Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Under Western Eyes

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Under Western Eyes

Article excerpt

World War Two: a Short History

Norman Stone

Allen Lane, 272pp, [pounds sterling]16.99

The more the Second World War recedes from memory, the greater the fascination it seems to exert. Recent blockbusters by Antony Beevor and Max Hastings have reached a wide readership through their vivid depiction of the human dimension of war. Narratives of individual battles, from Stalingrad to D-Day, along with studies of particular aspects of the war from the role of intelligence and deception to the importance of food supplies and economic factors, have similarly climbed up the bestseller lists.

After this flood of publications, there is clearly room for a good, readable, short history of the war. Norman Stone has many of the qualifications needed to write one: he reads and speaks many languages, he can write entertainingly and he has written a great deal about 19th- and 20th-century European and world history, both east and west. He has a real gift for saying a lot in a small space and many sections of this book are masterpieces of compression. Yet overall, the book is a serious disappointment, satisfactory neither as a brief introduction to the war nor as a short summary. The main reason for this is its astonishing imbalance of coverage.

The Second World War was a hugely complex set of interlocking conflicts, diverse in origin and global in scale. You would never guess so in reading this book. Stone barely casts a glance in the direction of the Far East, which is covered in a mere 10 per cent of the book, even though it is this dimension that made it a world war rather than just a European one. Stone's real interest is in the European theatre of the war--the American contribution is seriously under-represented, too--and in particular in the three states whose history he knows best: Britain, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (which he persists in calling "Russia", though he must know it contained, like the Red Army, also referred to as "Russian", many different nationalities). For Stone, the origins of the war lay overwhelmingly in the ambitions of Germany as they had developed since the country's unification in the late 19th century.

Here his account is determinedly old-fashioned, ignoring a great deal of recent scholarship: thus he claims that Germany's naval programme was the major influence in driving Europe to war in 1914 (the naval arms race had clearly been won by the British well before this), that everyone thought the First World War would be short (they did not), that it was "only a matter of time before Germany once more asserted herself" after 1918 and so on. This is determinism with a vengeance.

The book is old-fashioned in another way, too: it focuses far too much on "great men", most of all on Churchill and Hitler (Roosevelt gets barely a mention), to the neglect of wider influences. The experience of ordinary people, justly given so much prominence in recent large-scale general histories, is wholly absent.

Stone gives a brisk, compact narrative of the rise of Nazism, which he regards as the overwhelmingly decisive cause of the war's outbreak. This is a deftly written summary, though begets the name of the political party the army asked Hitler to observe in 1919 wrong (it was the German Workers' Party and only renamed itself the National Socialist German Workers' Party the following year).

More seriously, he overestimates the extent of the support enjoyed by the Nazis once they had come to power. The concentration camps didn't have 6,000 inmates in 1935 but fewer than 4,000, though this was not evidence, as Stone claims, of the "limited" nature of Nazi repression, since at the same time there were no fewer than 23,000 political prisoners in Germany's state-run prisons. …

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