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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars

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on 28 December 1999
The best thing about this book is that it is pure, unadulterated narrative. Symptomatic of Gilbert's approach is the way the very first lines of the book throw us straight in at the point Germany attacked Poland Sep 1, 1939. There's no long drawn out preamble or musings on the why and wherefores; you can find that in other books. Gilbert's approach is completely chronological, flitting from one theatre of war to another. His style is unobtrusive- as it should be- but elegant enough, and always authoritative. He wisely lets the facts speak for themselves - the horrors of the holocaust, the savagery and scale of the war between Russia and Germany, the amazing suicidal tactics of the Japanese in countless Pacific islands. These are so amazing in themselves that the narrative holds you breathless over 700 pages. I was flabbergasted by this book. I am not given to hyperbole but I am tempted to say this book changed my life; it certainly changed my views on human beings, history, politics and war.
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on 28 April 2015
Several years ago I read an old-fashioned paper version of Martin Gilbert's First World War, and I was always curious about the sequel. Not curious enough to buy it until it came out as an eBook. I ended up reading it whilst on holiday in Budapest, which was an odd experience because Budapest has a small guest appearance towards the end of the book - it is demolished. Almost every location that appears in Second World War is demolished.

First World War was a straightforward and relatively conventional narrative history. Gilbert's treatment of the sequel is a lot more direct. On a pragmatic level he was probably just short of space, but the spartan narrative mirrors the brutal, mechanistic nature of the war itself. The Nazi war aims were unsubtle; the conduct of the war began with some deft military footwork but quickly turned into a series of bludgeoning hammer blows; by 1945 the Nazis were simply killing people for no reason at all, the Japanese were stuffing a generation of young men into a meat grinder for nothing, and it only ended with the obliteration of entire cities, the deaths of millions, the atomic hellfire of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the total upsetting of the existing world order. In the process Europe was crushed like a bug and the modern world was made.

Gilbert begins on page one with the invasion of Poland and continues chronologically thereafter. No boxouts, no diversions, no thematic essays. He leaps from one theatre to the other seamlessly, although this does get repetitive; it goes military action - civilian atrocities - military action - atrocities for page after page. Hundreds, thousands die on every page and I occasionally wondered which paragraph had the highest death toll.

Gilbert continues the narrative for several decades after the end of the war, and I'm not the first reviewer who wishes he could have filled in a bit of context before the beginning, and of course there's nothing about the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s or the rise of the Nazis or the general rise of Fascism as a mass movement. Nonetheless I found the book an extraordinary, shattering experience. Almost numbing. For six years human lives were less valuable than a box of bullets or a can of petrol. Every few pages there is a striking detail, most of which I have forgotten (consults book) the March 1945 Granville raid, in which the Germans successfully sallied from the Channel Islands to the French port of Granville, taking the Allied defenders by surprise just as the war was ending; Dr Eberl, the first commandant of Treblinka, who is dismissed after a month because he disposed of the bodies too slowly; SS Lance-Corporal Libesis, who is not squeamish about shooting Russians. Did these people expect to grow old? Death seems to be a matter of random chance.

The book has some weaknesses beyond the lack of context. It's not a people-book. Unlike for example Robert Massie's Castles of Steel I learned nothing at all about the personalities involved. The likes of Montgomery, Patton, and Zhukov are mentioned almost in passing (Montgomery barely appears). The little people who die in their droves are mostly names and an ethnicity or just part of a mass. Of the top Nazis only Goebbels makes an impression, because the book quotes extensively from his diaries. Whenever there is a British commando raid on Europe, however trivial, it gets a mention; American exploits are covered in much less detail. There's very little coverage of military strategy, which is understandable given that it's a general history, but without knowing more about the fighting it seems strange that the Axis collapses so quickly and thoroughly. Japan's military in particular transforms from a worldbeating force into a liability almost overnight. Japan didn't have a Stalingrad, and yet within two years every battle ends with absolute disaster for the Japanese. They routinely throw thousands of soldiers against the US Marines, who kill them all for the loss of a hundred Marines. How did the Soviets suddenly manage to become worldbeaters? Etc.

And it's neither a strength nor a weakness, but contrary to the modern style there are no personal interviews. The book deals with the grand sweep of events, not individual people. I'm not sure that the book would have benefited from personal reminiscences, they would seem trite. In this respect the book feels a little old-fashioned. It's not that it only covers the big people, it's that it doesn't cover people, it concentrates on events.

Atrocities. The book has an unusual focus on the mass murder of civilians; but perhaps it only seems unusual because I'm used to reading military histories in which wars are made of battles, and mass murder is something that isn't really war. On every page civilians are rounded up and shot, nine hundred here, ten thousand there, seventy here, a hundred there. Old men, mothers, children, women. Thousands, millions of people killed because they were in the way. By the end of the war the German military is rationing artillery shells while the well-equipped SS are given petrol to drive around in trucks killing the last few thousand Jews left in Romania and Lithuania, and for what? Gilbert's book generally avoids anaylsis and instead just presents the facts, which again is frustrating. It would be nice if an experienced historian could have explained the Nazis' motives (sadly Martin Gilbert died recently, so he can't do it).

