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on 13 January 2007
This book addresses a basic but to date un-remedied defect consistently present in most books written about World War Two. Now that in excess of sixty years have passed since the war's end fresh, un-biased books on this most complicated and emotional of subjects are still few and far between. In particular from an English speaking perspective, one is still given the strong impression that Nazi Germany was beaten in equal measure by the combined efforts of Britain, America and the Soviet Union together with its associated allies such as the Poles, French and others. The reality is a good deal more surprising than such an orthodox view would suggest and to this end Norman Davies comprehensively and in a very readable manner dispels such myths. The book is also multifaceted in its perspective giving a comprehensive view of the war as fought in Europe, (the book is not an account of the Pacific conflict). It is rare for one book to cover the catalogue of World War Two issues documented here, it is rarer still to find such matters written about in a compelling, accessible yet scholarly way. In this regard, the book is a towering achievement and must have presented a massive task to compile. As you progress through the book, Davies repeatedly demonstrates that in essence the lion's share of fighting was done in the Eastern Front where both sides employed the most barbaric of practices to destroy their enemy and to compel their men (and women)to fight under the most grisly and inhuman of circumstances; and where on balance the Soviet Union under Stalin was prepared to go further than anyone else to gain the upper hand. One is therefore faced with accepting that World War Two whilst perceived by most people as a battle between good and evil was in reality a battle between an extreme and criminally culpable Nazi Germany and an even more extreme and more criminally culpable Stalinist Soviet Union that ultimately resolved the conflict. The contribution of others, such as Britain and the US whilst significant was not ultimately decisive. As a result of secrecy, clever propaganda, an unwillingness to criticise an ally and a general naivete of those in positions of influence in Britain and the US, Soviet criminality remained unexposed for decades and even to this day is not properly appreciated. Such revelations when properly explained as they have been by Davies simply take your breath away. On a rare occasion a book deserves something more than five stars. This is one such rare occasion.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 15 December 2007
I put this book down with a sigh because it completely explodes the myth of a good and bad side to WW2
I'd always been told that this was a war against the evil Nazis - but in fact a) we didn't do the majority of the fighting against the Nazis
b) the methods of our premier ally in the war was every bit as bad as what we fighting against (I clear case of 'they may be ********, but they are our ...'

Stalin may well have been right, in that England bought the time, the US the money and the USSR the blood' to the fight but the whole book just leaves you with a very nasty taste in your mouth, not just about the war but the methods used by the protagonists in pursuit of their aims

The image of two sides in the European war is demolished - there were qute clearly three on this evidence and the Allies had very different aims.
Its also quite clear that the battles that destroyed the German ability to attack were not fought by the US and UK - the USSR are shown to have destroyed that capability at Kursk and we should acknowledge that effort for the turning point that it was

The worst part of this book is not the campaigns but all the associated activity around the occupation of countries , police , summary justice, race murder and so on.

The Germans needed to be stopped - I still think that is a fact
But it was the USSR that did most the work in Europe and what the UK and US were unable to stop was the partition of Europe after the war that took another 50 years to change.

In fact the most chilling part of the book is the suggestion that the second world war was just the second military phase of a power struggle in Europe that lasted from 1914 to 1990

An excellent read with some uncomfortable conclusions
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on 12 June 2007
This is not a dry and dusty tome full of statistics and minute detail, and as such is probably not a good first port of call for students. However, it is a very fine overview with particular emphasis on context, delving into usually unconsidered aspects of this calamitous conflict. Social, economic and human aspects are well covered. The military aspects are somewhat briefly addressed. This is not a criticism as there are numerous other sources for the nitty gritty of campaigns, strategy, tactics and weapons. The strongest point that this book makes is that despite our acquired memory of of the apparent dominance of the war in the west, in reality the contribution of the western allies was relatively small. The war was largely won and lost in the east and at its close it left almost as many unresolved matters as the First World War had. In reality it was the central conflict of a long European war that lasted from 1914 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. For those seeking a fresh outlook on what they think they know about the war, this book meets that need. It is well written in an open and readable style and is organised into small bite sized chunks for those who wish to dip in and out. Read it, you won't be disappointed.
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on 9 May 2007
This is yet another excellent book by Mr. Davies. You will not find in it too many details on tactics, strategies and military operations, however you will find facts that have often escaped the attention of Europeans from the western part of our continents - that the Second World War was really an unfinished business from the first one, that it was, first of all - a clash of two totalitarian regimes, that have enslaved its nations, not only physically but also mentally. A sad account of systems that caused pain and suffering not only to other respective nations but also to its own people (especially Soviets). This book shows as well, how the West left East Europe to Soviet gangsters in the end.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 September 2008
Norman Davies had already made himself my favourite historian with his mighty Europe: A History and majestic The Isles: A History both of which provided pictures bigger than all my historical reading to that date. How many people realise that the Polish-Lithuanian empires extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea in late medieval times. Nuf said.

This history of WWII is in my opinion, his most important book to date, because it aims to place the first real dent in the deeply flawed mythologies that virtually all particpant and victim nations have inherited as their 'History' of WWII. The fact that this is something that needs to be done now, today, that might have genuine consequences for how future Geo-politics pans out, particularly with respect to relations between Europe and Russia, makes this more than just armchair historical reading.

The book makes explicit what was beginning to become apparent to me through my own various readings around WWII. That WWII was essentially an apocalyptic battle between two of the most brutal tyrranies devised by man, and that the contribution made by the allied democracies, whilst being respectable were not the decisive, good and just contributions that they have bought their children up to believe. Their intervention merely ensured that one of the two tyrranies would emerge as the absolute victor, and would be allowed to continue its programmes of nightmare oppression for the next 50 years of the cold war, before collapsing under its own internal contradictions.

