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The Full Scale of It

LEGALLY SPEAKING, IT was the conference that met in Paris in November 1990, attended by representatives of a reunited Germany and a then fragile Soviet Union, that ended World War II. As to when the war began, the Americans were clearly latecomers to the conflict, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Within days, Hitler had declared war on the United States, which represented for the Fuhrer the hub of the cosmopolitan, Jewish-inspired threat to Aryan civilization that the Nazis had a mission to smash. So the United States, under attack, belatedly joined a world war: one that the other superpower, the Soviet Union, itself under attack, had belatedly joined six months previously. And meanwhile, back in 1940-1941, it had been the Greeks who had borne the brunt of German aggression; and before them, the French and other northern European countries in 1940; and before them, the Poles. It was in defense of Poland that Britain and France declared war in September 1939.

That last date is still the most widely accepted one for the beginning of World War II. But if it was indeed a global conflict, as signalled by the way that Pearl Harbor brought the United States into a war on two fronts, surely its origins in Asia deserve more recognition. Was the clash of Japanese and Chinese forces at the Marco Polo Bridge in July 1937 the beginning not only of a formal Sino-Japanese war, but also of the ensuing global conflict? And if so, should its origins not be dated further back, to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931-1932? For that event locked these two countries into an Asian power struggle and also faced the League of Nations in Geneva with a peacekeeping challenge that it was incapable of meeting. So World War I was not, after all, the war to end all war, but, as some eminent historians argue, the first phase of a conflict encompassing much of the twentieth century.

Antony Beevor shows himself well aware of these different interpretations. He has already written with distinction on some of the key military developments, not only in his early works on the Spanish civil war and the Greek campaign, but also on his ground-breaking studies of the eastern front, especially Berlin: The Downfall. If Beevor opts for the familiar dating of the war as 1939-1945, it is not through lack of cognizance. He is dealing with six years in which this war was the most important development on our planet, not only for combatants but in ways that few non-combatants entirely escaped. “The Second World War, with its global ramifications, was the greatest man-made disaster in history,” he concludes, with sober authority.

Many of his readers will already be aware that six million Jews were killed, all too many of them among the fourteen million who died in the contested territories of Eastern Europe. The scale of Soviet deaths—perhaps nine million soldiers and eighteen million civilians—is likewise shocking. But recent estimates that up to fifty million Chinese died, although less familiar to Western readers, account for the numerical bulk of the appalling reckoning of war deaths that Beevor suggests—perhaps seventy million in all.

This cannot be a pretty story. What used to be called the “drum-and-trumpet” school of history is no longer appropriate (if it ever was). Beevor’s forte as a military historian is that he manifests such a wide range of historical sympathy and historical imagination. But none of it comes at the expense of his special expertise in tools of the trade in which he briefly served as a young man. Instead, every page is imbued with the sense that this man really knows what he is talking about—that he knows war is a brutal and degrading experience, albeit with comradeship as a compensating human value and with some potential for military prowess to alleviate the scale of suffering.

Beevor’s human and logistical capacities, in combination, inform the gripping accounts of some of the great set-piece confrontations that determined the outcome of the war. He provides notable surveys of the Battle of Britain, which denied Hitler control of the air in 1940; of the TORCH landings in North Africa in 1942, which tested the Allies’s capacity to mount a Second Front; of the blood-soaked battles for Stalingrad and Kursk in 1942-1943; of the pincer squeeze on the beleaguered Nazi regime in 1944, once Soviet pressure in the east was matched by the western Allied advance from the Normandy beaches.

All these engagements show Beevor in his mastery. It is to his credit that he devotes so much attention to the parallel developments in the Asian theater, where Japan proved fully as stubborn in the throes of defeat as its Nazi ally. Beevor draws on much recent research, notably in offering some extenuation of the difficulties faced by Chiang Kai-shek in mobilizing Chinese resistance. Here his achievement is to provide a good, clear, and fair working synthesis.

Where Beevor speaks with the authority of his own thirty years in writing about the war in Europe, his judgments command particular respect. Roosevelt is saluted for “admirable far-sightedness” in seeing so early that American interests depended on giving support to Britain and France against Nazi Germany. It was Churchill’s “misdirected enthusiasm” for the doomed operations at Narvik in 1940 that “with the cruel irony of politics” helped bring him to power in place of Chamberlain. Beevor nonetheless makes it clear that this change at the top was vital to Britain’s survival. He remains even-handed about Churchill’s subsequent actions, forthrightly condemning his role in the Bengal famine of 1942: “The episode was the most shameful in the history of the British Raj.” In Greece in 1944-45, however, “Churchill’s obstinate intervention at least saved the country from the fate of its northern neighbours.”

There are are also robust judgments about some of the wartime commanders whose exploits made them household names, blessed with brilliant subsequent careers. Beevor describes Mountbatten as “a vertiginously over-promoted destroyer captain,” fully justifying the scorn in which many Americans held the young man appointed Supreme Commander in Southeast Asia in 1943. Not that some of the U.S. high command fare any better, as witness a comment on General Mark Clark’s determination to take Rome in 1944: “Clark’s obsession was so intense that one can assume that he had become slightly deranged.” The American general entered the city in a style that self-consciously harked back to a grander, nobler myth of war, and lived to savor his triumph for another forty years. For the seventy million who did not come home from this war, as Beevor’s sobering account reminds us, the reckoning was different. This is military history with more victims than heroes, more verisimilitude than heroics.

Peter Clarke’s new book, Mr. Churchill’s Profession, has been published by Bloomsbury Press.