THE SECOND WORLD WAR, by Antony Beevor
September 7, 2012
Many Wars in One
By RICHARD TOYE
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Antony Beevor
Illustrated. 863 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $35.
Toward the end of this powerful narrative of World War II, Antony Beevor quotes a report, by the Australian war correspondent Godfrey Blunden, of an encounter with some American troops who had just been released from German P.O.W. camps. They had been in Europe only a few months, thrown into combat and almost instantly captured during the Ardennes offensive, Hitler’s last big throw of the dice. The men now had “xylophone ribs” and “gangling arms.” Some of their fellow prisoners had been beaten to death by their guards for attempting to take sugar beets from fields. Blunden wrote: “They were more pitiful because they were only boys drafted from nice homes in a nice country knowing nothing about Europe, not tough like Australians, or shrewd like the French or irreducibly stubborn like the English. They just didn’t know what it was all about.”
Did anyone else? Even today, the meaning of this horrible, epic war remains elusive. In “The Second World War,” Beevor calls it “the greatest man-made disaster in history.” That description is very plausible; less so is his idea that it was part of an “international civil war between left and right.” In 1941 the veteran anti-Communist Winston Churchill allied himself with Joseph Stalin, frustrating the efforts of the Nazis to turn the war into an anti-Bolshevik crusade. Nor were the Japanese much concerned that President Roosevelt was (relatively speaking) a man of the left; they attacked Pearl Harbor because of American threats to their interests, not to their ideology. On the other hand, ideological slogans could be strong motivators. Men clung to the idea of fighting for the Führer, or for the emperor, to keep them going in the face of certain defeat. Russians, for their part, were encouraged to fight for the motherland, rather than for the ideals of international socialism, in what was labeled the Great Patriotic War.
In the West, national values were wrapped up with the concept of freedom — more so, perhaps, than with democracy, which seemed to many people a rather less tangible concept. But whether the outcome of the war was experienced as a victory for freedom depended very much on who you were and where in the world you happened to live. The Soviet advance into Eastern Europe created new types of suffering, including for Russian P.O.W.’s who, after their supposed liberation, met persecution at the hands of their own government. “Abandoned by incompetent or terrified superiors in 1941, Soviet soldiers had starved in the indescribable horrors of German camps,” Beevor writes. “Now they found themselves treated as ‘traitors of the motherland’ because they had failed to kill themselves.”
Beevor does not spare us the details of such cruelties; the book is a grueling but gripping account. It is filled with stories of drowning, sickness (notably dysentery), starvation, massacre, mass rape, looting, ethnic cleansing and experiments with napalm, as well as the staggering statistics of death and injury through aerial bombing and the normal course of combat. Beevor’s trademark — which he has deployed in previous books like “Stalingrad” and “D-Day” — is the use of eyewitness testimony to deliver haunting particulars. He quotes, for example, a Red Army soldier writing to his mother in the spring of 1945: “One walks on corpses, sits down to rest on corpses, one has one’s meals on corpses. For about 10 kilometers there are two corpses of Fritzes on each square meter.”
This was not the worst. Beevor also quotes postwar investigators who found that the “widespread practice of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in the Asia-Pacific war was something more than merely random incidents perpetrated by individuals or small groups subject to extreme conditions. The testimonies indicate that cannibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy.” The horror is occasionally leavened by black comedy. Marrying shortly before their joint suicide, Hitler and Eva Braun are asked by the registrar, in line with Nazi eugenic law, whether they are of pure Aryan descent.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is the attention it gives to the Sino-Japanese war, which broke out in 1937 and then merged into the larger conflict. For Beevor, this is “a missing section in the jigsaw,” and it certainly will not be well known to most Western readers. He shows us the relationships between Japan’s activities in China and the wider war elsewhere. He notes that the Soviet victory over Japan on the Mongolian-Manchurian border in August 1939 “not only contributed to the Japanese decision to attack south, and bring the United States into the war, it also meant Stalin could move his Siberian divisions west to defeat Hitler’s attempt to take Moscow.”
Another of the book’s virtues is its clearsightedness on military issues. Beevor is no respecter of reputations. He finds both the British general Bernard Montgomery and his German adversary Erwin Rommel to be seriously overrated. Rommel “refused to accept personal responsibility” for his failures in the desert in 1942, while the escape of what was left of his forces after the battle of El Alamein was possible only because of “Montgomery’s slow reactions and excessive caution.”
Eisenhower is one figure who comes out of the book relatively well. He was a good handler of men, able to put the insufferable Monty in his place with a gentle but firm reminder of who was boss. Ike may have been politically naïve, but his April 1945 decision to halt his troops on the Elbe rather than race the Russians to Berlin, Beevor plausibly suggests, was defensible on pragmatic grounds. Beevor is also a scathing critic of Allied bombing policy, although he ducks the question of whether it was morally equivalent to the Luftwaffe’s own attacks on civilian areas.
In certain ways, this is an old-fashioned book. Over 30 years ago, the economic historian Alan Milward poured scorn on “the seemingly countless works on military history in which armies and navies come and go, commanded by greater or lesser figures deciding momentous historical issues, and nothing is said of the real productive forces which alone give such events meaning.” But Beevor is resolutely a diplomacy-and-battles man — and even the diplomatic bargaining generally takes a back seat to the bloodshed. In some respects, the focus on the carnage is salutary, as a reminder of war’s true human cost. But it is as well to remember too that there were acts of kindness and heroism alongside the folly and the murder. Almost by way of relief, we are told the story of Dr. Ara Jerezian, who helped save Hungarian Jews from death, though he was a member of the fascist Arrow Cross movement.
Beevor might have recounted more such episodes, without in the least risking the charge of taking too sunny an approach. It is instructive to read of unimaginable slaughter; it is equally instructive to read of efforts to transcend it.
Richard Toye’s most recent book is “Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made.”
THE WASHINGTON POST
“The frightening thing we learned during the course of World War II,” wrote the physicist Isidor Rabi, “was how easy it is to kill people when you turn your mind to it.” He was referring specifically to advances in weapons technology, in particular the atom bomb. But he was also painfully aware of how a moral collapse made killing easy. As Antony Beevor shows in “The Second World War,” ethical erosion did not stop at mere killing. In various countries, prisoners were used for medical experiments, and women were enslaved for sexual exploitation. In Germany, scientists developed techniques for rendering corpses into soap and leather. In the Pacific theater, some Japanese troops habitually ate POWs. During the war, atrocity was limited only by the confines of the human imagination.
Recounting carnage of this magnitude is a challenge that often overwhelms the historian. The problem is one of breadth and depth — the author must capture the immensity of war without smothering the reader in detail. Beevor has demonstrated, through his previous books on Stalingrad, D-Day and the fall of Berlin, that he understands precisely how to balance meticulous research with captivating prose. (Too often, historians can do one but not the other.) One senses, nevertheless, that those earlier books were just building blocks to this, his magnum opus.
Beevor’s book reveals how insubstantial are the stanchions that buttress individual morality. When societies collapse, killing becomes easy. Bountiful human creativity is then directed to the problem of slaughter. For instance, German soldiers, burdened with Jewish prisoners, ordered them to pile themselves head to toe — the “sardine” method. The technique meant that space in mass graves was more efficiently used and ammunition conserved.
Granted, we already knew that World War II was brutal. What, then, can Beevor add to this horridly familiar tale? Or, stated differently, do we need another history of that war? Yes, we do. While the war itself remains a constant, the way it is viewed evolves according to changing moral perceptions. In late 1945, for instance, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal decided to suppress evidence of cannibalism in order not to traumatize the families of soldiers who died in Japanese prison camps. Beevor thinks that this once-taboo story needs now to be told. He’s probably right. His skill lies in telling it without descending into gratuitous horror.
The challenge that confronts historians is how to convey the immensity of total war without losing sight of singular torment. Too often, the grandeur of great battles smothers the suffering of the individual. Soldiers become battalions that attack on faceless flanks. “One death is a tragedy,” Stalin famously remarked. “A million deaths a statistic.” In the grand narrative, human beings disappear. War is thus sanitized; Stalingrad and Normandy are re-created without the detail of men and women screaming in agony. That is how some readers like it — war without the carnage and putrefaction, without the dismembered limbs and torn faces.
But that is chess, not war. Good military history should stink of blood, feces and fear. Beevor’s book stinks. It reconstructs the great battles but weaves in hundreds of tiny instances of immense suffering. War is presented on its most personal level. We learn not only of the vanity of Gen. Mark Clark, the cruelty of Gen. George Patton and the stupidity of Gen. Maurice Gamelin, but also of the terrible misery endured by what the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley once called “the millions of mouthless dead.” Very few heroes emerge, because heroes are too often cardboard constructs. Detail adds nuance and dimension, clouding characteristics worthy of worship. “Say not soft things as other men have said,” warned Sorley to those who wanted to remember war. Beevor constructs a true picture by avoiding soft things. The book brims with horror, but so it should.
Beevor begins with the incredible tale of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army in 1938 and sent to Manchuria. In 1939, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp. When the Russians ran short of soldiers in 1942, they gave Yang a rifle and dispatched him to the Ukraine, where the Germans eventually captured him. When they ran short of soldiers, they sent him to Normandy, where he surrendered to the Americans in June 1944. He ended the war a POW in Britain.
Beevor calls Yang a “striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of . . . overwhelming historical forces.” That is true, but the value of this book lies in the way the author deals with those overwhelming forces. Too often, war is presented as a Frankenstein’s monster — an enormous ogre that man creates but cannot control. That, however, can be a copout, an attempt to evade responsibility for war’s horror. Beevor accepts that this war was much bigger than any of its participants but still manages to show how single individuals — be they great or small — added small points of hideous detail to a grand narrative of carnage.
So, yes, there was room for another big book on World War II. Now that Beevor has finished, that shelf is full. His book is the definitive history. This is World War II as Tolstoy would have described it — the great and the small.
Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, and the author of “The Bomb: A Life.”
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Antony Beevor is authoritative and lucid in much of this mammoth history, but the size of the task sometimes proves too great
Over the past few decades, the second world war has become so vast and various a phenomenon – so many wars in one – that anyone who tries to contain it within a single volume has to make hard choices.Antony Beevor has opted to write a military narrative and to devote about two thirds of his space to the eastern front and to grand strategy.
In doing so, he is playing to his strengths. Many of the chapters on the Nazi-Soviet war find Beevor at the top of his game, in command of a huge range of sources, with a fine eye for place and detail, deftly manipulating incident and character, and making effective use of soldiers' diaries and letters to create a vast human tapestry of war. The prose is relaxed and retains a spring in every paragraph. He excels, too, at grand strategy – as a diplomatic historian, he is a match for AJP Taylor. The conferences at Casablanca, Tehran, Yalta and so on, which can have their longueurs, here sparkle with wit and insight, especially into the behaviour of Stalin. There are revelations too: for example, that the "rightwing fanatic" who so conveniently murdered Admiral François Darlan in Algiers in 1942 happened to be working for the British Special Operations Executive. But, although the fall of France is magnificently told, the later campaigns in western Europe don't engage Beevor in the same way and the writing, while always lucid and authoritative, is much more detached.
Elsewhere, Beevor's choices are not so happy. The battlefield narrative method which worked so well in Stalingrad is less effective when dealing with the wider conflagration, where military events often matter less than the underlying forces of ideology, political geography, or industrial production. Beevor's technique of frog-marching his readers to the station and getting the train moving, exemplified by an opening chapter which gets the war going in a mere 10 pages, achieves momentum, but often at the expense of clarity. The limitations of the old-fashioned military approach are highlighted by the minute attention paid to the names of units and commanders and the bizarre practice of giving German generals (and only German) their full titles – as in "General der Panzertruppen Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg".
There are also structural problems. Beevor's skill with sustained narrative is repeatedly undermined by a salami-slicing attention to chronology. Rommel's arrival in north Africa is brilliantly staged but his subsequent campaign in the desert is told in disconnected fragments, the discussion of whether Hitler was right to forbid a retreat in front of Moscow in December 1941 is sandwiched inside a chapter on Pearl Harbor, and the development of the Mustang fighter – which transformed the air war against Germany – is a throwaway paragraph in "The Soviet Spring Offensive".
Not only is too much space given to the eastern front, the narrative develops a relentlessness – one damn battle after another – thanks to a lack of variety in pace and vantage point – an odd failing from an admirer of Vasily Grossman. Beevor does devote a chapter to Nazi-occupied Europe, and gives a solid, unflinching account of the Holocaust, though he never personalises any of its victims; but he skimps on or simply ignores many important aspects of the war, including the Manhattan Project, Albert Speer's transformation of German armaments production and the development of Ultra signals intelligence. A book aimed at an international audience may leave British readers feeling short-changed: there is little on the Blitz, the Battle of Crete gets more space than the Battle of Britain, and William Slim, the outstanding British general of the war, gets only a few passing mentions.
Beevor is very good on one neglected area, relations between Moscow and Tokyo, but in general the sections on the far east are the weakest. There is an art to writing about the war in the Pacific, and he hasn't quite got it. You have to find some meaning behind the bloody events – whether it be in the triumph of American logistics, the complexities of racial hatred or the mechanised rape of island paradises. Beevor gives us a bald military narrative garnished with deft sketches of warlords such as the egomaniacal Douglas MacArthur. We never pause to share the life of an individual marine or Japanese infantryman.
On China, by contrast, Beevor does have a theme: he endorses the modern revisionist line that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalist army, far from being idle, corrupt and uninterested in fighting the Japanese, were making the best of a very difficult situation and that American policymakers, instead of constantly denigrating Chiang, should have concentrated on keeping him in play as a strong counterweight to Mao Zedong's communists, who would defeat him in 1949. Fair enough, but Beevor doesn't help his case by clumsy scene-setting and telling us little about what the communists were up to, while using hindsight to attack fellow travellers such as Agnes Smedley for not predicting the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
The Second World War is handsomely produced and generously priced but its oddities and imbalances suggest that Beevor has not had the editorial support that even a writer of his talents needs on so vast a project. One hopes this is not the shape of things to come in publishing.
11 Jun 2012
The Second World War
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, 863pp
Modesty is a pleasing virtue in a writer but Antony Beevor surely has little need to be diffident. His account of the siege of Stalingrad, published in 1998, started the boom in books about the Second World War and introduced many to a new way of writing about it, from the perspective of the ordinary man rather than that of his masters. It became, in the phrase of those Blairite times, “The People’s War”.
Yet, writes Beevor disarmingly, he felt a bit of a fraud. Despite becoming synonymous with the modern telling of the conflict, he claims that his broader understanding of it was not always up to scratch. If that were ever true, then The Second World War has remedied it. This is history writ large, and fashionably long. What seems perverse, however, is that in giving us the full panorama of events, he largely omits the close-ups which made his earlier books so readable.
