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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