The Second World War: An Illustrated History
by A.J.P. Taylor
Putnam’s, 240 pp., $17.50
WW II: A Chronicle of Soldiering
by James Jones, by Art Weithas
Grosset and Dunlap, 272 pp., $25.00
“Weygand became Commander in Chief: he was 73. He tapped his briefcase, saying, ‘I have the secrets of Marshal Foch.’ The briefcase was empty. Weygand cancelled Gamelin’s instructions for a combined offensive, and….”
Only A. J. P. Taylor writes history like this. His highly curried style—dry, pungent, accompanied by astonishing little side dishes and, though no doubt wearing holes in the lining of the brain, impossible to stop consuming—becomes more concentrated every time he returns to topics which are familiar to him. And the Second World War is very familiar. As he says himself, “I have been composing this book for more than thirty years,” beginning as a lecturer traveling about wartime Britain to interpret the news week by week, and finishing with the books which have infuriated a fair number of academics and given violent pleasure to a much larger number of their students. The matter of this book has already been partially covered in The Origins of the Second World War (the real troublemaker, which proposed that Hitler might not have brought about the war deliberately), and in the latter part of English History 1914-1945, the last of the fifteen volumes of the Oxford History of England.
Emphases change, however. The landscape looks different to Professor Taylor every time he traverses it. Not totally different: the basic features of his view are still there. This was a conflict worth fighting, “justified in its aims and successful in accomplishing them. Despite all the killing and destruction which accompanied it, the Second World War was a good war.” Nevertheless, the perspective of thirty years since the war ended is not that of twenty-five years. The coherence of the period from the outbreak of the Spanish rebellion to the armistice of the cold war at Helsinki this year is easier to understand: more than the reign of Francisco Franco Bahamonde gives it unity as an epoch. Correspondingly, it is easier to link together into a single trench the various trial-pits sunk by revisionist historians along those years.
This time around, Professor Taylor is clearly becoming interested in the conservatism of the combatant states. On the last page of the Oxford History, he wrote: “This was a people’s war.” He meant only to observe that, in contrast to other wars, the British people themselves wanted to win. Now he is taking the idea much further. The war displayed two forms of conservatism in government motivation. There was the wish of the powers who were “more or less content with the world as it was” to restrain the powers who wanted to change it—Germany and Japan—and to restore something like the status quo ante. The Darlan episode was an illustration. The Allies set over the Algiers French this “persistent and virulent collaborator” as a sign that “the British and American governments wanted no change in Europe except that Hitler should disappear.” Secondly, there was the conservatism toward social change: specifically, the mistrust of the Allied governments toward …