As is now standard scholarship, Beevor stresses how much it was a world war. Hitler’s expansionist ambitions mirrored those of the Japanese on the other side of the globe. The scale and reach of the forces unleashed were personified in the fate of a young Korean with whose story Beevor begins his book, in what proves to be a rare example of his usual method. Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted by the Japanese in 1938 and sent to fight in China. There he was captured by the Soviets and drafted into the Red Army. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and then found himself serving in their ranks in Normandy. After a spell in a British POW camp, he emigrated to the United States.
But it is debatable to what extent events in Asia influenced those in Europe while peace held there. Beevor makes a case for Russia’s defeat of Japan in 1939 on the Mongolian frontier as marking the start of the conflict. That may be stretching his point that it was global. None the less, the wars in the East and the West were to become intertwined, and his inclusion of that which embroiled vast numbers of Japanese troops in China until 1945 – the Second Sino-Japanese War – corrects a long-standing blind spot in the British view of the fighting in the Orient.
Twenty million died in China, casualties comparable with those suffered by the USSR. It is unfamiliar details such as these that hold the attention. The German hatred of guerrillas is traced back to the Prussian fear of French irregulars, the francs-tireurs. Two thousand pedestrians were killed in London in the first four months of the blackout. Ten per cent of Allied soldiers in Italy were incapacitated by venereal disease.
Unexpected vignettes also linger in the memory. A group of blind refugees flees Minsk, tied together with towels. Bernard Freyberg, commanding the defence of Crete, jumps for joy at the destruction of German forces, unaware that his own doom is also sealed. As Rangoon awaits the Japanese, British officers deny them a prize by throwing billiard balls at the portraits of governors of Burma. At the Wannsee Conference, the Holocaust is set in motion with all the dry formality of a board meeting; many around the table are lawyers.
The Second World War is certainly comprehensive in scope, but Beevor adheres too scrupulously to that manifesto. The trouble with taking in all the sights is that you have less time to dwell on those which most engage your emotions. The destruction of the German destroyers in the snowy fjords around Narvik ought to be a chance to loosen his narration’s corsets, but Beevor deals with it in a paragraph. D-Day passes in a page.
Of course the story has to be moved on, but for a kaleidoscope to work one has to vary the focus. Beevor has shown personal experiences can convey the impact on individuals of great events, but in this book they are overwhelmed by the grand scheme. Moreover, his decision to chronicle more than to interpret means that the writing tends to the descriptive rather than to the illuminating. The circumstance is all here, but it lacks the touch of pomp necessary for it to be read for its own pleasure.
Like modesty, objectivity is a blessing in a historian, but a dense book such as this needs a point of view to give it momentum. The depth of Beevor’s knowledge entitles him to supply that more boldly than he does, and its absence makes one wonder who he has written this for. A younger readership who simply want a definitive account? But the suspicion is that sales of books about the war have been sustained by those to whom it seems not so long ago.
Whether its battles will continue to resonate as they have is uncertain. Time whittles at even the keystones of an era’s cultural architecture: the Beatles’ first LP was released closer to the war of 1914-18 than to our day. The Second World War is an honourable attempt to fashion the legacy that Beevor merits. Younger historians have much to be grateful to him for, but new ways will have to be found of telling these stories if they are to retain their hold on the imagination.
SUNDAY 03 JUNE 2012
War story: Grisly tales of man's inhumanity to his fellow man
Antony Beevor has done a great deal to popularise history. Having played a key role in convincing both public and publishers alike that the subject could be sexy, he has been at the forefront of history's much-vaunted boom of recent years.
Now, after a succession of highly successful books tackling aspects of the Second World War, his new book is a single overarching volume about the entire conflict, from the Battle of the Atlantic to Pearl Harbor; from the first skirmishes at Khalkhin Gol to the grim denouement of Nagasaki.
The result is a handsome, yet rather daunting doorstop of a book. But happily, its 800-odd pages fly by with considerable speed, as Beevor warms to his task, being especially strong on grand strategy and on the experience of ordinary soldiers. The narrative never flags and the myriad pieces of this intricate kaleidoscope are pieced together with exemplary skill.
There are many memorable moments. Beevor opens with the astonishing story of a young Korean soldier taken prisoner by the Americans in Normandy, who had been dragooned by the Japanese before passing through Soviet hands and into Hitler's Wehrmacht. It's an example that seems to typify one of Beevor's leitmotifs: the utter lack of control that those affected by war – soldiers and civilians – had over their lives.
Throughout, he spares the reader little in his searing accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, while simultaneously uplifting us with tales of stoicism or individual heroics. There are a few eye-opening revelations – not least that 60 per cent of Japanese military deaths were caused by disease and hunger, and that, in combating the latter, an organised policy of cannibalism of PoWs and native populations was carried out. The story was so gruesome that it was deliberately excluded from the war crimes trials that followed 1945.
Beevor does well to give due weight to the Pacific theatre, but he sensibly shies away from any spurious "holistic" approach, preferring to treat the Pacific and European theatres as almost entirely separate entities. Indeed, he tends to avoid modish novelties or grand reinterpretations of the conflict, presenting instead a lively, engaging and unashamedly narrative retelling of the vast, complex, global story of the war.
This is a splendid book, erudite, with an admirable clarity of thought and expression. For a summary of the Second World War – who did what to whom, when and why – the general reader would need look no further.
Given such praise, it is perhaps churlish to offer a note of criticism. Yet it is hard to escape the impression that, in tackling such a vast subject, Beevor has been obliged to sacrifice too much of the very aspect that had become his stylistic trademark: the telling anecdote, the poignant aside, the illuminating vignette. The result is that the book – for all its excellence – appears to lack some of the pizzazz of his earlier offerings.
Beevor's Second World War is sure to reach a wide and appreciative audience – and deservedly so. But, such are the stellar standards that Beevor has set for himself over the past decade or so, that one fears that there are a few of his most dedicated readers who might be just a tad disappointed.
Roger Moorhouse's Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital is published by Vintage
The Sydney Morning Herald
July 21, 2012
ANTONY Beevor's fine-grained works on the battle for Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin have played a big part in reviving interest in World War II.
By concentrating on single events and the experience of individuals, by telling a complicated story as simply and compellingly as possible, the books have found readers not usually attracted to war history. In so doing they have propelled Beevor, not an academic historian, to a stardom that is the envy of those threadbare toilers in the cloisters of academe.
For the winners, of course, the war was once a pretty simple story, one in which the good people, the British and Americans, defeated the bad people, the Germans.
Most non-fiction in English about World War II written in the 1940s and 1950s fell into the ripping-yarns category - POW escapes, commando adventures, feats of derring-do in the sky and at sea - with the writers seemingly oblivious to the unspeakable horrors being committed in the lands between Russia and Germany and in the east.
Readers growing up in England's huge sphere of cultural influence formed their views of the war from bestsellers such as (1944), (1949), (1950), (1951), (1953), (1953) and (1954).
But by the 1960, American publishers thought the war had done its dash. When William Shirer handed over , Simon & Schuster decided on a print run of 12,500 copies. This was in a country that a mere 16 years earlier had 16 million citizens in uniform.
In a short time, Shirer's history sold 5 million copies. It is still selling.
In England and the former colonies, it wasn't a book that reignited interest in the war. It was television. In October 1973, Thames TV screened the first of its 26 episodes of , the most expensive documentary made. Britain was spellbound. was sold around the world and found a massive audience. People postponed food and sex to watch it.
Suddenly, everyone knew the war hadn't been England & Sons defeating Mr Nasty & Friends in Europe, with some interesting sideshows in Africa and the Pacific.
