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on 4 September 2013
If you were brought up on the Winston Churchill interpretation of the Second World War, as most British people were, then you will understand it essentially as a struggle between nations, which was won by the good guys as a result of a knock-out in 1945. The reality of the War, of course, was very different, and if you have ever taken an interest in issues such as wartime resistance and collaboration, then you know that the Second World War was at least as much about politics as about nations, and at least as much about struggles within nations as about struggles between them. To this extent, Mr Lowe's new book is not actually as ground-breaking as many of the reviews have suggested. Few European readers, for example, would be surprised at the majority of the content.
That said, the book is very useful in in bringing together a great deal of recent research, and also for the work that the author has done in the archives. The problem is that, after this mighty effort of research, Mr Lowe seems uncertain what to do with the complex and harrowing material that he has unearthed. At the beginning, at least, the book treats the post-war period thematically, which is probably a mistake. As if recognising this, towards the end of the book the organisation shifts to separate chapters on particular countries. The result is awkward, with some subjects treated in a very scattered fashion in different places. In addition, whilst there are a number of very judicious conclusions, both historical and moral, they're not organised into any kind of coherent whole.
Given the enormous amount of research that the author has done, it might seem unkind to argue that the book should be even longer and contain even more. But there are at least three areas where this would have been useful. Firstly the whole issue of collaboration needs to be treated more thoroughly. The book glosses over the fact that many European countries actively fought on the side of the Nazis, and, more importantly, that around half million European volunteers fought in the Waffen SS. They did this primarily because of their strong opposition to Communism, a political motivation which does is not figure very largely in the book. But this absence disguises the extent to which the Second World War was as much as anything else a European Civil War in which nationals of nearly all the major combatants fought on both sides. Second, and as a consequence, there is very little attention given to the Soviet Union. Although the book does briefly touch on the almost inconceivable suffering of the Soviet people, and the unbelievable death and destruction inflicted upon them, it tries to account for the behaviour of Soviet troops in Germany and of Stalin's post-war policies, without mentioning this aspect at all. Rather, the author seems to assume that Soviet troops in Germany in 1945 behave badly, because they were the victims of nationalist propaganda. This is another case where the national dimensional gets too much space and the political dimensional too little. And finally more needs to be said about the Resistance, and particularly the way in which the it was distrusted by the Allies for most of the war. The fact that it was dominated by the Left, with a strong Communist component, caused a lot of worry in London and Washington even during the War and strong efforts were made to control the Resistance and ensure that it did not frustrate British and American plans for occupied Europe. Arms deliveries, for example, were targeted towards right-wing resistance groups as far as possible. The book also ignores the enormous efforts made by De Gaulle, with people like Jean Moulin, to unify the French Resistance, and to prevent the kind of civil war which the author describes in Greece.
Overall, the book has many virtues and will probably be very educational for those brought up on the Churchillian view of the Second World War, but I can't not feeling that the author lost control of his material at a certain point, and never really got it back again.