The Second World War, by Antony Beevor, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£25/Little, Brown, RRP$35, 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