Probably the biggest shock was learning that the Soviet Union won the war and lost about 9 million soldiers in the process, which was almost twice the number of German dead and many, many times the combined military losses of the other participants.
Beevor, who has modestly confessed to feelings of inadequacy about his command of the whole catastrophe, has taken an approach to the massive subject not unlike that of - slice it into manageable pieces and concentrate on a brisk narrative.
This leaves Beevor little time for foreplay. Here he is on the complex matter of Hitler's rise to power: ''A critical mass of the population, desperate for law and order, was eager to follow the most reckless criminal in history. Hitler managed to appeal to their worst instincts: resentment, intolerance, arrogance and, most dangerous of all, a sense of racial superiority.''
Done, dusted and on to the destruction of Poland.
The pace is relentless and for a time the technique of towing the reader at speed into the wave works. But then there are other waves to catch and the reader is often left wallowing in the troughs.
There is also the matter of balance. Beevor's own history tilts him towards what he knows best; the eastern front takes up more than half the book. He clearly wants to do justice to the Pacific war, but he cannot deliver more than a top-down account that gives little feeling for what ordinary soldiers endured.
And because he does not want to be seen to be writing for the audience now reading the magazines in God's waiting room, Beevor gives to such sacred episodes as Dunkirk, the Blitz and the Battle of Britain their correct weight: not very heavy.
In a scholarly sense, these decisions may be sound. But they will grieve those whose hearts race and eyes moisten at the sight of a lone Spitfire doing a victory roll above a flat English landscape.
The experts will find many other faults in Beevor's book. So great is the interest in the conflagration now that there are specialists on every phase and aspect of the conflict, and no generalist can emerge unbloodied from this kind of scrutiny.
Nothing in Beevor's history is more horrible and chilling than his account of the murder of the Jews and other innocents by the Germans and their like-minded collaborators. His view is that Hitler's mad and obscene anti-Semitism did not take its final monstrous direction until his early military pushovers convinced him he was dealing with weaklings and could do what he liked.
In the awful, freezing end, it took the Soviets to disabuse him of that notion - and we owe them a great debt.
Beevor's grand narrative may be confusing at times but his vignettes are telling. During the retreat in Greece in 1941, a British officer sees ''by moonlight a squadron of Serbian lancers in long cloaks pass like ghosts of the defeated in wars long past''; the delegates to the fateful Wannsee meeting - more than two-thirds of them PhDs and lawyers - drink brandy while discussing industrial methods of murdering Jews; in Stalingrad, a Jewish Red Army lieutenant protects surrendered German officers from Soviet soldiers baying for their blood.
From this distance, World War II seems like a morality play in which every single facet of human nature, from the most base to the most sublime, is paraded. Beevor's version joins Andrew Roberts' as a production against which others will be judged.
It was a total war, winners take all. German historian Jorg Friedrich has summed it up: ''Total war consumes the people totally, and their sense of humanity is the first thing to go.''
PUBLISHED 06 JUNE 2012
The horror that followed.
On 18 February 1943, Goebbels spoke at a mass meeting in the Berlin Sportpalast. From the podium he screamed: “Do you want total war?” The audience jumped to its feet and screamed back that it did. An anti-Nazi journalist covering the event commented that he, too, leapt to his feet and only just stopped himself from joining the audience in shouting: “Ja!” Later he told friends that if Goebbels had shouted, “Do you all want to go to your deaths?”, the crowd would have roared back its enthusiastic assent.This memorable vignette is one of hundreds in Antony Beevor’s utterly absorbing history of the Second World War. Beevor is justly celebrated for recounting the human realities of war. In his Stalingrad (1998) and Berlin: the Downfall (2002), where he re-creates two of the most dramatic episodes in the Second World War, he showed how armed conflict is experienced by those who are involved in it: not as a succession of military strategies, successful or otherwise, but as a breach with everyday existence that changes one’s life for ever. Moving on to the big picture, he presents the war in the same terms:
With its global ramifications, [it] was the greatest man-made disaster in history . . . 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.
A former officer who trained at Sandhurst, Beevor is committed to telling the truth about war, with all its painful contradictions – a commitment that has provoked some virulent attacks, Russian historians complaining bitterly about his rigorously accurate description of mass rapes committed by Soviet forces when they occupied Berlin. Now, as then, Beevor does not flinch: this is as comprehensive and objective an account of the course of the war as we are likely to get, and the most humanly moving to date.
We think of the war as starting when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, but Beevor suggests it may have begun with the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol on the Mongolian border with Manchuria in August that year, when Soviet forces defeated those of Japan in a long-standing border conflict, leading to a Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact that was signed a few weeks before Germany invaded Russia and ended when Soviet forces swept into Manchuria in August 1945.
The global scope of the conflict is illustrated by the story he tells of a young soldier surrendering to US paratroopers during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Judging by his appearance, the Americans thought he was Japanese. He was in fact a Korean who had been forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army in Manchuria, captured by Soviet forces and sent to a labour camp, drafted to serve in the Red Army, then taken prisoner by the Germans and forced to serve in a battalion. Despite his experience, the young Korean was lucky. After spending time as a prisoner of war in Britain, he moved to the US, where he died in 1992.
Tens of millions of others were less fortunate. One of the most harrowing aspects of the war was the displacement it forced on civilian populations. Non-combatants almost beyond number – “rivers of frightened humanity” – poured out of cities that were bombed or occupied. When the German forces marched into Poland they burned more than 500 towns and villages to the ground. “In some places,” Beevor writes, “the line of German advance was marked at night by the red glow on the horizon from blazing villages and farms. As they occupied the country, which the Poles were defending fiercely despite obsolete weaponry and a lack of radio equipment, German forces raped and looted at will and began the summary executions and massacres that they were to employ, on an expanding scale, when they invaded the Soviet Union. This was the actuality of the total war that Goebbels’s audience would later greet with such wild enthusiasm.”
For this reader, the most arresting passages in Beevor’s story are those that detail the fog of incomprehension through which the world viewed the Nazi threat. Hitler never made any secret of his goal of European domination or of his intention to create a slave empire in the east. In Beevor’s words, “the chief architect” of a conflict more terrible than the one that had left Europe in ruins 20 years earlier, Hitler complained about being frustrated in his push for war in 1938 because “the British accepted all my demands at Munich”. In the spring of 1939, he told the Romanian foreign minister: “I am now 50. I would rather have the war now than when I am 55 or 60.” But at the time most people in Europe and Britain did not want to face the prospect of fighting, and Hitler’s declared aims were not taken seriously. It was not understood that agreements meant nothing to him. Neville Chamberlain’s view of the world was largely shaped by his experience as a successful mayor of Birmingham. As Churchill’s ally Duff Cooper commented, Chamberlain “had never met anyone in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler . . . Nobody in Birmingham had ever broken his promises to the mayor.”
Even Stalin could not believe that Hitler would betray him. Ignoring over 80 clear indications of a German invasion, including several from Churchill and many from his own diplomats and spies, he increased the deliveries to Germany of fuel, grain and metals with which he continued his appeasement of Germany. When warned of the impending invasion by the German ambassador in Moscow, an anti-Nazi who was later executed for his part in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Stalin exploded: “Disinformation has now reached ambassadorial level!” When Germans launched their invasion Russian fortitude prevailed, making an indispensable contribution to defeating the Nazi war machine; but this was despite Stalin, not because of him.