It also makes the point, for me not forcefully enough, that none of the protaginists of the war started out with clean hands. The empires of the colonial powers were all based on slaughter and maintained on the threat of slaughter through superior technology and wealth. Apologists for the British Empire like to tell us of its splendid achievements for the populations concerened and to point at those places where its departure collapsed into conflict. That is not the point. The colonies were justified on the basis of outrageous chauvinism and all populations rejoiced at the departure of their masters, whereupon the business of normal history resumed. Early 20th Century US adventurism in central America, and more particularly the Philipines makes shocking reading for those who would care to follow it up. It is a story of million plus deaths, concentration camps and deeply cynical media manipulation, to ensure the folks back home saw it all from a righteous light. The story makes Roosevelts opprobium at the British Empire, as represented by Churchill, a cynical political manipulation with an eye to future US dominance, rather than the idealistic posture on behalf of American public opinion as usually portrayed.

The real victors of WWII are the generations of the western democracies who have grown up to enjoy freedoms so unprecedented that they cannot imagine alternatives. The real losers were their couterparts left to the tender mercies of the Soviets.

Each time I read a text on WWII I swear it will be the last because I find it so sad and harrowing. But it is clear that, 60 years on, the objective account, not coloured by nationalistic mythologies, has yet to emerge. So I guess there is more painful and harrowing reading to come for many of us yet.

Anyone unconvinced that the scale of the Nazi-Soviet conflict, made all else in Europe a side show should just try Googling WWII Eastern Front. Stalin put it best - 'Britain provided the time, America the money and Russia the Blood'.
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on 2 July 2007
A famous historian has written a rather special account, with particular purpose in mind as well, as the Author tells us in the introductions.

I personally reserve my greatest admiration for "Europe - a history" with its inimitable Capsules, which I venture to guess the Author himself considers his Magnum Opus.

I recommend this book, "No Simple Victory", to everyone though it may have been written with a British or Wasp reader in mind . I ought to be ashamed to have any quibbles; but here they are.

I was disappointed by the mini-chapter on "Politics" which does not raise above a standard account. There is no mention of the Tehran Conference of 1943 being in fact TWO twin conferences with the same participants; the other, hidden from view, decided the fate of Iran (Persia) . The Fate of Iran and of Iranian oil. The Double-Tehran marks the deals dividing the world in spheres of influence, Eastern Europe already then ceded to Stalin. This was confirmed by Winston Churchill in Potsdam 1945: "I have always supported the Russian position in that part of the world" - speaking about Konigsberg. Not Europe, the World! The Author despite his deconstructing record, does reserve his critical remarks for the Americans and FDR, and spares the arch-imperialist Prime Minister ruling the British Empire.

He might have given a hint at the anti-colonial zeal of FDR and Harry Hopkins and/or a hint at the dubious influence the latter had on the American President.

Leaving politics aside, the horrors of war are all very well described.

I would welcome a more detailed and

- what has never appeared anywhere - a documented full account of the unbelievable regime in the Red Army prodded from behind with Special Battalions and NKVD, who shot

down laggards but also those unusually brave and/or popular (sic!).

These of other special points of detail cannot change the essential conclusion: the book is a great hit, without any doubt. Its unusual design, unexpected chapters, unquestionable originality - are certain marks of this

great author.
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on 21 September 2007
Norman Davies, as in many of his books, makes a significant contribution to understanding the nations of Central & Eastern Europe, which are now members of the European Union. He is their champion and they deserve it.

The EU for long meant Western Europe, but the Eastern parts suffered the brunt of the dreadful 20th century history. The worst of the World War II atrocities and casualties occurred in the East. Kursk in Russia in 1943 was the deciding European land battle, not D-Day in 1944. The Red Army fought the fiercest encounters of the final stages of the war, and came off with more spoils than the West.

World War II was primarily a conflict between two sets of gangsters - Hitler and the Nazis and Stalin and the Communists. One set of gangsters won and the other lost. It was not so much a victory of over totalitarianism and racism as has been depicted in the West.

This puts the historical focus more advantageously on Central & Eastern Europe. The peoples of this part of Europe deserve our sympathy and support, since they were the victims of a "lost" war - being exposed to 40 years of Soviet-imposed Communism. The West did little to alleviate that wretched outcome of the war and we should refrain from continuing to indulge in excessive self-congratulation.

Marcus Ferrar, co-author Slovenia 1945
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on 17 July 2007
Unlike other WWII histories, Davies splits his book into warfare, politics, soldiers, civilians and portrayals, and this works well. The maps, pictures and tables of statistics are very useful and interesting.

A large book but one that can easily be dipped into.
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on 1 February 2009
"Europe at War" is intelligently broken into sections that cover different aspects of the conflict: one for "Civilians", another for "Politicians" and so on, such that by the end of the book the key events have been covered from different perspectives that overlay each other to provide a much more comprehensive and much deeper understanding than most histories or biographies written from a single standpoint.

The other key strength of this title is that it eschews the conventional belief held in the West that Hitler was defeated by the US, Britain, and members of the Commonwealth such as Canada. The reality, which is clearly and comprehensively laid out here by Norman Davies, is that the Western Front prior to June 1944 was effectively a side show, and that Allied efforts in North Africa, while core to our Western perspective on the war, were puny in comparison to the massive campaigns on the Eastern Front.

In reality, the Second World War was a monumental clash between two totalitarian titans, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Equally brutal, equally set on total victory at any cost - and the costs were unimaginable.

By the end of the war the Western Allies were worn out, despite the fact that their contribution was a fraction of the USSR's, and had to accept Stalin's annexation of half of Europe, including the occupation of Poland, which was betrayed several times by her Western allies.

That is the uncomfortable truth of the Second World War: it was no simple victory.
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