The Second World War by Antony Beevor: review
The Telegraph July 11, 2012
By James Owen
Beevor’s usual engaging detail is missing in this full panorama of the Second World War
Modesty is a pleasing virtue in a writer but Antony Beevor surely has little need to be diffident. His account of the siege of Stalingrad, published in 1998, started the boom in books about the Second World War and introduced many to a new way of writing about it, from the perspective of the ordinary man rather than that of his masters. It became, in the phrase of those Blairite times, “The People’s War”.
Yet, writes Beevor disarmingly, he felt a bit of a fraud. Despite becoming synonymous with the modern telling of the conflict, he claims that his broader understanding of it was not always up to scratch. If that were ever true, then The Second World War has remedied it. This is history writ large, and fashionably long. What seems perverse, however, is that in giving us the full panorama of events, he largely omits the close-ups which made his earlier books so readable.
As is now standard scholarship, Beevor stresses how much it was a world war. Hitler’s expansionist ambitions mirrored those of the Japanese on the other side of the globe. The scale and reach of the forces unleashed were personified in the fate of a young Korean with whose story Beevor begins his book, in what proves to be a rare example of his usual method. Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted by the Japanese in 1938 and sent to fight in China. There he was captured by the Soviets and drafted into the Red Army. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and then found himself serving in their ranks in Normandy. After a spell in a British POW camp, he emigrated to the United States.
But it is debatable to what extent events in Asia influenced those in Europe while peace held there. Beevor makes a case for Russia’s defeat of Japan in 1939 on the Mongolian frontier as marking the start of the conflict. That may be stretching his point that it was global. None the less, the wars in the East and the West were to become intertwined, and his inclusion of that which embroiled vast numbers of Japanese troops in China until 1945 – the Second Sino-Japanese War – corrects a long-standing blind spot in the British view of the fighting in the Orient.
Twenty million died in China, casualties comparable with those suffered by the USSR. It is unfamiliar details such as these that hold the attention. The German hatred of guerrillas is traced back to the Prussian fear of French irregulars, the francs-tireurs. Two thousand pedestrians were killed in London in the first four months of the blackout. Ten per cent of Allied soldiers in Italy were incapacitated by venereal disease.
Unexpected vignettes also linger in the memory. A group of blind refugees flees Minsk, tied together with towels. Bernard Freyberg, commanding the defence of Crete, jumps for joy at the destruction of German forces, unaware that his own doom is also sealed. As Rangoon awaits the Japanese, British officers deny them a prize by throwing billiard balls at the portraits of governors of Burma. At the Wannsee Conference, the Holocaust is set in motion with all the dry formality of a board meeting; many around the table are lawyers.
The Second World War is certainly comprehensive in scope, but Beevor adheres too scrupulously to that manifesto. The trouble with taking in all the sights is that you have less time to dwell on those which most engage your emotions. The destruction of the German destroyers in the snowy fjords around Narvik ought to be a chance to loosen his narration’s corsets, but Beevor deals with it in a paragraph. D-Day passes in a page.
Of course the story has to be moved on, but for a kaleidoscope to work one has to vary the focus. Beevor has shown personal experiences can convey the impact on individuals of great events, but in this book they are overwhelmed by the grand scheme. Moreover, his decision to chronicle more than to interpret means that the writing tends to the descriptive rather than to the illuminating. The circumstance is all here, but it lacks the touch of pomp necessary for it to be read for its own pleasure.
Like modesty, objectivity is a blessing in a historian, but a dense book such as this needs a point of view to give it momentum. The depth of Beevor’s knowledge entitles him to supply that more boldly than he does, and its absence makes one wonder who he has written this for. A younger readership who simply want a definitive account? But the suspicion is that sales of books about the war have been sustained by those to whom it seems not so long ago.