The war did not begin with the aim of destroying Nazism. Britain’s avowed objective was to liberate Poland, a goal forfeited when the country was swallowed by Stalin. The allies made many problematic decisions, such as strategic bombing of German cities and appeasing Stalin when he demanded the forcible repatriation of Soviet POWs. Yet none of these can outweigh their great achievement – the destruction of the Nazi regime. As Beevor shows, the Nazi programme of extermination emerged in stages, reaching its full development only with the Wannsee conference in January 1942, when “the prospect of victory in the late summer of 1941 had contributed to the dramatic radicalisation of Nazi policy”. But the horror that followed was not an accident of war.
A deadly combination of racism and faux-Darwinian pseudo-science, Nazi ideology had genocide at its core. When the SS tried to destroy the evidence of Auschwitz, it left behind hundreds of thousands of men’s suits, nearly a million women’s coats and dresses and seven tonnes of human hair. The Second World War may have been the greatest man-made catastrophe in history, and yet the world would have been unimaginably darker without it.
The Sydney Morning Herald
June 17, 2012
Antony Beevor believes we need fresh dialogue about one of the 20th century's worst conflicts.
Antony Beevor wants his latest, epic, 800-page book to educate politicians and the media to stop referencing World War II to justify or analyse modern military strikes and strategy.
He wants the public, too, to stop making such specious comparisons, such as likening modern tyrants to Hitler or Stalin.
Why? Because the esteemed 66-year-old author of says not only has the nature of war and weaponry changed, but future conflicts will be fought for different reasons: for raw materials such as oil and water. And, because it is too easy for leaders to use lazy, outdated war reference points to shore up their own power.
"The real danger is going to come in a battle for resources," Beevor says on the phone from London. "One of the most alarming developments has been Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and perhaps the exaggerated American response.
"Certainly in future there's going to be more tension and conflict over raw materials, like Russia's intention to take over the Arctic because of all the oil deposits.''
Given those new worries, what is there to learn from in a very different epoch - why write this tome now?
Because, Beevor says, the role of China before and during those years gives us clues to that country's global reach today, but so long as the West limits its understanding of World War II to events in Europe, assuming the war started with Germany's invasion of Poland and ended with the death of Hitler, we overlook China's part.
"I'm afraid that even though warfare has changed, the compulsion of media and politicians is automatically to make the [Second World] war the dominant reference point for every single crisis and conflict," he says.
"It's a language that hasn't changed and it's been disastrous in many ways: whether it was Bush comparing 9/11 to Pearl Harbour or Blair comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler. This has always led to major strategic blunders."
Beevor quotes the internet-age adage of Godwin's Law, coined by US attorney and author Mike Godwin, which holds that as any online discussion grows longer, given time, there will inevitably be a reference to Hitler and the Nazis.
"I'm afraid it [Nazi Germany] dominates our mentality completely and this is why one needs to understand, particularly to understand the [current] global reach of China, the role of China in the Second World War, which has certainly been appallingly ignored in Europe."
As Beevor writes in his book, which took three years to produce, Western historians have usually overlooked the Sino-Japanese war from 1937 to 1945 and the way that it merged into the world war.
The Chinese, despite initial lack of industrial and military strength, were able to mobilise to prolong the war and deny the Japanese a decisive victory.
Rather than beginning his book in China in 1937, however, or more conventionally with Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, Beevor starts in August 1939 on the Mongolian-Manchurian frontier, where General Georgi Zhukov, under Stalin's command, defeated the Japanese.
Zhukov's victory capped not the biggest battle of the war, Beevor argues, but it impacted many events that followed. In a neat symmetry, Beevor's book finishes in August 1945 as the Soviet army sweeps across Manchuria and North China.
History, however, is never tidy, Beevor is the first to acknowledge. Can he seriously hope to disabuse us of glib, too-neat references to the war in Europe?
"Well, I hope so," he says. "One or two [references] may have a certain validity and one can certainly draw lessons on where warning bells should sound very loudly. But history never repeats itself.
"The temptation in any approaching crisis or conflict is, because people haven't got a clue what lies ahead, they're always searching into the past for some sort of pattern … to galvanise the nation or their supporters and put themselves on a pedestal to sound Churchillian or Rooseveltian."
Despite writing that Churchill was "notorious for his incontinent rush of ideas on prosecuting the war", and that Britain's wartime prime minister caused "absolute despair" to his chiefs of staff, Beevor says Churchill's role, particularly in 1940 when he refused to negotiate with Hitler after the fall of France, was magnificent: "He saved the world at the most critical moment … by his determination to resist."
And despite Beevor's forensic, horrific detail of Hitler's so-called Final Solution, the Nazi euthanasia campaign and the Soviets forcing prisoners to dig their own graves, the history writer is not cynical about mankind.
What scares Beevor is ideology, which reached "diabolical genius" when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels learnt hatred and fear were the potent combined means of control.
''What is terrifying is the ability, through mass brainwashing or propaganda, to change normal human instinct, which does not necessarily contain very much hatred," Beevor says.
Sunday June 10,2012
As the Americans fought their way through Normandy in burning, bloody June 1944, they captured an Asian soldier wearing Wehrmacht uniform. The GIs believed their prisoner to be Japanese, an ally of the Nazis. In fact, Yang Kyoungjong was Korean.
How, you might wonder, did a Korean end up in France, the opposite side of the world, fighting for Hitler? Aged 18, Yang had been pressed by the Japanese into their army in Manchuria, captured by the Soviets, forcibly enlisted by them, then taken prisoner by the Germans during their invasion of Russia. The Germans sent Yang, rifle in hand, to fight the D-Day landings.
Antony Beevor, in his monumental and magisterial history of the Second World War has taken Yang as an emblem. The war, Beevor and Yang remind us, spilled far beyond the familiar theatres of the Pacific, North Africa, Western and Eastern Europe because the main struggle, that between the axis of Germany-Japan and the Allies of Britain-US-USSR, detonated existing regional tensions. All of these minor conflicts, such as the “Winter War” between Finland and Russia, added their flames to the conflagration, their bodies to the grave. The body count of the resultant “biggest man-made disaster in history” defies belief: more than 60 million perished, only a minority of them in uniform on the frontline.
“Murder becomes ordinary in wartime,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz with phlegmatic accuracy. Generally people died squalidly: a bullet to the head in a back street, a breath of Zyklon B gas in an airtight chamber, a bomb on the house, from germs, from bare larders.
There was not much honour, even less glory, in the so-called “good war” but it was desperately necessary that the Allies fought and won. Hitler’s genocides are well known.
Less familiar are the depravities of Japanese imperialism that Beevor highlights. One will suffice as illustration: Japanese soldiers practised “systematic and organised” cannibalism, keeping PoWs to eat, much as farmers keep livestock. The subject was deemed too distressing for the families of PoWs and hushed up.
So overwhelming is the scale of the Second World War that historians tend to resort to explaining it with cold statistics.
Beevor, however, is excellent at catching the individual in the flood tide of events, be they a besieged Leningrad housewife or Panzer commander Erwin Rommel personally leading his crews, who were so exhausted they could function only by swallowing handfuls of amphetamines.
One can find fault with Beevor’s book. Few can match his superbly controlled narrative of events as they unfolded but he is less convincing on why. He never quite gives America’s big pockets or British spunk their due. Hitler was definitively doomed when he declared war on Uncle Sam but the possibility of Nazi defeat had been glimpsed the year before in the spitfire summer of 1940. “The Few” of the RAF shot down the myth of Nazi invincibility.
When asked at war’s end: “What was the decisive battle of the war?” German field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt replied: “The Battle of Britain.”
Yang, incidentally, survived the war and settled in the US where he had three children.
In that, he was a sort of emblem of the war too; he had been saved from tyranny.
2 June 2012
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 — the vigil of Hitler’s assault on Poland and the subsequent Phoney War — gave little hint of the storm to come. As German troops engulfed Poland, however, Britain at last declared war on Hitler. Infamously, the Nazi science of massacre was put to the test in occupied Poland. Within two months of Hitler’s invasion, over 5,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. One year into the occupation a ghetto was established in Warsaw as a holding place for Jews prior to their deportation and death. A total of 265,000 of the city’s Jews were gassed over a single summer at Treblinka nearby. It was the largest slaughter of any single community in the second world war.
Historians are still trying to understand Hitler’s war against the Jews. There have been other massacres in recent times but none was so ferocious, so total in effect, as that willed by Hitler’s Germans in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe. Aided by the indifference of most Germans, Hitler and his race-engineers were able to create ruthless new ideals of totalitarian dominance. Overall, the second world war claimed the lives — Jewish and non-Jewish — of over 50 million people. It was the most catastrophic war mankind has ever known.
Several large, one-volume histories of the 1939-45 conflict have appeared in recent years. The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts was a smoothly readable volume which presented the standard British narrative of the war built round the rise and fall of Hitler (‘a world-class know-all’) and the dictator’s attempts to assert hegemony over Europe. Correspondingly little analysis was made of the Pacific theatre of operations, though the war in the Far East inevitably influenced the war in Europe. In All Hell Let Loose, published last year, Max Hastings concentrated on ordinary lives caught up in the war. The use of eyewitness testimony from farmers, housewives and black marketeers lent the book a refreshing immediacy.
The war continues to fascinate both young and old alike; but how to make a familiar subject new? Antony Beevor’s grimly compelling The Second World War is another immensely long work of historical synthesis based largely on secondary reading. Running to over 800 pages, the book has something of the ambitious sweep and narrative verve of Hastings, and much else besides.
Brocaded with details of the great campaigns and thoughtful explanations of Hitler’s murderous belligerence, The Second World War is an absorbing, unsparingly lucid work of military history. In his assessment of the war’s multiple theatres and fronts, Beevor highlights the significant yet often neglected (by western historians) Sino-Japanese conflict of 1937-45. While the war was won and lost by Germany on the Eastern Front, the Japanese campaigns set the stage for the coming ‘total’ war as pursued by the Führer and his minions.
Some historians (notably, the Glasgow-based Professor Evan Mawdsley) have argued that September 1939 was merely a ‘way station’ in an existing global conflict, and not the catalyst that started the war. Beevor would seem to agree that the ‘first clash’ of the war began in the Far East. While Emperor Hirohito was certainly not Hitler, the Nanking Massacre of 1937, when some 150,000 Chinese civilians were bestially slaughtered in his name, was a form of genocidal murder. Indeed, Hirohito’s view of Japan as an Asian master race had its grotesque mirror image in the Führer’s supremacist myths of the German Volk, Beevor suggests.
In the author’s lucid analysis, the liberation of Europe from the Nazis was not always a heroic prelude to healing and renewal. Liberated citizens often viewed their Allied saviours with anxiety, even hatred. One of the most harrowing chapters chronicles the Warsaw uprising of July-August 1944, when some 450,000 Warsavians rallied forces to drive out the Germans. The first units of the Red Army were already gathered at the Warsaw gates when the Polish underground took up arms. In the course of the 63-day uprising, the Poles succeeded in liberating swathes of the city, but when Hitler ordered Warsaw and its citizens to be annihilated, the Soviets stood silently by and watched.
When the Red Army finally ‘liberated’ the Polish city five months later, in January 1945, there was hardly anything left to liberate. Those European peoples ‘caught between the totalitarian millstones’ of Hitler and Stalin, says Beevor, suffered grievously. In the contested ‘bloodlands’ of western Russia, central Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states, the power and malice of Nazism and Stalinism often overlapped and operated in belligerent complicity.
Along the way, Beevor notes the contribution made by the British Empire to the war effort. Thousands of imperial subjects fought and suffered in the conflict, and witnessed death on an unusual scale. As the battle with Japan intensified in 1943-44, Indian troops fought courageously in Burma alongside British contingents.
Earlier, the British West Indies had been exhorted to donate scrap metal to help build planes for Britain. In Jamaica, as elsewhere in the Anglophone Caribbean, families were proud to imagine that it was their saucepan — the silver-melt of their cookware — that helped buy a Spitfire for the Battle of Britain that culminated in the Luftwaffe’s defeat in September 1940. But was it right for Jamaica to back a European war for democracy, when its own people had been denied the right to self-rule? In India, unsurprisingly, millions saw little merit in the defeat of the Axis if they continued to endure British suzerainty.
Mercifully Hitler, the ‘most reckless criminal in history’, went down in the flames of Berlin in April 1945. So long as ‘good’ Germans are at the helm of Germany today, a Fourth Reich remains hard to imagine. Yet Nazism really did happen, and it came close to engulfing these shores. In an episode of Dad’s Army, Private Godfrey’s genteel sisters are seen to prepare their Regency cottage for the long-anticipated invasion. ‘The Germans are coming, Miss Godfrey,’ Lance Corporal Jones tries to give them warning. ‘Yes, I know, so many people for tea. I think I’d better make some more.’
Antony Beevor’s exceptionally powerful book is a reminder that all Britain might have become a Nazi colony, had Britain not won the war. For that reason alone, the union colours must fly over the Diamond Jubilee.
Monday, July 16, 2012
By David C. Acheson - Special to The Washington Times
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Antony Beevor
Little Brown, $35, 885 pages
Antony Beevor makes the reader believe in the impossible: that he could write a history of magisterial authority about the greatest war of modern times and do justice to the global reach of that war.
He makes it possible by capturing the decision-making at the highest level, the strategy of the top military commanders, the tactical problems of unit commanders (down to corps and division commanders) and even the personal experiences of individual participants.
The book is rich in anecdotal detail. The frustrations of indecision, doubts and second thoughts are explored.
Personal conflicts among senior commanders are described in detail and make it clear that these were human beings at work, not wooden figures of history.
The reader is struck again and again by the unalterable rule of war. Every decision must be made on imperfect information. It is universal experience to know too little about the enemies’ intentions and dispositions.
One is bowled over by the difficulty the West faced in preparing for war: conscripting and training the personnel, procuring the equipment, reorganizing industry, finding the right commanders, starting from virtual zero while Germany and Japan had well-developed forces and war plans. Pacifism, timidity, wishful thinking and political opposition all played a part in paralyzing the West from 1937 to 1941. Even the cynical Josef Stalin initially refused to believe reports that German troops had crossed his frontier in June 1941.
Extraordinary cases of petty egotism and misjudgment flourished at the highest level. Some stand out:
* Adolf Hitler adopted a rigid policy of refusing to authorize tactical retreat or surrender, no matter what the cost in lives, thinking that only he had the requisite determination to win. At and after Stalingrad, this policy cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops.
* The German high command neglected to order winter clothing and equipment in 1941, on the assumption that the war in Russia would be over before cold weather set in (having started in late June).
* Stalin became so jealous of Gen. Georgy Zhukov’s heroism in defending Leningrad that he was reluctant to make him a marshal and reduced his responsibility during the battle for Berlin.
* Stalin regarded retreat as treason and imprisoned hundreds of thousand Russian soldiers who were rescued from German prison camps.
* Winston Churchill’s obsession with Greece and the Balkans led to assigning troops to useless sideshows with serious losses at a time that Britain could ill afford them.
