Magazine article The Spectator

The Clash of the Armoured Megalosaurs

Magazine article The Spectator

The Clash of the Armoured Megalosaurs

Article excerpt

EUROPE AT WAR 1939-1945 by Norman Davies Macmillan, £25, pp. 456, ISBN 0333692853 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'If 'justice were done', writes Norman Davies in this fascinating and infuriating work, 'all books on the second world war in Europe would devote perhaps three quarters of their contents to the Eastern Front.' In the real world, of course, the victors dispense the justice and write the history afterwards. So it is gratifying that there is a scholar around with the skill and passion of Norman Davies to change perspectives about the war and shift the centre of gravity eastwards. Here, rather more than 75 per cent of the action takes place in East/Central Europe, where on a body count most of the lives were lost and on a misery index the greatest suffering took place.

Davies sees it as his mission to challenge what he calls enduring Western - i. e.

British and American - myths which simply flatter national vanities. Of course the central story of the war was not Britain standing alone after 1940 until El Alamein proved to be the end of the beginning. The conflict was not won by GIs landing on Omaha beach on D -Day. The myth that maddens Davies above all is the one that elevates Stalin and places him on the side of right because he was the enemy of our enemy and also fighting the Nazis.

The problem for Davies's case is that except for tabloid newsrooms in Fleet Street and movie studios in Hollywood very few people any longer believe these things. Works by John Lukacs, Antony Beevor's Stalingrad and Krysztian Ungvary's The Siege of Budapest have all in brilliant ways shown how the war was won and lost in Eastern Europe.

For three decades now it has been orthodox practice to compare Hitler and Stalin in parallel studies, even before the Soviet archives were briefly opened and Simon Sebag Montefiore and Anne Applebaum exposed the Communist leader's monstrous crimes in detail. The Soviet dragons Davies is fighting were slain a long time ago.

The narrative in this book, however, is wonderfully well told. Davies remains a master at capturing a snapshot, a telling point that sheds light on a great truth, and then exploring it from wide angles. From the famous Marshal Zhukov quote, 'In the Red Army it takes a very brave man to be a coward', he writes superbly of the ordinary Soviet soldier's fear of the NKVD's political officers behind Russian lines, which was greater, in many cases, than the fear of the Germans. …

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