Whether its battles will continue to resonate as they have is uncertain. Time whittles at even the keystones of an era’s cultural architecture: the Beatles’ first LP was released closer to the war of 1914-18 than to our day. The Second World War is an honourable attempt to fashion the legacy that Beevor merits. Younger historians have much to be grateful to him for, but new ways will have to be found of telling these stories if they are to retain their hold on the imagination.
Antony James Beevor, FRSL (born 14 December 1946) is a Britishhistorian, educated at Winchester College and Sandhurst. He studied under the famous military historian John Keegan. Beevor is a former officer with the 11th Hussars who served in England and Germany for five years before resigning his commission. He has published several popular histories on World War II and the 20th century in general.
Antony holds an Honorary DLitt from the University of Bath, awarded in 2010, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Kent, awarded in 2004. He is also a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
He is a visiting professor at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London. He is descended from a long line of women writers, being a son of “Kinta” Beevor (born Carinthia Jane Waterfield, 22 December 1911 – 29 August 1995), herself the daughter of Lina Waterfield, and a descendant of Lucie Duff-Gordon (author of a travelogue on Egypt). Kinta Beevor wrote A Tuscan Childhood. Antony Beevor is married to the Hon. Artemis Cooper, granddaughter of Duff Cooper and of Lady Diana Cooper.
Between leaving the Army and starting to write, he was an account executive with the advertising and marketing firm of Masius Wynne Williams, working on campaigns for the food products firm Rank Hovis McDougall.
His best known works, the best-selling Stalingrad and Berlin – The Downfall 1945, recount the World War II battles between the Soviet Union and Germany. They have been praised for their vivid, compelling style, their treatment of the ordinary lives of combatants and civilians and the use of newly disclosed documents from Soviet archives. Beevor’s works have been used as sources and credited as such in many recent documentary films about World War II. Another one of his best known works is Crete: The Battle and the Resistance for which he won the Runciman Prize, administered by the Anglo-Hellenic League for stimulating interest in Greek history and culture.
Berlin: The Downfall 1945 encountered criticism in Russia. The criticism centres on the book’s discussion of atrocities, which, according to the historical consensus prevailing in Germany and the West, were committed by the Red Army against German civilians, in particular, the extremely widespread rape of German women and female Russian forced labourers, both before and after the end of the war. Over 2 million women were said to have been raped during this period. The Russian ambassador to the UK denounced the book as “lies” and “slander against the people who saved the world from Nazism”.
O.A. Rzheshevsky, a professor and the president of the Russian Association of World War II Historians, has charged that Beevor is merely resurrecting the discredited and racist views of Neo-Nazi historians, who depicted Soviet troops as subhuman “Asiatic hordes”. He claimed that Beevor’s use of phrases such as “Berliners remember” and “the experiences of the raped German women” were better suited “for pulp fiction, than scientific research”. Rzheshevsky also defended Soviet reprisals against Germans, stating that the Germans could have expected an “avalanche of revenge”.
Beevor has responded to Russian claims. He states that he used excerpts from the report of General Tsigankov, the chief of the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front, to cite the incident. He responded to Rzheshevsky by saying, “Professor O.A. Rzheshevsky even accused me of repeating Nazi propaganda, when in fact the bulk of the evidence on the subject came from Soviet sources, especially the NKVD reports in GARF (State Archive of the Russian Federation), and a wide range of reliable personal accounts.”
Beevor stated that he hopes that Russian historians will “take a more objective approach to material in their own archives which are at odds to the heroic myth of the Red Army as ‘liberators’ in 1945”.
Other UK historians such as Richard Overy, from the University of Exeter, have criticized Russian outrage at the book and defended Beevor. Overy accused the Russians of refusing to acknowledge Soviet war crimes, “Partly this is because they felt that much of it was justified vengeance against an enemy who committed much worse, and partly it was because they were writing the victors’ history.”
Beevor has stated that German women were part of a society that supported Hitler and thus cannot be seen as victims in the same way as Jews, Poles and Russians.