on 26 September 2012
Anthony Beevor's book provides an excellent and often compassionate account of this most appalling human tragedy. It is written in his well established authorative yet readable style. I am not an historian as such but as far as I can tell, from other books I have consulted, Beevor has successfully brought together the account of this event and clearly demonstrates why WWII still casts the long shadow across generations like mine, fortunate enough not to have experience of it at first hand. I have been a little surprised that some celebrated episodes are not referred to even in passing, but I accept that in a single volume like this, some events may have played a rather minor part in WWII as a whole. It is a harrowing account and one wonders how anyone who lived through the Second World War would not be altered and conditioned by it. The brutality of it as described here is at times utterly distressing.
The book suffers from a deficiency in maps (there are a few but they are not the best). A work like this could do with a supporting website to provide clearer and more detailed cartography, or failing that, at least perhaps a recommended war atlas to provide locations and campaigns that formed the contexts of the war, and the chapters of this book.
on 7 June 2012
The sheer immensity of the Second World War is even now, after more ink has been spilt on it than on almost any other event in history, almost impossible to grasp. The war affected countless people in every conceivable small and big way, it changed the fate of innumerable nations and set the tone for issues with which we are still grappling, and it showcased the very best and very worst in human nature. Very few historians are capable of capturing this epic panorama of tragedy and triumph on paper. Happily for us, Antony Beevor is one of those chosen few who can. In the past few decades he has established himself as a war historian of the first rank. This volume can be seen as the culmination of a stellar career during which he has introduced us to the very nature of war and its human elements. Beevor's sweeping, magisterial account of this great conflict excels in three ways that are characteristic of his past scholarship on D-Day, Stalingrad and Berlin.
Firstly, Beevor delivers the raw strategic and historical facts with a relentless, crisp pace, covering all major events, participants and theaters of war. The history is informed by a treasure trove of material cited in the notes, including personal sources such as the invaluable diary of Soviet correspondent Vasily Grossman. There are 50 chapters and the title of each chapter describes the one or two key events narrated in it. The brevity of the chapters makes the book accessible and great for bedtime reading. A particular skill of Beevor's is in condensing the most important information in relatively brief paragraphs. Rather than provide separate extended quotes from the prime participants, he excerpts these quotes within the paragraphs. Even a book that is 800 pages long cannot possibly spend too much time on every single event; Beevor understands this and is remarkably facile at saying much in a minimum number of words. It's also worth comparing this volume with the acclaimed recent book by Max Hastings. Hastings's is more of an on-the-ground perspective detailing the travails and triumphs of ordinary people. Beevor's is a higher-level account that nonetheless includes enough personal details to bring out the brutality of the war. Both are outstanding.
Unlike many other works, Beevor begins his story not with the traditional German invasion of Poland in 1939 but with the Soviet defeat of the Japanese in Manchuria one month earlier. In fact one of the major strengths of the book that sets it apart from many other volumes is its constant focus on the conflict in the Far East between Japan, China and the Soviet Union whose origins preceded European events. This theme surfaces regularly in the book as it should since the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, as exemplified by the horrific Rape of Nanking, was as momentous for the future of the war as anything else. Along the same lines, while Beevor does cover major battles in Europe and the Pacific like the Battle of Britain, France, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Italy, Midway and the U-Boat conflict with verve and clarity, he also has separate detailed chapters on (relatively) minor but still key war zones like Egypt, Greece and Burma. An especially rousing story is of the small Finnish army virtually demolishing the overwhelmingly large Soviet forces at the start of the war through guerrilla warfare. Large, clear maps displaying movements and sites of major battles accompany every account. Descriptions of weapons systems, code-breaking and terrain-specific equipment all benefit from Beevor's concise style. In chapters on the Holocaust and Soviet purges, he chillingly documents the incalculably horrific crimes of the twentieth century's two genocidal tyrants, Hitler and Stalin, even as he does not fail to detail their shrewd genius in manipulating human beings and events. Stalin especially clearly comes across as an egomaniacal but calculating strategist who ensured his share of the postwar spoils during meetings with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, Tehran and Potsdam.
