The Second World War
By Antony Beevor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson – £25.00
As with all of Antony Beevor’s books, The Second World War is a crystal-clear and altogether concise assessment of surely one of the darkest periods in world history; or to quote the author himself: ‘’the cruellest and most destructive conflict which the world has ever known.’’ For as harrowing and politically convoluted as the years 1939-1945 were, Beevor writes with such a panache and literary flair, that the reader is almost uncannily charged to keep turning the pages at a rate of ten by ten, twenty by twenty, chapter by chapter – until such point that s/he has stumbled upon the end as if by chance, as if by default.
The default being nothing other than the sheer, sincere pleasure found within the actual execution of reading itself, regardless of how unnerving and on occasion, despicable the subject matter.
Obviously, what is written is of quintessential importance. And let’s be straight here, as an academic, perhaps no one knows the hideous events of the World War II better than the author, whose previous (outstanding) books include Paris After the Liberation, Stalingrad, Berlin: The Downfall and The Battle for Spain. Reason being, as with almost all things reliant upon a connection of words – within the realm of culture at least – it’s ALL in the telling.
Whether it’s history or poetry, comedy or philosophy, what truly matters is how what is being told is conveyed, and as a historian, Antony Beevor truly knows and understands this. Max Hastings recently substantiated as much in The Sunday Times when he wrote: ‘’No one knows better than Beevor how to translate the dry stuff of military history into human drama of the most vivid and moving kind.’’
That’s not to say this particular writer of history declines to shed new light on his subject. Far from it. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few readers find the nuance and the nature of some of Beevor’s writing herein, intermittently risqué; which, apart from being both commendable and refreshing, can surely only be a good thing.
Lets face it, there aren’t many historians of this calibre who are qualified enough (let alone prepared enough), to really fucking hoof the dire acceptance and dry stasis of (German) history in the bollocks – which Beevor feverishly does on a number of occasions throughout The Second World War.
For example, in the book’s forty-fourth chapter ‘From the Vistula to the Oder,’ he writes: ‘’Nazi prestige remained far more important to the regime than any human suffering, even that of its own people. In that one month of January 1945, Wehrmacht losses rose to 451,742 killed, roughly the equivalent of all American deaths in the whole of the Second World War.’’ While in the book’s Introduction, he absolutely doesn’t waste any time in writing: ‘’Opportunism went hand in hand with cowardice in the face of authority. The nineteenth-century chancellor Otto von Bismarck himself once remarked that moral courage was a rare virtue in Germany, but it deserted a German completely the moment he put on a uniform. The Nazis, not surprisingly, wanted to get almost everyone into uniform, not least the children.’’
That no one suspected or at least questioned the Nazis reasoning behind this odious scenario, is another argument altogether. If not grounds for another book.
That said, hindsight is as equally instrumental in the telling of history, as it is potentially explosive. A mere two paragraphs after the above, Beevor goes on to write: ‘’Hitler’s forceful seduction of the German people began to strip the country of human values, step by step. Nowhere was the effect more evident than in the persecution of the Jews, which progressed in fits and starts. Yet contrary to general belief, this was often driven from within the Nazi Party than from above. Hitler’s apocalyptic rants against Jews did not necessarily mean that he had already decided on a ‘Final Solution’ of physical annihilation. He was content to allow SA (Sturmabteilung) stormtroopers to attack Jews and their businesses and steal their possessions to satisfy an incoherent mixture of greed, envy and imagined resentment.’’
‘’[…] to satisfy an incoherent mixture of greed, envy and imagined resentment’’ (my italics) is particularly powerful and potent; especially coming from such a respected and renowned writer.
To be sure, injecting such considered compassion into (t)his work is what sets Beevor apart from a plethora of lesser writers of history; simply because within his research and analysis, there is also a profound sense of humanity. It’s no wonder this former chairman of the Society of Authors has had his work translated into no less than thirty languages and has sold over five million books: ‘’The style contributes to the account itself, a masterful mixture of narrative and scrupulousness towards the facts. In both categories we are witnessing an author at the height if his art (Thomas Kielinger, Die Welt).
From the killing fields and the concentration camps of Central Europe, to the North Atlantic and the South Pacific; from the unspeakable cruelties of the Sino-Japanese War to the living hell that was Stalingrad, The Second World War raises not only the bench mark, but the expectation by which all other books of a similar persuasion will probably be measured.
Indeed, by deploying his keen eye for tiny detail and penchant for story telling, and then marrying them both with an acute historical investigation, Antony Beevor has once again written a book that is simply superlative.