In tackling the Second World War Antony Beevor was picking a big subject. I had reservations. I love his accounts of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. But it wasn’t obvious to me that the same formula would work. Usually he gives enough background to understand what was at stake and then looks at how individuals caught up in these big events coped with them. Would this work on a larger scale?
And in fact I was right to be worried to some extent. It doesn’t work as well, but it still works well enough to produce a really splendid and readable book. If you are looking for a book on World War 2 there are plenty to choose from. But I can’t think of a better one than this, particularly if you want to know what it was like to take part in it.It is easy to forget one of the most obvious facts about World War 2, which is that a very common experience of it as a participant was to simply get killed straight away. Millions of people’s lives were abruptly, un-heroically and completely pointlessly brought to a sudden violent end. No war has taken a greater toll on innocent bystanders.And you were no better off if you were involved officially.
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I think most of us have already made up our minds about the Nazis. On the whole, they aren’t popular. But if you are wavering, have a read of Berlin by Anthony Beevor. I put it down thinking, well I never liked them but I never realised they were that bad. Stalin was desperate to capture Berlin and was prepared to suffer huge casualties to make sure that it was the Red Army that reached the Reichstag first. It was conceivable that a determined thrust by the Western allies might have taken the German capital first. Stalin who was always a bit paranoid suspected that the Germans would fall back to allow the British and the Americans an easy ride. In fact there is no indication that the senior Nazis ever thought along those lines, but it must have occurred to a lot of the lower officials that it would have been about the shrewdest thing the Germans could have done by 1945.
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Some books are just so well written that it makes reading them almost like watching a film. In Stalingrad Antony Beevor has produced such a book. You lose awareness that you have a book in your hand and you just picture what is going on in your head. This is a book that is that well written. But I think that this isn’t just down to the skill of the author. I imagine that to get the realistic feel that this book has it must have been necessary to spend many hours in research getting to know the subject matter intimately. You don’t think about that when you are reading it of course. The effort it must have taken to produce no more crosses your mind when you are reading a good book than you think about the animination techniques in a well made film.
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