had already been raging in Europe and Asia well before that.

More a historiography than a history, No Simple Victory lays out the key problems in WWII scholarship and provides a broad outline of what future historians should be looking at when enough time has passed that all of the issues can be considered more objectively than is currently possible. Davies is not so much concerned with laying out all the exact details of any particular episode or aspect of the war as he is with identifying the areas of research that are crying out for a larger amount of attention. In this respect, reviewers who quibble with some of the details are missing the entire point of the book. Whole books have been written about episodes that take up just one sentence in this book. The goal of this book is to pose the questions, not necessarily to answer them.

Davies wrote this book as an extension of an article entitled "Ten Forms of Selectivity" in which he identified the following sources of the shortcomings in the current scholarship on WWII : political propaganda, personal prejudices, parochial perspectives, stereotypes, statistics, special interest groups, the procedures of professional historians, Victors' History, History of the Defeated, and moral selectivity. For example, the biases of Western historians have led them to focus on the Battle of Britain and on the Normandy campaign, ignoring the Eastern Front, which consumed a much greater share of the Germans' resources and manpower throughout the conflict. Similarly, the crimes of the defeated powers are (rightly) decried, but the crimes of the victors are swept under the rug, in an effort to depict the war as a "Good vs. Evil" fairy tale.

An alternative framework is offered by Davies, suggesting that the focus of scholarship should be heavily weighted towards the Eastern Front, which he depicts as a conflict between two gangster regimes, neither of which should be granted a moral high ground. Too little is known in the English-speaking world of some of the largest battles the world has ever seen including Kursk, Bagration, and Stalingrad. Too little is known of the GULag and the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Too little is known of the partisans of occupied Europe, who often were rewarded with a trip to the GULag for their efforts in fighting the Nazis. Too little is known of the post-war expulsions of millions of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe, sacrificed to Stalin's desire to keep the territorial gains he made in his pre-war pact with Hitler. Too little is known of the internal inconsistencies of the Allies' wartime positions, which laid the ground for the Cold War.

Overall this book is a thought-provoking and highly readable outline of the European theater of WWII, which should suggest to the reader further areas of research.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e5009f0) out of 5 stars A Reappraisal of World War II in Europe 8 Sept. 2007
By Mr. Truthteller - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"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
HASH(0x8e524588) out of 5 stars A powerful new history that reframes World War II in Europe, sure to spark controversies 1 Mar. 2008
By Donald M. Bishop - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.

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