Antony Beevor’s magisterial survey of the Second World War is like that great conflict itself: utterly out of scale in length and complexity, emotionally shattering in examples of suffering and cruelty, and yet an achievement for those who persevere, knowing that they have reached the end and may be the better for it.
“No other period of 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,” Beevor writes. We remain in that war’s shadow – even in the tendency to use it mistakenly as a reference point for present-day crises.
Educated at Sandhurst, Beevor, a former serving officer in the British army, has written distinguished histories of the Battle of Normandy, Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin, books acclaimed for seasoned understandings of both grand strategy and the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians.
The Second World War, he explains, was an effort to stand back from his previous books in “an attempt to understand how the whole jigsaw fits together.”
This is a huge challenge. The scope is nearly beyond comprehension. The war caused more than 60 million military and civilian deaths, untold destruction and mass suffering. The Nazis’ “Hunger Plan,” concocted in 1941, entailed starving 30 million Soviet citizens. That year alone, the Germans caused the deaths of more than two million Soviet prisoners through terrible mistreatment. The Holocaust, killing six million Jews, was unprecedented not only in its exterminatory vision but in its inauguration of assembly-line killing.
As one result of the fighting, at least 1.5 million people starved in Bengal, a direct result of the Imperial Japanese Army blocking rice supplies from Burma in 1942 – accompanied by British neglect. Rampaging Soviet soldiers raped an estimated two million German women and girls in the final, vengeful days of the war. And in those last weeks of combat, when everyone knew the collapse of the Reich was only weeks away, the same Soviet troops suffered more than 350,000 casualties in and around Berlin.
Beevor’s way to encompass this mayhem is to proceed chronologically, in 50 chapters framed by sometimes slightly overlapping time periods. He is ever aware of the war as “an amalgamation of conflicts,” and this directs him, for example, to devote many pages to the war in the Far East, the Japanese attempt to conquer the former colonies of the British, Dutch and the French as well as taking on the Americans. For Beevor, the conflict really began in 1937, when the Japanese attacked the Nationalist Chinese army of Chiang Kai-shek, leading to their entanglement with the Soviets and their unexpected defeat at the hands of an army led by Georgi Zhukov, the eventually victorious marshal who captured Berlin.
Beevor is constantly on the lookout for linkages. The Japanese battering at the hands of the Soviets made them reluctant to take on the latter in the winter of 1941, assisting Stalin’s eventual recovery from the near-death experience of German invasion.
Hundreds of pages later, he offers another connection: the British Bomber Command’s devastating raid on German military industry in the spring of 1942, particularly its destruction of production in Essen, “delayed the production of both Tiger and Panther tanks, thus contributing to the postponement of the great Kursk Offensive” and providing crucial assistance to Stalin.
And again: Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe, “just like the Imperial Japanese Navy, had failed to send their best pilots back as flying and serial combat instructors. Instead, they had kept them on a relentless round of sorties until they were very exhausted and made fatal mistakes. By the time the Allied invasion came in June, the Luftwaffe was a spent force.”
Ever-present is Beevor’s skill in blending the strategizing of military chiefs with the ordinary soldiers they ordered about and purported to lead. Stalin, like Hitler at the end of the conflict, could be delusional when it came to ordering troops to attack, and not even dream of retreat. A result: “One divisional commander ordered a colonel whose regiment had been slow in the advance to shoot somebody. … The colonel selected Lieutenant Alexandr Obodov, the much admired commander of their mortar company. … ‘Comrade commissar, I’ve always been a good man,’ said Obadov, unable to believe his fate. ‘The two arresting officers wound themselves up into an anger,’ and began to shoot him,’ a friend of his recorded. ‘Sasha was trying to brush the bullets off with his arms as if they were flies. After the third volley, he collapsed on the ground.’”
Beevor provides a well-informed, measured evaluation of Allied aerial bombardment of Germany, to take another example. But he also gives us pages on the air crews’ terrible trials. “The freezing winds, especially for the waist gunners at open doors, were numbing . … In the first year of operations, more men suffered from frostbite injuries than from combat wounds. Turret gunners, unable to leave their cramped positions for several hours over enemy territory had to urinate in their trousers. The damp patches soon froze. If a gun jammed, men would tear off their gloves to clear the obstruction, and skin from their fingers would stick hard to the frozen metal. And any man badly wounded by flak splinters or cannon fire was likely to die of hypothermia before the stricken aircraft reached base.”
Critics may dispute emphases in Beevor’s vast panorama, or prefer more thematic treatment, with analyses covering longer periods than his chapters permit. But few will match his masterly overview, and no one will be unmoved by the ordeals and achievements that he so powerfully describes.
Michael R. Marrus is a Senior Fellow of Massey College. His most recent book is Some Measure of Justice: The American Holocaust-Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s.