Secondly, just as he did in past works, Beevor is remarkable at documenting the human element in the war in all its terrifying cruelty and redeeming glory. All the horrors of the war are on full display here; the NKVD murdering its own people by the hundreds of thousands, the Japanese mutilating Chinese women with bayonets, the cold killing soldiers so swiftly that they resembled grotesque ice sculptures, the citizens of Leningrad eating their own children in the face of desperate starvation and madness, Russian soldiers raping every female between eight and eighty after "liberating" Berlin, and of course, the systematic, industrialized mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. A particularly disturbing and startling fact which I was not aware of concerns horrible experiments with biological agents performed on American POWs by Japanese doctors, often with fatal results. The disturbing thing is that Douglas MacArthur granted immunity from prosecution to these doctors in the hope that they would provide detailed records to the Allies. This story only drives home the fact that the war which Beevor writes of was unimaginably horrific and blurred moral boundaries, and particularly because it is unimaginably so, the passage of time should never blind us to it. While many deeds in the war were undoubtedly immoral, ambiguous morality was also a constant theme, whether it concerned MacArthur's behavior or the strategic bombing of German cities. We are still debating these issues.
But there are also acts of incredible altruism described in here; ordinary Germans sacrificing themselves to protect Jews, hopelessly outnumbered Jews rising against monstrous despots (as in the Warsaw uprising), and people transcending religion, class and political sentiments to save the lives of total strangers. These accounts are accompanied by characteristically vivid - and at times amusing - character sketches which concisely showcase the essential qualities of major participants; for instance, Chamberlain is out of depth with his "winged collar, Edwardian mustache and rolled umbrella". All major human alliances, including the famously successful relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, are chronicled with wit, compassion and insight. Another of Beevor's talents is in conveying the sheer absurdity and surreal nature of war; for example there's Hermann Goering complaining about the price of shattered glass panes during Kristallnacht, and the French gingerly broadcasting a song named "I will wait" even as German forces amassed across the border in plain sight in 1940. Most emblematic of how downright bizarre war can be is the story of a Korean private named Yang Kyoungjong who was captured and conscripted successively by the Japanese, the Soviets and the Germans.
Finally, Beevor does a stunning job at giving us an idea of the sheer irrationality and utterly brutalizing nature of war and how it changes everyone and everything. Fifty or sixty years after the fact, the Second World War appears like a series of rationally organized if tragic incidents culminating in the victory of good over evil. It's accounts like this that dispel that illusion and tell us that so many events were just based on good or bad luck. But in concluding this magisterial narrative, Beevor leaves us with the caveat that in the irrationality of war lies hope, the possibility that things could have been different had people acted just a little differently. In case of the Second World War that would have translated to France, Britain and the United States recognizing Hitler's ominous and growing power in the 30s and banding together to stop him. Of course it is convenient to conclude this in hindsight, but it still makes a case for always being alert in recognizing the wrong turns that human nature can take. Indeed, Beevor reminds us in the end that "moral choice is the fundamental element in human drama, because it lies at the very heart of humanity itself". This is a lesson we should remember until the end of time.
This is a superbly written, and very readable, account which covers the global sweep of the Second World War, with clear explanation of the factors which drove events at the time, as well as excellent narrations of the events themselves. There is also a strong human dimension in the writing - the motivations of the key players and the effects of war on the lives of combatants and civilians is recounted superbly, often in the words of those who were there.
Antony Beevor's magisterial, and superbly researched, history is not biased towards coverage of a particular geographical region or country. This history explains the events of the war in each of the main, and many of the smaller, theatres of war; there is much here for, example, about the events in Asia, as well as the war in Western and Eastern Europe. As a general reader i found much that was new to me, and many fresh insights into the events of which I already had fairly good knowledge
Beevor makes clear the horror of war, and its appalling human cost, whilst providing a highly informative, beautifully illustrated and very readable narrative.
on 6 March 2014
I'm no expert. I assume the facts are accurate, and it is well told. Also has a lot of personal first-hand experiences and quotations. BUT the maps are TERRIBLE and far too few, most even lack a legend. To wit - even the end-paper map is almost totally useless! I'm surprised Mr. Beevor could allow this to occur. In contrast, his Stalingrad has better, more informative maps. For those who rely on maps for a more visual record of battles (as opposed to a verbal telling), The Historical Atlas of World War II (Chartwell Books, 2008) is about as good as it gets.
