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The Second World War by Antony Beevor - review

The horror that followed.

The Second World War

Antony Beevor

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 880pp, £25

On 18 February 1943, Goebbels spoke at a mass meeting in the Berlin Sportpalast. From the podium he screamed: “Do you want total war?” The audience jumped to its feet and screamed back that it did. An anti-Nazi journalist covering the event commented that he, too, leapt to his feet and only just stopped himself from joining the audience in shouting: “Ja!” Later he told friends that if Goebbels had shouted, “Do you all want to go to your deaths?”, the crowd would have roared back its enthusiastic assent.

This memorable vignette is one of hundreds in Antony Beevor’s utterly absorbing history of the Second World War. Beevor is justly celebrated for recounting the human realities of war. In his Stalingrad (1998) and Berlin: the Downfall (2002), where he re-creates two of the most dramatic episodes in the Second World War, he showed how armed conflict is experienced by those who are involved in it: not as a succession of military strategies, successful or otherwise, but as a breach with everyday existence that changes one’s life for ever. Moving on to the big picture, he presents the war in the same terms:

With its global ramifications, [it] was the greatest man-made disaster in history . . . No other period in 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.

A former officer who trained at Sandhurst, Beevor is committed to telling the truth about war, with all its painful contradictions – a commitment that has provoked some virulent attacks, Russian historians complaining bitterly about his rigorously accurate description of mass rapes committed by Soviet forces when they occupied Berlin. Now, as then, Beevor does not flinch: this is as comprehensive and objective an account of the course of the war as we are likely to get, and the most humanly moving to date.

We think of the war as starting when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, but Beevor suggests it may have begun with the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol on the Mongolian border with Manchuria in August that year, when Soviet forces defeated those of Japan in a long-standing border conflict, leading to a Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact that was signed a few weeks before Germany invaded Russia and ended when Soviet forces swept into Man­churia in August 1945.

The global scope of the conflict is illustrated by the story he tells of a young soldier surrendering to US paratroopers during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Judging by his appearance, the Americans thought he was Japanese. He was in fact a Korean who had been forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army in Manchuria, captured by Soviet forces and sent to a labour camp, drafted to serve in the Red Army, then taken prisoner by the Germans and forced to serve in a battalion. Despite his experience, the young Korean was lucky. After spending time as a prisoner of war in Britain, he moved to the US, where he died in 1992.

Tens of millions of others were less fortunate. One of the most harrowing aspects of the war was the displacement it forced on civilian populations. Non-combatants almost beyond number – “rivers of frightened humanity” – poured out of cities that were bombed or occupied. When the German forces marched into Poland they burned more than 500 towns and villages to the ground. “In some places,” Beevor writes, “the line of German advance was marked at night by the red glow on the horizon from blazing villages and farms. As they occupied the country, which the Poles were defending fiercely despite obsolete weaponry and a lack of radio equipment, German forces raped and looted at will and began the summary executions and massacres that they were to employ, on an expanding scale, when they invaded the Soviet Union. This was the actuality of the total war that Goebbels’s audience would later greet with such wild enthusiasm.”

For this reader, the most arresting passages in Beevor’s story are those that detail the fog of incomprehension through which the world viewed the Nazi threat. Hitler never made any secret of his goal of European domination or of his intention to create a slave empire in the east. In Beevor’s words, “the chief architect” of a conflict more terrible than the one that had left Europe in ruins 20 years earlier, Hitler complained about being frustrated in his push for war in 1938 because “the British accepted all my demands at Munich”. In the spring of 1939, he told the Romanian foreign minister: “I am now 50. I would rather have the war now than when I am 55 or 60.” But at the time most people in Europe and Britain did not want to face the prospect of fighting, and Hitler’s declared aims were not taken seriously. It was not understood that agreements meant nothing to him. Neville Chamberlain’s view of the world was largely shaped by his experience as a successful mayor of Birmingham. As Churchill’s ally Duff Cooper commented, Chamberlain “had never met anyone in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler . . . Nobody in Birmingham had ever broken his promises to the mayor.”

Even Stalin could not believe that Hitler would betray him. Ignoring over 80 clear indications of a German invasion, including several from Churchill and many from his own diplomats and spies, he increased the deliveries to Germany of fuel, grain and metals with which he continued his appeasement of Germany. When warned of the impending invasion by the German ambassador in Moscow, an anti-Nazi who was later executed for his part in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Stalin exploded: “Disinformation has now reached ambassadorial level!” When Germans launched their invasion Russian fortitude prevailed, making an indispensable contribution to defeating the Nazi war machine; but this was despite Stalin, not because of him.

The war did not begin with the aim of destroy­ing Nazism. Britain’s avowed objective was to liberate Poland, a goal forfeited when the country was swallowed by Stalin. The allies made many problematic decisions, such as strategic bombing of German cities and appeasing Stalin when he demanded the forcible repatriation of Soviet POWs. Yet none of these can outweigh their great achievement – the destruction of the Nazi regime. As Beevor shows, the Nazi programme of extermination emerged in stages, reaching its full development only with the Wannsee conference in January 1942, when “the prospect of victory in the late summer of 1941 had contributed to the dramatic radicalisation of Nazi policy”. But the horror that followed was not an accident of war.

A deadly combination of racism and faux-Darwinian pseudo-science, Nazi ideology had genocide at its core. When the SS tried to destroy the evidence of Auschwitz, it left behind hundreds of thousands of men’s suits, nearly a million women’s coats and dresses and seven tonnes of human hair. The Second World War may have been the greatest man-made catastrophe in history, and yet the world would have been unimaginably darker without it.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis