Ever since it began, World War II has been seen as “the good war,” to borrow the title of Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize–winning oral history.1 In sharp contrast to World War I, remembered mainly for its terrible conditions in the trenches of the Western Front, its tragic waste of a whole generation of young men, and its disastrous consequences in Europe, leading to the rise of fascism and communism and the triumph of Hitler, World War II is remembered as the defeat of dictatorship by democracy, racism by tolerance, nationalism by internationalism, extremism by moderation, evil by good. It is a memory that is buried deep in the political consciousness and identity of the modern world and in particular Britain and America, where it has sustained a positive self-image ever since 1945 and underpinned the two countries’ global ambitions and roles.
Yet in recent years this positive memory has come increasingly into question. From a pacifist point of view, the war has been portrayed as a pointless struggle, not fought on moral grounds but provoked by the Allies to serve their own material interests.2 From a conservative, Euroskeptic perspective, some British historians have argued that the United Kingdom should have stayed out of both world wars, since (in their view) Germany was not a threat to world peace, and the ultimate outcome of the wars was the destruction of the British Empire, the subjugation of Eastern Europe by Stalin for nearly half a century, and the incorporation of Britain into a united Europe dominated by the Germans.3 In the US, conservative condemnation of the war has been even harsher, with the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 singled out as a war crime without parallel, Winston Churchill castigated as a warmonger, and the US blamed for sparking the conflict in the East by ejecting the Japanese from the international community in the 1920s.4
It is probably fair to say that these views have not had much impact on public memory in Britain and America; nor have they been widely accepted by scholars. Popular fascination with World War II in particular continues to be led by an enthusiasm for experiencing vicariously the heroic struggle of the democracies and their armed forces against the barbarism of the Nazi forces and the sadism of the Japanese military. Yet even here, narratives of the war have more and more revealed its political ambiguities and moral complexities.
Few authors have contributed more to this process of rethinking than the British military historian Antony Beevor. Himself a former professional soldier, he has written a series of best-selling books on major battles of World War II, including Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege (1998), winner of the Wolfson History Prize, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (2002), and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009). Brilliantly written, these books won critical acclaim as well as a popular following through their combination of clear narrative and analysis of military strategy and tactics, deft character sketches of the main personalities on both sides, and riveting and moving stories and quotations from the ordinary soldiers and civilians involved in the conflict.
The same virtues are evident in his new, comprehensive history of World War II, which, he says, he undertook in “an attempt to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in very different theatres of war.” Many previous histories of the war, indeed, portray the European and Pacific theaters almost as two separate wars—the book Total War, long the best overall account (despite being written very much from a British perspective), actually treated them in two different parts written by two different authors.5 It is one of the main virtues of Antony Beevor’s book that it draws out the many interconnections and interdependencies of the two theaters and shows that this really was a single war, not two separate ones.
The book opens with a description of the Battle of the Khalkhin Gol River, which began in May 1939 with a minor border clash between Red Army and Mongolian forces on the one side, and Japanese and Manchurian forces on the other. Unlike previous clashes, this one escalated as the local Japanese commander ordered an air strike against Soviet bases behind the front line, and Stalin called in the cavalry commander Georgy Zhukov to deal with the situation. Zhukov prepared his mission with all the tactics that later made him famous: assembling massive reinforcements under cover of darkness and concealing them during the day, while deceiving the enemy with misleading and badly encoded messages into believing he was digging in when he was actually preparing to go on the offensive.
On August 20, 1939, his tanks powered forward behind the Japanese lines in a huge encircling movement, inflicting 61,000 casualties on the enemy and resolving the border issue in favor of the Soviet Union. Another of Zhukov’s characteristics came to the fore in the conflict too: his disregard for casualties among his own troops, nearly 8,000 of whom were killed and more than 15,000 wounded. An attempt by his superior officer to stop the carnage was brusquely dismissed as “indecisiveness.”
Beevor brings out well the larger significance of this minor clash. Surprised and dismayed by the defeat, the Japanese military was forced to abandon its plan to strike first against the Soviet Union and give way to the naval faction, who wanted instead to “strike south” in the Pacific. The decision had far-reaching consequences; bolstered by a Soviet-Japanese nonaggression pact signed in April 1941, it would give Stalin a free hand to counter the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the months following the launching of Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941.
The most important goal of the Japanese in pursuing the “strike south” strategy, Beevor argues, was the conquest of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), with their rich supplies of oil and rubber, undertaken in the winter of 1941–1942. The German occupation of Holland and the impossibility of controlling or reinforcing the colony from Europe any longer made it easy for the Japanese to take the islands, especially after Allied naval forces had been brushed aside early in 1942; they stayed in the Dutch East Indies until the general Japanese surrender in 1945. Meanwhile they also pushed into British-controlled Burma and began to threaten India too. As war swept through other British and French colonies, from Madagascar to Morocco, Singapore to Hong Kong, with the European colonial masters humiliated by the Japanese or by other European invaders, it became clear that the era of European global empire was over.
For the Japanese, German victory on the Eastern Front would have enabled Hitler to turn his attention again to Britain, with all the consequences this would have for Britain’s ability to fight the war in the East. In February 1943, an audience of 150 senior Japanese generals and officials sat down to watch a film of the Battle of Stalingrad shot by Soviet cameramen. In stunned silence they contemplated the stark images of German defeat. “Can this possibly be the case?” they asked. Like Hitler, they were outraged that the German commander Friedrich von Paulus had not committed suicide “like a real soldier.” They began to realize their European ally was going to be defeated. Britain would not fall. The omens that this event cast for their own possible victory were not good, and they knew it.