There is already a much more erudite and in depth review of the book above so all I can add are my impressions of it which may be of value to you.
Whilst I eagerly devour just about anything written about WWII I was particularly looking forward to this all encompassing book on the war. I am probably in the majority in that I have just finished Max Hastings' similar effort before tackling this and I have to say that this book is a much more - the only word I can think of is - entertaining read. It is truly a delight and I have finished it in a two day readathon. This has NOT been time wasted. I have one, probably obvious, caveat in that similarly to Mr Beevor's last book on D-Day there is not much new on display here. This could have been a problem had not well known events take on new resonance with the author's brisk and incisive style. For me this style still didn't make "D-Day" the great book it promised to be but it would appear that there is enough room when writing about the war as a whole to find nuggets that keep the pace going to the end.
All in all this book created a dilemma for me because in some eyes a 5 star review should be reserved for uncondtionally great books, and because this book largely goes over old ground perhaps it cannot be deemed "great" in that sense but I have looked at Amazon's "rules" and apparently a five star review should be reserved for a book one has "loved" and i loved this book.
on 28 June 2012
The Second World War by Antony Beevor is a well written book on an epic conflict on a global scale and a highly documented subject.
To take on a subject as complex and as multi-faceted as the second World War and still keep the narrative interesting would be a challenge to any author and yet Antony Beevor manages to do this in the books 879 pages.
The book deals with the all aspects of the War from the European and Pacific Theatres and their decisive battles and campaigns to the less well known ones such as those in North Africa, Burma and the campaigns in the Mediterranean region.
I also liked the way the book deals with not just the Major characters in the War such as Churchill, Hitler, Stalin etc... but also the perspective of ordinary soldiers on both sides and also the innocent civilians who got caught up in the conflict.
I first heard about the book through BBC History magazines Podcast where the Author Antony Beevor was interviewed and some aspects of his book and his approach to the material were discussed and it pricked my curiosity.
Needless to say the book is a compulsive read by an engaging author. I highly recommed it to those interested in the History of the World War Two and History lovers in general.
Beevor had already made his reputation as a leading historian with his books on Berlin, Stalingrad, Crete and Paris;this book enhances his reputation.
In terms of the number killed as a proportion of the population the second world war was not the most bloody, the Thirty Years War, for example, was far worse.
Nevertheless, 70m dead make it the deadliest war ever to date. Only a nuclear war is ever likely to cause more death and destruction. It is worth remembering that some 60m of the dead were civilians.
China lost around 15m, the Soviet Union 27m, and Germany lost 31% of her army.The Jews, we must never forget, lost a minimum of 7m in the ovens of German camps.
It has been estimated that approximately 28-30000 people were killed every day between 1940 and 1945.
A recent book by Max Hastings: 'All Hell Let Loose', brilliantly dissected the war exposing the good and the bad deeds of all the combatants. It is a tour de force as were his earlier books 'Nemesis' and 'Armageddon'. Beevor's book is not based on anything like the number of primary sources as Hastings' work. It is in many ways a good old fashioned military history book, and none the worse for that. Beevor is right to give space to China and her savage war against the barbaric Japanese although he is not the first to do so. His denunciation of the strategic bombing campaign is weak and misplaced. One wonders if he is aware of recent research on this issue.
Beevor's descriptions of the horrors on the Eastern front are, of course, familiar to readers of his earlier works.
Both Hastings' and Beevor's books should be required reading by all interested in the second world war. Different in many ways they provide a useful balanced approach to the conflict. For example,Hastings outguns him with ease when writing about operations in the Pacific. On the other hand, Beevor has a better grasp of the major land battles. This reviewer finds Hastings' (a superb journalist) style much easier and satisfying to get to grips with. It is regrettable that a number of British academic historians look down their noses at the mention of any work by Hastings simply because he is a trained journalist. If only these same people could one day write history that is capable of being understood.
We need both Hastings and Beevor to enlighten us about the past.
