The Second World War by Antony Beevor

second-world-war-antony-beevor

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.

There were countless combatants, particularly in Russia and China, who were simply pressed into service and hurled unarmed and untrained against the enemy.  Hitler and Stalin were both heedless of the lives of their countrymen and were quite happy to impose huge casualties on their own side by obstinately refusing to retreat when things were not going well.  But the allies only look good in comparison.  Both the Americans and the British sent new recruits straight into battle, particularly in France, with no thought for their well-being.  It is always worth remembering that most of the soldiers involved in Normandy had no prior military experience.

World War 2 was global war where events on one part of the globe could have profound effects on the other side.  Beevor identifies a very good example of this in the battle of  Khalkin Gol.  This undeservedly obscure battle in Mongolia persuaded the Japanese that they should avoid conflict with Russia. This meant that Stalin could call on reserves from Siberia at the crucial point when Moscow was threatened.  The scale of the whole war gives it a sort of grandeur and it is easy to imagine that geo-political considerations make it all in some way understandable.  But this is an illusion, and one that Beevor’s book effortlessly pricks.  We get to see the leaders on the various sides and their key staff reacting to the events as they unfold.  Nobody has a master plan, not even Hitler.  The men at the tops of the various countries seem to be motivated largely  by petty jealousies and mistrust.  Nobody has the ability to see what is really important.  The intrigues of the top Nazis in the last days as the Russians close in on Berlin is particularly astonishing – you wonder how they ever managed to run Germany in the first place.

British readers brought up to think of Montgomery as a war hero will be particularly struck by the portrayal of Monty.  He emerges here as an egotistical plodder more interested in personal empire building and image building than doing anything decisive.  Churchill is not much better, though at least he seems to be motivated mainly by the desire to hold onto the British Empire. It was a quixotic goal that he never had any chance of achieving, but at least it showed a level of vision and public spirit.  Most of the other players on the stage are more interested in themselves than the good of their country.It is this human touch that makes this book so readable.Despite the scale of the conflict, we still often get taken right down to the ground to see how things looked to the people caught up in it all.

Beevor is an expert at finding revealing nuggets.  This joke told by the German infantrymen attempting to resist the Normandy invasion reveals a lot. ‘When the British planes come over we duck.  When the Americans come over, everybody ducks. When it’s the Luftwaffe, nobody ducks.’  The British had been at it since 1940 and knew how to use their aircraft.  The Americans were still at an early stage in the learning curve, but had plenty of equipment to play with.  Sadly, they often hit their own side.The courage of the Luftwaffe pilots never seems to have failed them.  They even started suicide missions to defend Berlin.  Their problem was logistics, particularly fuel.  In 1944 it must have been obvious to everyone that they no longer had the wherewithal to win the war.  But they carried on fighting to the end.  The original objective of bringing Danzig back into Germany was long forgotten.  The British had come into the war to defending Polish independence.  With Stalin’s troops firmly in control there, this was now beyond their power.  Nobody in Britain would have chosen to make the sacrifices that they did simply so the Poles would end up under the thumb of the communists rather than the fascists.  Basically the war had taken on a logic of its own and no longer made any sense.

The fighting continued until the Germans and the Japanese were so thoroughly hammered they no longer had the ability to continue the conflict.  And then it stopped.  With two continents largely in ruins, the biggest pile of corpses in human history and the map changed beyond recognition the guns fell silent.  And that is where the book ends.  There is no more than a cursory attempt at summing up or explaining.  Such a huge event calls out that it should have some kind of meaning, or at least make some kind of sense.  But there really isn’t any.  The people involved did what they thought they had to do at the time.  But when it was over, those who survived simply went back to try and pick up their lives as best they could.  A sudden unexplained ending for the book feels a bit unsatisfying, but it matches what actually happened.

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.

There were countless combatants, particularly in Russia and China, who were simply pressed into service and hurled unarmed and untrained against the enemy.  Hitler and Stalin were both heedless of the lives of their countrymen and were quite happy to impose huge casualties on their own side by obstinately refusing to retreat when things were not going well.  But the allies only look good in comparison.  Both the Americans and the British sent new recruits straight into battle, particularly in France, with no thought for their well-being.  It is always worth remembering that most of the soldiers involved in Normandy had no prior military experience.

World War 2 was global war where events on one part of the globe could have profound effects on the other side.  Beevor identifies a very good example of this in the battle of  Khalkin Gol.  This undeservedly obscure battle in Mongolia persuaded the Japanese that they should avoid conflict with Russia. This meant that Stalin could call on reserves from Siberia at the crucial point when Moscow was threatened.  The scale of the whole war gives it a sort of grandeur and it is easy to imagine that geo-political considerations make it all in some way understandable.  But this is an illusion, and one that Beevor’s book effortlessly pricks.  We get to see the leaders on the various sides and their key staff reacting to the events as they unfold.  Nobody has a master plan, not even Hitler.  The men at the tops of the various countries seem to be motivated largely  by petty jealousies and mistrust.  Nobody has the ability to see what is really important.  The intrigues of the top Nazis in the last days as the Russians close in on Berlin is particularly astonishing – you wonder how they ever managed to run Germany in the first place.

British readers brought up to think of Montgomery as a war hero will be particularly struck by the portrayal of Monty.  He emerges here as an egotistical plodder more interested in personal empire building and image building than doing anything decisive.  Churchill is not much better, though at least he seems to be motivated mainly by the desire to hold onto the British Empire. It was a quixotic goal that he never had any chance of achieving, but at least it showed a level of vision and public spirit.  Most of the other players on the stage are more interested in themselves than the good of their country.It is this human touch that makes this book so readable.Despite the scale of the conflict, we still often get taken right down to the ground to see how things looked to the people caught up in it all.  Beevor is an expert at finding revealing nuggets.  This joke told by the German infantrymen attempting to resist the Normandy invasion reveals a lot. ‘When the British planes come over we duck.  When the Americans come over, everybody ducks. When it’s the Luftwaffe, nobody ducks.’

The British had been at it since 1940 and knew how to use their aircraft.  The Americans were still at an early stage in the learning curve, but had plenty of equipment to play with.  Sadly, they often hit their own side. The courage of the Luftwaffe pilots never seems to have failed them.  They even started suicide missions to defend Berlin.  Their problem was logistics, particularly fuel.  In 1944 it must have been obvious to everyone that they no longer had the wherewithal to win the war.  But they carried on fighting to the end.  The original objective of bringing Danzig back into Germany was long forgotten.  The British had come into the war to defending Polish independence.  With Stalin’s troops firmly in control there, this was now beyond their power.  Nobody in Britain would have chosen to make the sacrifices that they did simply so the Poles would end up under the thumb of the communists rather than the fascists.  Basically the war had taken on a logic of its own and no longer made any sense.

The fighting continued until the Germans and the Japanese were so thoroughly hammered they no longer had the ability to continue the conflict.  And then it stopped.  With two continents largely in ruins, the biggest pile of corpses in human history and the map changed beyond recognition the guns fell silent.  And that is where the book ends.  There is no more than a cursory attempt at summing up or explaining.  Such a huge event calls out that it should have some kind of meaning, or at least make some kind of sense.  But there really isn’t any.  The people involved did what they thought they had to do at the time.  But when it was over, those who survived simply went back to try and pick up their lives as best they could.  A sudden unexplained ending for the book feels a bit unsatisfying, but it matches what actually happened.




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