Magazine article The Spectator

The World in Arms

Magazine article The Spectator

The World in Arms

Article excerpt

The Second World War by Antony Beevor Weidenfeld £25, pp. 863, ISBN 9780297844976

The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 - the vigil of Hitler's assault on Poland and the subsequent Phoney War - gave little hint of the storm to come. As German troops engulfed Poland, however, Britain at last declared war on Hitler. Infamously, the Nazi science of massacre was put to the test in occupied Poland. Within two months of Hitler's invasion, over 5,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. One year into the occupation a ghetto was established in Warsaw as a holding place for Jews prior to their deportation and death. A total of 265,000 of the city's Jews were gassed over a single summer at Treblinka nearby. It was the largest slaughter of any single community in the second world war.

Historians are still trying to understand Hitler's war against the Jews. There have been other massacres in recent times but none was so ferocious, so total in effect, as that willed by Hitler's Germans in the heart of 'civilised' Europe. Aided by the indifference of most Germans, Hitler and his race engineers were able to create ruthless new ideals of totalitarian dominance. Overall, the second world war claimed the lives - Jewish and non-Jewish - of over 50 million people.

It was the most catastrophic war mankind has ever known.

Several large, one-volume histories of the 1939-45 conflict have appeared in recent years. The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts was a smoothly readable volume which presented the standard British narrative of the war built round the rise and fall of Hitler ('a world-class know-all') and the dictator's attempts to assert hegemony over Europe.

Correspondingly little analysis was made of the Pacific theatre of operations, though the war in the Far East inevitably influenced the war in Europe. In All Hell Let Loose, published last year, Max Hastings concentrated on ordinary lives caught up in the war. The use of eyewitness testimony from farmers, housewives and black marketeers lent the book a refreshing immediacy.

The war continues to fascinate both young and old alike; but how to make a familiar subject new? Antony Beevor's grimly compelling The Second World War is another immensely long work of historical synthesis based largely on secondary reading. Running to over 800 pages, the book has something of the ambitious sweep and narrative verve of Hastings, and much else besides.

Brocaded with details of the great campaigns and thoughtful explanations of Hitler's murderous belligerence, The Second World War is an absorbing, unsparingly lucid work of military history. In his assessment of the war's multiple theatres and fronts, Beevor highlights the significant yet often neglected (by western historians) Sino-Japanese conflict of 1937-45. While the war was won and lost by Germany on the Eastern Front, the Japanese campaigns set the stage for the coming 'total' war as pursued by the Fuhrer and his minions.

Some historians (notably, the Glasgowbased Professor Evan Mawdsley) have argued that September 1939 was merely a 'way station' in an existing global conflict, and not the catalyst that started the war.

Beevor would seem to agree that the 'first clash' of the war began in the Far East. …

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