An unremittingly dull history of World War Two

World War Two: a Short History - review.

German soldiers make their way through the "ghost streets" of Stalingrad in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

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