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An unremittingly dull history of World War Two

World War Two: a Short History - review.

World War Two: a Short History
Norman Stone
Allen Lane, 272pp, £16.99

The more the Second World War recedes from memory, the greater the fascination it seems to exert. Recent blockbusters by Antony Beevor and Max Hastings have reached a wide readership through their vivid depiction of the human dimension of war. Narratives of individual battles, from Stalingrad to D-Day, along with studies of particular aspects of the war from the role of intelligence and deception to the importance of food supplies and economic factors, have similarly climbed up the bestseller lists.

After this flood of publications, there is clearly room for a good, readable, short history of the war. Norman Stone has many of the qualifications needed to write one: he reads and speaks many languages, he can write entertainingly and he has written a great deal about 19th- and 20th-century European and world history, both east and west. He has a real gift for saying a lot in a small space and many sections of this book are masterpieces of compression. Yet overall, the book is a serious disappointment, satisfactory neither as a brief introduction to the war nor as a short summary. The main reason for this is its astonishing imbalance of coverage.

The Second World War was a hugely complex set of interlocking conflicts, diverse in origin and global in scale. You would never guess so in reading this book. Stone barely casts a glance in the direction of the Far East, which is covered in a mere 10 per cent of the book, even though it is this dimension that made it a world war rather than just a European one. Stone’s real interest is in the European theatre of the war – the American contribution is seriously under-represented, too – and in particular in the three states whose history he knows best: Britain, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (which he persists in calling “Russia”, though he must know it contained, like the Red Army, also referred to as “Russian”, many different nationalities). For Stone, the origins of the war lay overwhelmingly in the ambitions of Germany as they had developed since the country’s unification in the late 19th century.

Here his account is determinedly old-fashioned, ignoring a great deal of recent scholarship: thus he claims that Germany’s naval programme was the major influence in driving Europe to war in 1914 (the naval arms race had clearly been won by the British well before this), that everyone thought the First World War would be short (they did not), that it was “only a matter of time before Germany once more asserted herself” after 1918 and so on. This is determinism with a vengeance.

The book is old-fashioned in another way, too: it focuses far too much on “great men”, most of all on Churchill and Hitler (Roosevelt gets barely a mention), to the neglect of wider influences. The experience of ordinary people, justly given so much prominence in recent large-scale general histories, is wholly absent.

Stone gives a brisk, compact narrative of the rise of Nazism, which he regards as the overwhelmingly decisive cause of the war’s outbreak. This is a deftly written summary, though he gets the name of the political party the army asked Hitler to observe in 1919 wrong (it was the German Workers’ Party and only renamed itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party the following year).

More seriously, he overestimates the extent of the support enjoyed by the Nazis once they had come to power. The concentration camps didn’t have 6,000 inmates in 1935 but fewer than 4,000, though this was not evidence, as Stone claims, of the “limited” nature of Nazi repression, since at the same time there were no fewer than 23,000 political prisoners in Germany’s state-run prisons. In 1943, he writes, “The mass of Germans were gripped by a surreal paroxysm” – but far from becoming ever more fanatical in their support for the war, ordinary Germans were becoming increasingly disillusioned, requiring the Nazis to ratchet up their murderous application of terror from the Gestapo and the SS both at home and at the front, to keep the Third Reich from collapsing from within.

It’s not just in his reduction of the two world wars to the product of German militarism and nationalism that Stone can be faulted. He gives a grossly inflated estimate – eight million – for deaths in the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s (even the Ukrainians claim closer to 3.9 million people actually died). Similarly with the number of Poles deported from the east to Poland in its new, more westerly postwar borders at the end of the war, which was not five million as claimed but 1.5 million. Hitler’s speech of January 1939, when he threatened the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe, did not express the idea of expelling them from Germany – no one who watches the newsreel film of the speech can be in any doubt that by “annihilation” he meant what he said.

Even on British history, Stone’s touch is sometimes unsure. He ransacks the historical record in support of his claim that the English Channel was an insuperable obstacle to an invading force in either direction, claiming that there had been only one successful invasion of England since 1066, namely in 1688; but he forgets the successful French invasion of 1216 and the rebel invasions of 1399, which overthrew Richard II, and 1485, which overthrew Richard III. Nor is it true that there were “not many English invasions of western Europe”, as he might have realised if he had thought for a moment about the Hundred Years’ War, the various Tudor expeditions, the war of the Spanish succession, the Seven Years’ War, the Peninsular War or, for that matter, the First World War.

Occasionally, irrelevant asides break into the text, as with his anecdote about Graham Greene’s experience of the Blitz, where he confuses The Heart of the Matter, about his affair with Dorothy Glover, with The End of the Affair, about his relationship with Catherine Walston (who, far from being “rather ugly”, was famously beautiful), and wrongly states that Greene’s affair with Glover ended in the Blitz (it continued until the late 1940s). In a book as short as this one, every sentence has to count and every sentence has to be accurate.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book is its unremitting dullness. Normally, one expects from a book by Stone outrageous expressions of bias, opinionated obiter dicta, pungently expressed prejudices, quirky judgements and entertaining oneliners. In nearly 300 pages, I could only find one piece of the old Stone, where he refers to the French soldiers defeated by the Germans in 1940 as “the very picture of the demoralisation of Third Republic France: dirty, sullen, cigarette-chewing, and smelling of cheap wine” (in reality, the French fought bravely: more than 90,000 were killed or went missing in action). If there had been more of this kind of thing, the book would have been a good deal more readable.

Richard J Evans is Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture