Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Antony Beevor's The Second World War

Antony Beevor's latest
Anthony Beevor published his latest work, The Second World War (, this year.  This book is a magnificent tour de force single volume history of World War II.  This is not just a dry recitation of military units moving like strange arrows on a map.  Beevor is particularly skilled at bringing history to life with well chosen quotations from eyewitness accounts from the wars' participants.  Beevor, for example, quotes Vasily Grossman with the 120th Guards Rifle Division on the eastern front, "When we entered Bobruisk some buildings in it were ablaze and others lay in ruins.  To Bobruisk led the road of revenge!  With difficulty, our car finds its way between scorched and distorted German tanks and self-propelled guns.  Men are walking over German corpses.  Corpses, hundreds and hundreds of them, pave the road, lie in the ditches, under the pines, in the green barley.  In some places vehicles have to drive over the corpses, so densely they lie upon the ground.  People are busy all the time, burying them, but they are so many that this work cannot be done in a day.  The day is exhaustingly hot and still, and people walk and drive pressing handkerchiefs to their noses.  A cauldron of death was boiling here -- a ruthless, terrible revenge over those who hadn't surrendered their arms and broken out to the west."

Beevor excels at making the impact of the war come home to the reader.  The crime of rape seems to have increased exponentially during the war.

Soviet T-34, FHC, Everett,WA
Beevor tells us that "The Second World War, with its global ramifications was the greatest man-made disaster in history.  The statistics of the dead -- whether sixty or seventy million are far beyond our comprehension."

Beevor is unsparing in his portraits of the war's leaders.  Hitler and Stalin are ruthless fanatics with unbounded paranoia like the Roman emperors of old.  Commander Kelly's rule: "Give a ruler absolute power of life and death over his subjects and he will make enemies, take lives, fear violent retribution and perpetuate an endless cycle of violence".

Commander K. and P - 51, FHC, Everett, WA
The allied leaders come in for their share of criticism as well.  Churchill is depicted as an emotional romantic imperialist.  FDR is portrayed as being vain, calculating and excessively political.  Montgomery and Rommel were both over-rated according to Beevor.

Commander K. and B-17, Museum of Flight, Seattle, Wa

Beevor is harsh in his criticism of Arthur Harris and the allied strategic bomber offensive (see earlier post Duxford and...George Carlin, 4/30/12).  The Norden airsight that was supposed to hit a pickle jar from 20,000 feet could do no such thing.  Allied bombing raids were carpet bombing runs that targeted Axis cities and claimed the lives of about 1.2 million civilians in Germany and Japan.  The raids on cities like Dresden and Wurzburg were impossible to justify on military grounds.  Beevor does, however, point out that these bombing raids also diverted Luftwaffe fighters to home defense just when they were vitally needed on the eastern front;  this tipped the scale of air superiority in favor of the Red air force.  Beevor does not seem to fully acknowledge the importance that the strategic bombing campaign played in raising allied morale on the home front and the political/diplomatic impact it had in holding off Stalin's demands for a premature second front landing in France in 1942 or 1943.

ME - 109, Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA
Again and again, Beevor remarks upon the allied intelligence advantages that gave them a crucial edge and helped save many lives.  The code breakers of Bletchley Park (see earlier posts, Bletchley Park and Stalin 2/17/12 and Bletchley Park and the Judgement of History, 4/22/12) and their American counterparts at Magic earned their keep by shortening this ghastly war.

Beevor's account even contains moments of black comedy in the grim narrative.  "Just a few hours after the execution of her sister's husband, Eva Braun married Adolf Hitler.  Goebbels and Bormann were the witnesses.  It was a daunting task for the bewildered registrar, who had been dragged back from a Volkssturm detachment.  He had to ask both Hitler and Braun, according to Nazi law, whether they were of pure Aryan descent and free from hereditary diseases."  Commander Kelly must ask, "Has there ever been more joy in a single room since Adolf and Eva's wedding night?"

Beevor has this to say about President Truman at Potsdam after V/E day but before the defeat of Japan, "The new President had been charmed and awed by the manipulative Soviet dictator, who despised him in return.  The prime minister's greatest moment of intimacy with Truman came when they discussed how the President was to tell Stalin of the atomic bomb.  But Stalin had already discussed twice with Beria how he should react when given the news.  On 17 July Beria had provided him with details of the successful test, obtained by his spies in the Manhattan Project.  So, when Truman told Stalin about the bomb in a confidential tone, Stalin barely reacted.  He summoned Molotov and Beria immediately afterwards and 'sniggering', related the scene.  Churchill was standing by the door his eyes fixed on me like a searchlight, while Truman, with his hypocritical air, told me what had happened in an indifferent tone.'  Their amusement was increased when the recordings from NKVD microphones revealed that, when Churchill had asked Truman how the Soviet leader had taken the news, Truman replied that 'Stalin had apparently failed to understand.'"  Thus we see staggering naivete in the highest ranks of the allied governments, which were riddled with Soviet spies.  Please recall that President Truman dissolved America's chief intelligence service in September 1945 -- the month after V/J day (see earlier post, Julia and Paul Child and the Cold War, 8/29/12).

The Second World War is a particularly timely work insofar as it discusses Stalin's misunderstanding of the democratic process in the west.  Stalin could not believe that FDR had died of natural causes, he must have been assassinated by a plotting Truman!  Stalin could also not understand how Churchill could have "allowed himself" to be replaced after he was voted out as Prime minister by the British electorate after V/E day.  It is very difficult for those who are have only experienced a police/fear state to comprehend how free societies actually operate.  Today we observe middle eastern countries whose masses assume that all American movies are controlled by the American government.

German Jagdpanzer, FHC, Everett, WA
Our most common mistake in thinking about World War II lies in making the assumption that its final outcome was inevitable from the start (e.g. due to allied industrial production advantages, etc.). Beevor points out the fact that the Axis powers almost never collaborated in any meaningful way to coordinate strategy.  Had Japan struck north against the Soviet Union capturing Vladivostok in the fall of 1941 instead of attacking south and west versus the USA, England the and Dutch, Stalin could never have reinforced Moscow with the Siberian divisions that staved off disaster in the battle for Moscow in December of that year.

You can now find Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades,  here or on Amazon

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