Book review: The Second World War by Antony Beevor

This book is available in bookstores now.

Antony Beevor’s The Second World War will do as much for the understanding of the huge impact of the war on the lives of all people’s across the globe as the Bayeux Tapestry has done, over the centuries, for understanding the impact and consequences of the Norman conquest on the history of Britain and Europe.

It may take a flight of the imagination to compare 863 pages with 50 yards of woven cloth. But the image of a huge and complex event being carefully woven in weft and weave to bring all the various images of political intrigue, horrific slaughter, military blunder and egomaniacal leadership into an overall illustrative pattern is one way to grasp the immense scope of this book, the events it describes and future consequences it begat.

This reviewer understands Beevor took 10 years to complete the book as he faced immense hurdles in research to be able to include so much from non-English language sources, particularly Japanese. The publisher’s jacket blurb highlights that Beevor used the “most up to date scholarship and research” methods.

He combines this with a fluid but disciplined writing style that enhances readability and understanding of detail and the many interrelationships between events, large and small that coincided across the globe during the period 1939-46. The book is structured in chronological chapters covering the significant events across the global scope of the war during that particular period. Thus strategic political and military issues, plus the impact on ordinary individuals, solider and citizen alike, from events as wide apart as Stalingrad and El Alamein, Burma and the South Pacific can be better understood.

Beevor does editorialise and makes judgements. He may upset a lot of people – the British may not like his view that Churchill became increasingly sidelined by his military advisers and his allies such as Roosevelt. Beevor even suggests that Churchill’s “black dog” episodes derived from his being bipolar. The Americans may be upset that Roosevelt was misguided in his assessment and appeasement of Stalin. New Zealanders may not like Beevor largely blaming Freyburg for the loss of Crete; but Kiwis will be happy with his praise of the performance of the New Zealand Second Division. Largely these judgements have been justified by the ability, 60 years on, of a historic perspective fuelled by the mass of information now available from all manner of archives such as in Russia, Japan, China and elsewhere, that were not available for many years after the war.

The human tragedy of the Second World War is well documented by Beevor. He begins the book with the account of a young Korean who is conscripted into the Japanese army, taken prisoner by the Russians fighting in their army until he is taken prisoner by the Germans for whom he also  fights. Finally, his war is over when  is captured by the Americans in Normandy.

Beevor ends the book with two personal accounts, which like the beginning, emphasise both the global nature of the conflict and it’s huge impact on ordinary people. The tragedies of starvation in Leningrad, the organised cannibalism of the Japanese army in the South Pacific, the rape of huge numbers of German women by Russians and of Japanese women by American soldiers are detailed. Beevor uses soldier’s letters from all manner of fighting and frightening fronts to explain the misery and fear felt by soldiers.

You cannot read this book without coming away with a greater understanding of humanity’s great capacity for depraved behaviour on the one hand and immense heroism on the other.

There is an e-book version of The Second World War but it is not an interactive one.  Undoubtedly there is an opportunity for publisher Weidenfeld & Nicholson (a Hachette company) to take advantage of new technology and create an interactive version. It would be of immense value for amateur and professional war buffs to be able to link to research archives supporting the decisions of the Russian High Command, the Stavka, or more photographs and perhaps videos of the bombing of Dresden. Churchill’s great speeches and the historic suddender broadcast by the Japanese Emperor could also be linked

For one of the first of post Second World War baby bombers, this reviewer has grown up with the images and books of the war from early childhood, leafing through the highly illustrated volumes of the British official war history, to Churchill’s volumes and then in teenage years, reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

None of these and other Second World War books come close to providing the global picture that Beevor’s book does. It does miss some things in terms of explaining the global scope – for instance it does not explain the involvement of Brazil in the war, other than a very brief mention of Brazilian forces fighting with the allies in Italy. Thus South America misses out on the Victory. But there are so many areas where Beevor provides information and explanation of aspects of the war of which many of us have known little. For instance the terrifying battle for Budapest as well as the re-invasion by MacArthur of the Philippines (the latter event probably had more to do with MacArthur’s bloated ego, than strategic military value) have not been detailed in many accounts of the war. The Russian-Japanese conflict (which Beevor sets as the beginning of the war in 1939) is also revealed in more detail.

Beevor too brings much enlightenment to the war in the air and the sea. We now have a better understanding of Harris’s fixation with winning the war by firebombing Germany to ashes (and the fact that the British and Americans found target bombing very difficult which incentivised the carpet bombing campaign) . We now know that the Germans cracked as many naval codes of the British as Bletchley Park did of the U-boat codes (well almost, or else the U-boats would have won). The ruination of China is another thing that Beevor enlightens. And then, of course there is even greater detail now before us  of the policy development of the ‘final solution’ and the Holocaust. (Surely there can be no such thing as ‘Holocaust Denial’ any more.)

For decades, the most common of war books on private bookshelves has probably been Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich. Now Beevor’s book must be added, for as with the Bayeax, it’s tapestry of events of the Second World War will help explain the unexplainable to future generations looking for some understanding of the “why, what and how” of the Great Disaster.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould, CEO of Booksellers NZ

The Second World War
by Antony Beevor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN  9780297844976

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