* The personal ambition and vanity of Gen. Mark W. Clark and Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery became serious obstacles to effective command in Italy (Clark) and France (Montgomery).
* President Roosevelt’s failure to understand the nature of Stalin, the Soviet system and Stalin’s postwar aims was a serious failing. In the last year or two of the war, FDR was a fatally ill man with fading mental and physical faculties who was losing touch with reality. Did it make a difference on the ground in dealing with Stalin? Probably not. Barring a resort to nuclear weapons, the United States and Britain had neither the military nor political means to divert Stalin from his aims. The Soviet army had possession — “nine-tenths of the law” — as the saying goes, of Central and Eastern Europe.
* Roosevelt’s exaggerated view of Chiang Kai-shek as a fighting ally and a stable force in China led to many unnecessary frustrations in the war against Japan.
Mr. Beevor does not spare us immersion in the visitation of the horrors of war upon civilians, nor should he have, if World War II is to be accurately understood. The book reveals:
* The inhumanity of Japanese troops in their gratuitous slaughter of civilians and prisoners of war, including the use of prisoners for live bayonet practice. It also included the deliberate policy of saving prisoners, particularly on bypassed islands and bases, for cannibalism in the event stores of provisions ran out.
* The enormous scope of mass murder of prisoners and civilians by the German SS and the Hungarian Arrow Cross in areas of occupation, amounting to millions.
* The continental scale of mass rape of civilians by Soviet troops, particularly in their sweep westward across Poland and Germany.
* The effort by the German Nazi Party and army officials to maintain order in Berlin during the last months of the war by frequent use of executions on the street of individuals thought to be seeking escape from the Russians or deserting from their defense units. The use of “flying courts martial” became a deterrent as the Russians drew near.
Mr. Beevor does not slight his report of war against the Japanese, by land, air and sea. He reports the skepticism of Adm. Ernest King regarding the need to assault so many island bases of the Japanese in the Philippines, when bypassing them might have shortened the war and saved lives. But he wisely stops short of taking sides in the argument, given the difficulty of proving the merit of decisions never made.
In this reviewer’s view, the author’s conscientious effort to set out jarring and comprehensive truths imposes on the reader an obligation to read in the same spirit, to respect the size of the undertaking and not look for corroboration of the reader’s pet theses, favorite heroes or villains. The immensity of the events and the seriousness of the effort to report them dwarf such personal hobbyhorses. Mr. Beevor’s book gives us the opportunity to comprehend the greatest, most dire event of the 20th century — and tells us more about human nature than we may wish to know.
David C. Acheson is a former president and CEO of the Atlantic Council of the United States.
JUNE 2, 2012
This narrative history captures the many fronts of mankind’s most devastating conflict
The Second World War, by Antony Beevor,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 863 pages
Writing a general history of the second world war is more challenging than appears at first sight. It is a familiar story and a crowded market: freshness of narrative is difficult to achieve. Originality of interpretation may seem easier to pull off but it must not go too far. The essence of the war was German and Japanese aggression, followed by an Allied victory that featured the Soviet Union, the US and Britain in the starring roles.
Every nation experienced and remembers the war in different ways. For the British, French and Poles, it began with the Nazi attack on Poland in September 1939. For Russians, notwithstanding their assaults on Poland, Finland and the Baltic states, the real war started in June 1941 with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
For Americans, it began with the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. For Japan, however, Pearl Harbor was the continuation of an expansionist military adventure that started with the invasion of Chinese Manchuria in 1931. A general history of the war needs to embrace this variety of experience and capture the interplay between the momentous events unfolding on different continents and the high seas.
Antony Beevor effectively meets this challenge. A former British army officer and author of admired works on Stalingrad and the Allied invasion of Normandy, Beevor is a gifted writer who knows how to keep a good story rolling. “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,” he observes.
He makes excellent use of original German and Russian sources to animate his descriptions of the titanic battles between Nazi-led and Soviet forces. At the same time, he sensibly relies on expert secondary sources for episodes such as the origins and evolution of the Holocaust, repression and resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the complex three-way struggle between China’s Nationalists, the Communist forces of Mao Zedong and Imperial Japan.
Beevor departs from standard narratives by opening his story not with the invasion of Poland but with a battle in east Asia to which Europeans paid little attention in the summer of 1939: the crushing Soviet victory over Japanese forces at Khalkin Gol on the Mongolian border. This unusual perspective enables Beevor to throw immediate light on the geopolitics of the European and Pacific wars.
Defeat at Khalkin Gol influenced Japan’s decision not to pursue war in northern Asia against the Soviet Union but, instead, to attack the European colonies of south-east Asia as well as US naval power in the Pacific. This brought the US into the war, more or less guaranteeing an Allied victory, and meant that, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, he could not count on the Japanese tying up Soviet forces on a second front in the Far East.
Beevor shows an original touch by drawing attention to little-known but revealing episodes such as a Luftwaffe raid on the Italian port of Bari in December 1943. This attack sank an Allied ship, the SS John Harvey, which was carrying 1,350 tons of mustard gas bombs. It was an ultra-secret cargo, not to be unloaded unless the Germans resorted to chemical warfare. Allied censors prevented war reporters from mentioning not just the mustard gas but even the raid itself in their dispatches.
As it happens, the Nazis were guilty of biological warfare in that they delayed the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula by reintroducing the malaria-carrying breed of mosquito into the Pontine marshes, south of Rome, that Mussolini had drained in the 1930s. After the reverses of Stalingrad, north Africa and Sicily, Hitler was resolved that the war should end either in his total victory or total destruction.
The Pacific war was hardly less barbaric, as Beevor demonstrates in two chapters that draw on the pioneering studies of Japanese historians such as Toshiyuki Tanaka, professor of war crimes at Hiroshima City University. “Japanese officers and soldiers resorted to cannibalism and not just of enemy corpses ... In New Guinea they killed, butchered and ate local people and slave labourers, as well as a number of Australian and American prisoners of war, whom they referred to as ‘white pigs’ as opposed to Asian ‘black pigs’,” he writes.
Japan’s armed forces practised cannibalism not only because they suffered intolerable hunger but because it was “a systematic and organised military strategy”. However, the Allies suppressed the depravity, refusing to raise it at the 1946 Tokyo war crimes tribunal because it was too upsetting for the victims’ families.
The brutality and courage of individual soldiers and civilians emerge in Beevor’s powerful accounts of battles such as Kursk, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Here he owes a debt to John Keegan, the British military historian under whom he once studied and whose 1976 book The Face of Battle set new standards in reconstructing the experience of war for ordinary combatants.
The Second World War is not without flaws. It is a narrative history from start to finish, mainly military in its focus. As such, it is too rigidly structured to permit proper treatment of important themes such as the war economies of the participants. The Allied triumph was inconceivable without the vast expansion of US war material output – the subject of Freedom’s Forge, a new book by Arthur Herman. Where Beevor mentions the economics of the war, his touch is less sure than normal: he exaggerates in asserting that British payments for US war goods in 1940 “rescued the United States from the depression era and primed its wartime boom economy”.
Equally, some may find Beevor harsh on the leadership qualities of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Granted, Roosevelt never fully got the measure of Stalin and Churchill had a wayward grasp of military strategy. But in situations of national emergency each rose to the occasion. More to the point, in neither the US nor Britain were better leaders available.
Such debates are sure to continue far into the future, for mankind has never known a war as devastating in its violence and profound in its moral implications as the second world war. Beevor’s book is a pleasure to read and an example of intelligent, lively historical writing at its best.
