There is little doubt that these are the golden years of World War II research, as literary giants stalk the bookshelves and ferret out whatever essential truths can be discovered about that cataclysmic contest. We who find this war inexplicably and endlessly fascinating are lucky to live during such a time, and to have such a writer as Anthony Beevor to illuminate the darkness with his prose.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
The Second World War, By Anthony Beevor
War story: Grisly tales of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man
Sunday 03 June 2012
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 (£9.99)