The Second World War
Like the bombs, shells and mortar rounds dropped and fired in their millions during the conflict a total history of the Second World War is more easily weighed than described. Simply to narrate a war that circled the globe several times over in the course of six years requires a lot of words and demands the skills of a marathon runner. At 2.7lbs, Antony Beevor’s new book outweighs not only a two-inch mortar round, but also several other recent attempts at telling the same story. In a series of bestselling books on episodes from a conflict that continues to exert an unshakeable fascination on our culture today Beevor has proven his mastery of the popular military history genre and displayed an uncanny eye for detail recovered from the archives. But can he maintain the same pace over the whole distance?
Judged against his own high standards of readability there is no doubt that The Second World War succeeds very well indeed. Beevor starts his book not with the invasion of Poland, but with the Soviet-Japanese clash at Khalkhin Gol in Manchuria, setting the tone for a book that pays appropriate due attention to the role of Japan and the Soviet Union in the conflict, foregrounding less familiar fronts such as the Sino-Japanese struggle in mainland China alongside the better known battlegrounds. His previous experience writing bestselling accounts of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin has clearly sensitised him to avoid the Anglo-centric view of the war that sometimes prevailed in histories written in the first decades after 1945.
Nor does Beevor let the pace flag. This is an immensely readable book, not least for the manner in which it blends together high strategy with the view from below. The book starts with the account of a Korean soldier forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army, who was captured in Manchuria in 1939, then called up from the Gulag by the Red Army, only to be captured again at the second battle of Kharkov in 1943, then taken prisoner a third time in Normandy by American forces after being dragooned into the Wehrmacht; Yang Kyoungjong died in Illinois in 1992.
Whereas Beevor’s friend Max Hastings has applied the journalist’s skill of interviewing eyewitnesses in his rival series of military histories, Beevor’s work has come to rely most heavily on diaries, letters and other contemporary written sources, and he uses them effectively to convey the subjective realities of the war. Vasily Grossman, the subject of a previous book, is here joined by Australian war reporter Godfrey Blunden, whose private papers are exploited to excellent effect, as befits a war correspondent whose dispatches from the Eastern Front, accessible from the Australian National Library’s online newspaper archive, are still worth reading today.
Yet the inevitable other shoe must fall. While Beevor draws on the results of innumerable revisions to our factual understanding of the war, such is the volume of writing on the conflict that there are inevitably many places where he could have nodded to more up to date work. A bibliography is not included and not yet uploaded as promised to Beevor’s website, making it hard to know whether the end notes reflect the full extent of his research. A second gripe flows from the first: although Beevor is surefooted when discussing strategy and tactics, the economic dimension of the war, which the likes of Adam Tooze, David Edgerton and Lizzie Collingham have told so ably in recent works, is severely neglected. Indeed this is a book marked out by an almost total absence of analysis and commentary, concentrating all its efforts on storytelling. As such, it will surely not find its way onto university reading lists, yet it is a virtual certainty that it will be found under countless Christmas trees at year’s end and be enjoyed for what it is rather than what it is not: a masterful narrative history.
Nicholas Terry is lecturer in history at the University of Exeter.
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