This is not Beevor's best book by a long way but it is still superb.
on 17 November 2013
Anthony Beevor's rather dry style contrasts with similar tomes from Max Hastings. To cover the whole of the war means economy of detail, but that means human aspects get less profound treatment than descriptions of battles and war politics. The range of the book is vast, and some aspects of WW2 such as the Chinese battles get much fuller description than I have read before.
One thing really stands out-the pivotal changes that came during 1943; before, all is Axis winning, after, all is their losing, but the point at which that happens is very clearly shown.
Of the two books, I marginally preferred Max Hastings' "Armageddon"-both detail the almost incredible scale of the death and destruction, not only of the Jewish race but of so many other victims of the Nazi regime. Both show how much worse it was than WW1, bringing perspective to the rather pro-British traditional views of both wars. But Max seems to convey the vast tragedy of it rather better.
on 31 March 2014
The book is extraordinary; full of detail, often relating tales of incompetence, delusion and arrogance not only among the commanders but on occasion the leaders too including Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt and especially Stalin and of course Mussolini. It is all very harrowing particularly the descriptions of the way the various civilians were treated by, especially, the Germans, Russians and Japanese. The Russian front and the war in the East were just dire; beyond comprehension.
History is the story of 'ands' and not 'ifs' but you cannot help but wonder. For example: Montgomery's assumption of the campaign in North Africa. Churchill was against his appointment as he wanted Lt. Gen 'Strafer' Gott and would have had his way over Field Marshall Alexander, who campaigned for Monty. However "the situation was resolved when Gott was killed, after his plane was shot down by a Messershmidt." And had that Messershmidt not been passing? There are also examples of extraordinary self interest and one in particular. German and Italian forces were based in Sicily. Axis forces were wanting to bomb towns on the Libyan coast but Italian generals were lobbying against such action. Why? Because they owned holiday homes in those towns!! With the arrival of Rommel and his colleague who was one of Hitler's closest adjutants such pleadings did not prevail for that much longer! Also staggering was the amount of rivalry, often petty, commonly competitive and sometimes verging on the outright distrust between Britain and the US.
The numbers involved are staggering. Talks of just one army campaign of 1.5 million people is common place and so too an air invasion involving 800 aircraft. Beevor is no fan of Bomber Harris by the way and not a great fan of Monty either. Stalin for all his crimes certainly came our of the war having totally out foxed both Churchill and Roosevelt; who both felt they had won the charm war but had in fact been duped themselves by Stalin's own machinations. Interesting how R was very acquiescent to S to ensure his own dreams of setting up the UN were supported and how C unsuccessfully tried time and again to ensure Poland was independent and free of the USSR and also to an extent Czechoslovakia too. Unsuccessful as Stalin was insistent on having a buffer zone from Germany and Western Europe. Realpolitik!!! C was successful with Greece however but from AB's account S did not seem too interested in Greece.
If you can take the truly harrowing then the book is worth reading. It is close to 800 pages but AB writes in a very pacy and readable way. For someone like me whose knowledge of WWII is segmented (largely thanks to films) by certain events and images such as Dunkirk, Normandy, Stalingrad, Burma's railway and Hiroshima the book ties everything together and provides a coherent and thorough chronology. Well worth a read. Just wished there were more and better maps but then that's me - and the reason for no fifth star!
on 9 July 2012
This is a surprisingly comprehensive overview of WW2. There is a lot of detail relating to lesser known combat areas such as China and Burma, which is enlightening. Overall, for the reader with an already comprehensive knowledge of events - particularly the politics between the the four principal procrastinants - there is not an awful lot which is "new". This does not, however, detract from the books purpose, which is to present, in a single, modest volume, an overview of such a huge, complex conflagration. It has high readability. Beevor has an exciting style of presentation which holds the reader. His detailed personal accounts from many individuals avoids the dryness of the subject. Many of such personal accounts are indeed new and bring home to the reader the real horrors of the Nazi regime and ethos. This is an unusual book, well worth a read, regardles of any already held knowledge or preconceptions of the subject. Beevor's previous works are in my view, better historically, but given the vastness of ths latest subject, he done an exceptional job. Highly recommended reading.