European Affairs

"The Second World War," By Antony Beevor, Little, Brown and Company, 895 pages.     Print Email

Nearly 70 years since it ended, the Second World War still produces a vast volume of books, movies, documentaries and even what this author and historian calls a "remembrance industry."  So why another book at this time?

Since Antony Beevor is the historian producing this nearly 900-page tome, The Second World War, (and the first I have read on a machine, a lot easier to handle on a plane trip but a bit harder to mark)   Beevor provides his own answers to the question, why?

First, that it was the "greatest man-made disaster in history," the number 60-70 million dead beyond comprehension and the sheer size of the numbers "dangerously numbing."

He goes on: "Some people complain the Second World War still exerts a dominating influence nearly seven decades after its end....This phenomenon should hardly be surprising,  if only because the nature of evil seems to produce an endless fascination. Moral choice is the fundamental element in human drama, because it lies at the very heart of humanity itself.

 

"No other period in history offers so rich a source for the study of dilemmas, individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the egomania of commanders, betrayal, perversity, self-sacrifice, unbelievable sadism and unpredictable compassion."

Throughout this book are countless reminders of its timeliness. And the most timely--the warning against misreading or drawing false lessons from history, which resonate in current U.S. and global politics.  Beevor cites two examples, the false but common comparison of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler.

"Such comparisons are gravely misleading and risk producing the wrong strategic response.  Leaders of democracies can become prisoners of their own rhetoric, just like dictators."

What also becomes clear, yet again from Beevor's book, is that history is written, interpreted and read in the constantly shifting context of the present.

Beevor provides a keen new appreciation of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and to a slightly lesser extent British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were fighting a global war, juggling the demands of different theatre commanders and politicians in an unprecedented way.

It makes much more sense now than a few decades ago to devote increased attention to the Chinese theatre, a prelude to the Communist takeover of the world's most populous nation and now a world power in its own right.  Similarly,  a detailed accounting of Japanese atrocities, including cannibalism and biological warfare,  gives context to current headlines and manifestations of lingering resentment and suspicions of Japan in China and other Asian nations.

And even a brief reference to the 1930s in Europe, that “the crisis of capitalism accelerated the crisis of liberal democracy" resonates in today's southern Europe, as the street and extremist political movements push against fragile and relatively new democratic institutions.

For an American readership, now going through two of this country's longest wars and having often heard the clichéd vows of presidents and would-be presidents to follow the advice of their commanders, Beevor’s study of political leadership of the military finds modern echoes. He judges Churchill's command hyperactive, scattered and distracting. He draws a more complex picture of Roosevelt. He seriously faults the president for thinking he could charm a foreign leader (in this case Josef Stalin) out of his political objectives, a temptation followed by most of FDR's successors. But he commends the president's ability to manage and guide the collection of massive egos among the top commanders.  Douglas MacArthur and Mark Clark come off the worst.  Coming off best, along with the naval commanders Bull Halsey and Chester Nimitz, is Dwight D. Eisenhower. His historical stock seems to be rising with each new book and biography in this new century.

Beevor's most sulphuric criticism is directed at the airmen-- Curtis LeMay in the United States and Arthur Harris in Britain --for their unshakeable belief that they could bomb the enemy, from Tokyo to Dresden, into submission. This faith in air power, against so much evidence to the contrary, still finds resonance decades of wars beyond.

But on the most controversial bombing decision of all, and one still being vigorously argued, Beevor gives relatively short shrift in a few paragraphs. On Beevor holds the view that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the waning days of the war was justified on the grounds that the Japanese leadership would have defended their home islands to nearly the last civilian. On the Japanese side, much less for allied soldiers, the death toll would have far exceeded those killed by atomic bombs, he argues.

Beevor also downplays the idea that the United States wanted to demonstrate the bomb as a warning to the Soviet Union, as tension deepened among the wartime allies over the fate of Poland and Central Europe.  But he notes that Stalin backed off plans to extend Soviet control over Western Europe, even with an invasion, because of warnings from his intelligence chief that the U.S. already had developed a nuclear arsenal.

With more than a half dozen books, Beevor has become the premier modern historian of the World War II era, following a deep British tradition. What makes this book stand out, beyond its magisterial grasp of global strategy and politics, is the leavening presence of ordinary people --soldiers and civilians, Holocaust victims, Londoners during the Blitz and peasants in Ukraine. They weave in and out of these many pages.  The author continues the story in of his path-breaking " Berlin" that documented, in part with material from Soviet archives opened after the Cold War, what so many on both sides actively tried for decades  to forget--the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war with millions of victims as the Red Army conquered East Prussia and Berlin.

Touchingly, the author begins and ends with two personal stories that reflect the sagas and mysteries that enveloped so many millions. The first was about a Korean drafted by the occupying Japanese, captured by the Red Army and then by the Wehrmacht on the Russian front and finally as a U.S. prisoner of war in Western Europe. The second, a German farm wife arrested by French police when she tried to sneak into Paris at war's end to reconnect with the French POW with whom she had had an affair during his captivity.

The police report of the incident provided few details.  Beevor writes: "The few lines raised so many questions. Would her difficult journey have been in vain, even if she had not been picked up by the police? Had her lover given her the wrong address because he was already married? And had he returned home, as quite a few did, to find that his wife had a baby in his absence by a German soldier? It is, of course, a very minor tragedy in comparison with everything else which had happened further east. But it remains a poignant reminder that the consequences of decisions by leaders such as Hitler and Stalin ripped apart any certainty in the traditional fabric of existence."

And a reminder that these horrible years will continue to fascinate, if only because we will never be able to comprehend their full horror.