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The Second World War Experience: Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4

By Laurence Rees | Published in History Today 2009 
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The Second World War Experience Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4

Richard Overy

Carlton Books Vols 1 -3: 64pp,Voi. 4: 80pp £30 each ISBN 978 1 844420 1 48/ 1 844420087/ 1 84732 1 862/ 1 84732 1 879

When I was a child I used to love the 'Jackdaw' history folders. Instead of a dull school history book, when you opened the package you encountered an eclectic collection of facsimile documents and maps, You were thus encouraged to learn by piecing together some of the original sources of history. It was a tremendous introduction to the challenge of understanding the past.

Now, Richard Overy in the four volume Second World War Experience, the latest addition to Carlton's 'Experience' series, attempts something similar. Though each of the books is a straightforward narrative history of part of the war (starting with Volume I.Blitzkrieg, and ending with Volume 4. The Stuggle for Victory, all richly illustrated with photographs und maps, the publishers have also included around 20 or so reproductions of original documentan1 material in every hook. So in Volume I, for example, you come across a copy of Chamberlain's infamous 'piece of paper', which he waved about on his return from the Munich conference in 1938 (we are reminded how mealy- mouthed the language used in it is): and in Volume 4 you find a collection of postcards home written by Captain John Chambers, a British prisoner of war held by the Japanese. Chambers' postcards to his wile are poignant in a particularly British way. He congratulates his children on their achievements at school, adding almost as an afterthought: "Weigh nine stone three - don't worry". The understatement is almost overwhelming. He died in July 1945, just days before the end of the war.

My favourite facsimile in the series is probably the draft text of Roosevelt's address to Congress after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th. 1941 (contained in Volume 2). A typewritten text covered in Roosevelt's pencilled alterations, we see how FDR has changed the anodyne phrase, referring to December 7th, that this was a 'date which will live in world history', to the memorable, 'date which will live in infamy'.

But, ultimately all of this is a form of published storytelling which has largely been superseded by television history, which allows for an interveaning of documents, emotional personal testimony and grand narrative. Though each volume contains a CD, it is only ol oral testimony. I was a bit surprised, given that the hooks are produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum, that there wasn't a DVO also offered which contained some of the wonderful newsreei material held in the IWM collection.

This is not to say that the Second World War Experience is an unworthy undertaking. Thanks to die sure-footed commentary prodded by Oven', it is certainly a success in its own terms. Cool. calm and clear. Overy is the perfect guide through the many controversies that siuTound this conflict. IF he is not able to fully develop his own ideas in this work, that is only because the comprehensive nature of the history which he needs to tell simply doesn't allow him the space to theorise as well.

However, I was curious when I finished the final volume as to who the books are actually aimed at. For me knowledgeable general reader the information is probably rather too straightforward and for the secondary-school child it might be a little too challenging. Perhaps bright GGSE students or A-level candidates would most benefit from the work. But since the buoks are both heavily illustrated and ruthlessly chronological, they aren't volumes that you would necessarily want to sit down and read from cover to cover. Their strength is as an introduction to the war - with the wonderful facsimiles to pore over for added insight - or as a series of reference volumes.

But one also wonders what the future of this kind of allencompassing histoiy will be. For myself. I think that it lies with the web. (And 1 must declare an interest here, since I am currently working on just such a multimedia history project.) What the internet now allows thanks to lower hosting costs is for text, videos and graphics to be made available in a truly interactive way And in just a few years one can also imagine some tremendous history works being made for i-books, where sound, moving images and words will exist together in one innovative and exciting package.

It's not really fair, though, to criticise these books for being books and not something else. Indeed, the publishers should be congratulated lor having produced wonderfully visual volumes and Overy's reputation is only enhanced by the clarity of the text.



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