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor
07 June 2012
The Second World War
by Antony Beevor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
More than 20 million Chinese died in the Second World War and some Chinese historians believe the real figure is twice that.
If we are to come to grips with the rise of China at the start of this century, we need to be more aware of its history in the last one. Its war began before the war in Europe, with Japan’s invasion in 1937, and ended after that, with a civil war lasting until 1949. The legacy of that war still continues in the state apparatus of the People’s Republic.
So Antony Beevor’s major new history of the Second World War has good reasons for beginning not in Poland but in Asia. In August 1939, at Khalkhin Ghol on the Russo-Chinese border, the future military hero of the Soviet Union, Georgi Zhukov, inflicted a stunning defeat on the Japanese.
The battle’s effects shaped the Second World War in the Pacific. It checked the continental ambitions of Japan, making it look south — to its navy, the ocean and the colonies of the imperial powers.
The consequences were also felt in Europe. So chastened were the Japanese that the Soviet Union felt it could strip its eastern defences to feed the defence of Moscow against the German invasion in December 1941. In China itself the battle encouraged the Nationalists and fed some Americans’ hopes that the Japanese army could be defeated there, on the mainland of Asia. The war which followed, fought at the expense of the Nationalists, left the path open for Mao Zedong and the Communists.
The Nationalists’ principal problem was food. Beevor reckons 3 million Chinese died of starvation in Hunan province during the winter of 1942-43, and concludes that hunger and disease killed more Japanese soldiers than combat. The Second World War was a battle for resources before it was a struggle between competing ideologies. Japan’s ambition to acquire territory was driven by its agricultural needs just as they prompted Hitler’s desire for living space in the East. Moreover, starvation became a weapon of war for all sides, as the peoples of Western Europe too came to realise.
So Beevor has little truck with the modern portrayal of the Second World War as the “good” war, fought for the ideals of democracy against the murderous regimes of fascism and militarism. This does not mean that he underplays the horrors of the death camps and gulags, or of rape and sexual violence but he cuts down to size even those who fought to end them. Roosevelt is portrayed as wily and devious, while Churchill is linked to emotional notions of empire.
Most striking of all is Beevor’s portrayal of the fallibility of generals and admirals. Although he addresses combat exhaustion, much more pronounced is his attention to the manifestations of stress among senior officers. Eisenhower chain-smoked, Rommel’s health problems caused him to miss the opening of Alamein, and when Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad he had an obvious facial tic.
The level of operational command, rather than grand strategy or the horrors of front line experience, shapes the magisterial narrative of the Second World War. Its military history is presented chronologically, with chapter titles which convey the simultaneity and interconnectedness of events in very different theatres.
This is the place to begin if you need to get your knowledge of the war in order. Beevor is not afraid to quote the familiar when it is important or to let his favourite voices have their say but he also provides plenty of fresh insights for those who kid themselves that they know the story already.
Hew Strachan is Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University and author of The First World War.
Aug. 10, 2012
Antony Beevor’s magisterial survey of the Second World War is like that great conflict itself: utterly out of scale in length and complexity, emotionally shattering in examples of suffering and cruelty, and yet an achievement for those who persevere, knowing that they have reached the end and may be the better for it.
“No other period of 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,” Beevor writes. We remain in that war’s shadow – even in the tendency to use it mistakenly as a reference point for present-day crises.
Educated at Sandhurst, Beevor, a former serving officer in the British army, has written distinguished histories of the Battle of Normandy, Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin, books acclaimed for seasoned understandings of both grand strategy and the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians.
, he explains, was an effort to stand back from his previous books in “an attempt to understand how the whole jigsaw fits together.”
This is a huge challenge. The scope is nearly beyond comprehension. The war caused more than 60 million military and civilian deaths, untold destruction and mass suffering. The Nazis’ “Hunger Plan,” concocted in 1941, entailed starving 30 million Soviet citizens. That year alone, the Germans caused the deaths of more than two million Soviet prisoners through terrible mistreatment. The Holocaust, killing six million Jews, was unprecedented not only in its exterminatory vision but in its inauguration of assembly-line killing.
As one result of the fighting, at least 1.5 million people starved in Bengal, a direct result of the Imperial Japanese Army blocking rice supplies from Burma in 1942 – accompanied by British neglect. Rampaging Soviet soldiers raped an estimated two million German women and girls in the final, vengeful days of the war. And in those last weeks of combat, when everyone knew the collapse of the Reich was only weeks away, the same Soviet troops suffered more than 350,000 casualties in and around Berlin.
Beevor’s way to encompass this mayhem is to proceed chronologically, in 50 chapters framed by sometimes slightly overlapping time periods. He is ever aware of the war as “an amalgamation of conflicts,” and this directs him, for example, to devote many pages to the war in the Far East, the Japanese attempt to conquer the former colonies of the British, Dutch and the French as well as taking on the Americans. For Beevor, the conflict really began in 1937, when the Japanese attacked the Nationalist Chinese army of Chiang Kai-shek, leading to their entanglement with the Soviets and their unexpected defeat at the hands of an army led by Georgi Zhukov, the eventually victorious marshal who captured Berlin.
Beevor is constantly on the lookout for linkages. The Japanese battering at the hands of the Soviets made them reluctant to take on the latter in the winter of 1941, assisting Stalin’s eventual recovery from the near-death experience of German invasion.
Hundreds of pages later, he offers another connection: the British Bomber Command’s devastating raid on German military industry in the spring of 1942, particularly its destruction of production in Essen, “delayed the production of both Tiger and Panther tanks, thus contributing to the postponement of the great Kursk Offensive” and providing crucial assistance to Stalin.
And again: Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe, “just like the Imperial Japanese Navy, had failed to send their best pilots back as flying and serial combat instructors. Instead, they had kept them on a relentless round of sorties until they were very exhausted and made fatal mistakes. By the time the Allied invasion came in June, the Luftwaffe was a spent force.”
Ever-present is Beevor’s skill in blending the strategizing of military chiefs with the ordinary soldiers they ordered about and purported to lead. Stalin, like Hitler at the end of the conflict, could be delusional when it came to ordering troops to attack, and not even dream of retreat. A result: “One divisional commander ordered a colonel whose regiment had been slow in the advance to shoot somebody. … The colonel selected Lieutenant Alexandr Obodov, the much admired commander of their mortar company. … ‘Comrade commissar, I’ve always been a good man,’ said Obadov, unable to believe his fate. ‘The two arresting officers wound themselves up into an anger,’ and began to shoot him,’ a friend of his recorded. ‘Sasha was trying to brush the bullets off with his arms as if they were flies. After the third volley, he collapsed on the ground.’”
Beevor provides a well-informed, measured evaluation of Allied aerial bombardment of Germany, to take another example. But he also gives us pages on the air crews’ terrible trials. “The freezing winds, especially for the waist gunners at open doors, were numbing . … In the first year of operations, more men suffered from frostbite injuries than from combat wounds. Turret gunners, unable to leave their cramped positions for several hours over enemy territory had to urinate in their trousers. The damp patches soon froze. If a gun jammed, men would tear off their gloves to clear the obstruction, and skin from their fingers would stick hard to the frozen metal. And any man badly wounded by flak splinters or cannon fire was likely to die of hypothermia before the stricken aircraft reached base.”
Critics may dispute emphases in Beevor’s vast panorama, or prefer more thematic treatment, with analyses covering longer periods than his chapters permit. But few will match his masterly overview, and no one will be unmoved by the ordeals and achievements that he so powerfully describes.
Other pages on the books by Antony Beevor Ο Ο Ο Ο Ο Ο Ο Ο Ο