Nonetheless the book is fairly clear in explaining that the Nazis wanted to use the chaos of war as cover for their ethnic cleansing, although again it would be nice to know why they felt the need to cover anything up; I had always assumed that the Nazis had ultimate power and could do whatever they wanted. The impression is of a political party with an unrealistic manifesto that suddenly found itself far out of its depth having to implement it, and because Hitler and the top Nazis had built up an image of strength, they were unwilling to put it off, which meant having to purge millions of people while simultaneously running a war, which was beyond them.

One thing struck me as I finished the book. If I had been a German soldier, returning from Russian captivity in 1955 to East Germany, and I had found out that Hitler and his cronies were more interested in rounding up civilians than providing me with winter gear, I would have wanted to put a bullet into him myself.
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on 22 February 2015
As histories of the Second World War go, this one is well down my list of good reads. It is very little more than a day by day account with too much emphasis on the Bletchley and other decrypts and the appalling inhumane treatment of the Jews. The equally appalling and inhumane treatment of other nationals by the Germans and of Allied prisoners of war by the Germans and the Japanese, and of German prisoners by the Russians, is by contrast glossed over. The killing of Jews resulted almost entirely for no other reason than their being Jewish but the total civilian death toll was many times higher in circumstances no less horrific. There is almost nothing in Gilbert's history of the major arguments between the Allies over war strategy and anyone would think that Allied victories owed everything to intelligence intercepts. In fact victory was owed to many things and people, not least Churchill of whom Gilbert was the biographer. There are much better accounts of the Second World War than this, unless you just want a daily news diary. If you want military history read Liddell Hart.. If you want political history read Churchill's 6 volumes. Otherwise read Max Hastings.
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on 11 November 2014
I had never read a complete account of the Second World War. I was looking for a book that would bring together all the various events that seemed in my own mind to define its progress. The Blitzkrieg of Poland, Dunkirk, Stalingrad, Pearl Harbour and so on towards D-day. I chose Martin Gilbert's book because of having read his history of WW1 and being impressed by his evident humanity and respect for all combatants and the recognition that all who died were individuals with loved ones. He does not disappoint here. The style is pure narrative and the larger events are interspersed with stories of individuals. There is very little judgement and Gilbert allows the events themselves to define "right" and "wrong" if we wish to try to define it beyond all the carnage and horror.

The text just became more and more harrowing, more and more gripping as the war unfolds. It became unrelenting in its record of shocking and virtually unbelievable horror. At times I was reduced to tears.

It has to be five stars. Or none.
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on 20 October 2000
Sir Martin Gilberts masterful account of the history of the second world war. What makes this history so different from the others is the way in which Sir Martin can switch from the story of an entire offensive onslaught to tell the story of a single young private and his experience of that same battle. Somehow the results of the actions or the death of a single person or group of people can be so much more effective in explaining the true glory of war, or in debunking the great myth of the glory of war depending on your viewpoint. Sir Martin can and does give examples of both. The historical facts are still there, but so also is the humanity, with both of it's faces showing. A book for anyone with an interest in the Second World War who doesn't want just facts and casualty figures.
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on 26 July 2011
I purchased this book a few years ago as I was writing an essay on the fall of the Nazis, I ended up reading the entire book in a few days as I was so hooked. The level of facts and details that are used put the reader in the middle of WWII and make the reader feel as if they are experiencing it all. A must buy for any history buffs! Be sure to buy any other history books by Martin Gilbert as he is a genius!
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on 6 November 2014
This is an excellent comprehensive history of the detail of the War. I found the variety of detail fascinating from the small stories about individual acts of bravery, the detail of the horror of the plight of the Poles and other nations under Nazi domination to the more famous events. Rather than be bogged down in post event analysis this simply converts the total nature of the war - well worth a read
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on 23 March 2001
An very intersting book which educates you on many aspects of the second world war especially the pace at which it was carried out, and the human loss involved. The persecution of the jews is shown in all the horror it deserves
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on 16 April 2016
I bought this book in paperback some years back and I've read it many times. Wanted it to read on my kindle, arrived as always in a speedy fashion. This book is to me still one of the top researched and well written accounts of the Second World War, a fabulous book and recommend to anyone with an interest.
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on 10 March 2005
Very complete, very concise (considering the enormity of the subject), this extremely well researched book offers an almost day-by-day history of the war. Unfortunately, it reads more like a textbook; there is no personal comment, little analysis of the personalities involved and no background. By starting the book on 1 Sept 1939 there is no consideration given to the German/European political situation 1918-1939. Likewise, whilst the Nazi atrocities are described in detail as part of the fabric of war (which they were, of course), background to the Nazi philosophies or pre-war history might would have given these details a further dimension. Of course, the book is big enough already, but less minutiae and more analysis - as in the superb histories by John Keegan - would have made the most momentous series of events in history a little more interesting.
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