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A panoramic tale of woe and triumph from a master historian
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.