Drawing out these multiple interconnections is one of the great strengths of Beevor’s approach. Time and again he implicitly undermines the old myth of Britain “standing alone” in 1940. It was, after all, still the world’s greatest global empire, with Indian troops fighting in North Africa, New Zealanders defending Crete, and Canadians landing in France on D-Day. Beevor gives full prominence to the large numbers of Polish and Czech airmen who flew fighter planes in the Battle of Britain. At times, to be sure, this could cause difficulties. A Polish pilot shot down over East Anglia got caught by his parachute in an oak tree:
“People with pitchforks and staves ran up,” he recorded. “One of them, armed with a shotgun, was screaming ‘Hände hoch!’ ‘Fuck off,’ I answered in my very best English. The lowering faces immediately brightened up. ‘He’s one of ours!’ they shouted in unison.”
Anecdotes such as this abound, and give the narrative a human face. As one could have expected from his previous books, Beevor describes military action supremely well. Particularly strong are his deft characterizations of the leading figures in the conflict. Few escape his judgments unscathed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt “was undoubtedly a great man, but while deploying charm and a contrived impression of intimacy to great effect, he was essentially rather vain, cold and calculating.” Beevor portrays him as putty in the hands of a cynical manipulator like Stalin, especially at the Yalta conference in February 1945, when he insisted on going without an agreed plan for dealing with the Allies, showed little interest in Europe since the war there was almost over, and during the proceedings looked “old and frail, with his mouth hanging open most of the time, [and] sometimes did not appear to follow what was going on.”
Churchill fares little better. Beevor acknowledges his inspirational rhetoric in bringing the British people behind him, his political skill in outmaneuvering those in his cabinet who wanted to make peace with Germany after the defeat of France, his generally wise choice of subordinates, military and civilian, and his global vision that saw that the war could only be won by means of an alliance with America. But he allowed himself to be excessively influenced by Stalin’s pose of bonhomie when negotiating with the Soviet dictator: “Churchill, for whom emotions were often more real than facts, had failed to see that Stalin was even more successful than Roosevelt when it came to manipulating people.” The unsatisfactory postwar settlement was in part a consequence of this weakness.
Just as serious was Churchill’s habit of shooting off strategic ideas in all directions, most of them unrealistic or even potentially disastrous. If there is a hero in this book, it is Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, who in his war diaries frequently vented his frustration and irritation at the conduct of his mercurial boss. “Trying to contain his incontinent enthusiasms,” writes Beevor, “which bore no relation to Britain’s resources and above all shipping capacity and air cover, left Brooke exhausted.” Brooke’s judgments on other generals and politicians were often caustic, and Beevor perhaps relies too heavily on his self-serving diaries, in which he presented himself as the only sensible and level-headed military thinker around, implying that it was his presence at the top that ultimately ensured the Allied victory.
Beevor has no truck with the argument, put forward by Gerhard L. Weinberg in his standard history of the war, A World at Arms,6 that Hitler was at times prepared to allow his generals freedom to maneuver. Time and again, he shows, Hitler made it clear that tactical withdrawal or retreat was a sign of cowardice. His fanatical unrealism began long before the final phase of the war. “In the position in which you find yourself,” he told his commander in North Africa, General Erwin Rommel, in November 1942 as he was withdrawing in the face of superior British forces,
there can be no other thought than to stand fast, not to take even one step back, and to throw every available weapon and soldier into the battle…. This is not the first time in history that resolute determination will prevail over the stronger battalions of the enemy. There is only one choice you can offer your troops: victory or death.
Beevor rightly condemns the “insanity” of Hitler’s command. Whatever he thought, there could be no triumph of the will without men, munitions, equipment, and fuel. That the remains of Rommel’s army got away on this occasion was, Beevor says, “due to Montgomery’s slow reactions and excessive caution.”
The British commander Bernard Montgomery is one of many generals whose faults loom large in Beevor’s book. A “military conservative, believing in detailed staffwork,” he lacked the initiative and boldness so necessary in the heat of combat. Time and again he is said to have “failed to seize the opportunity offered to mount a devastating blow,” not least because of his “anti-cavalry prejudices against armoured formations ‘swanning around.’” Typically, his preparations for a crossing of the Rhine, “a model of Staff College planning, with no fewer than 59,000 engineers involved,” elicited “caustic comments” from the Americans about “the massive build-up and the time it took” and was trumped by the American 9th Armored Division’s seizure of the still-standing bridge at Remagen in an action of “great dash,” something of which Montgomery was completely incapable. “He is a little fellow of average ability,” Eisenhower’s British chief of staff is reported to have told US General George S. Patton, “who has had such a build-up that he thinks of himself as Napoleon—he is not.”
Montgomery’s opponent in the desert war, Erwin Rommel, was presented as a genius by the British in a “very misguided attempt to explain away their own failures.” Other German generals considered Rommel an “arrogant publicity seeker” who used the favor of Hitler to bypass the chain of command. He ignored the “huge logistical problem” of maintaining his supply lines, which rapidly became overstretched as he advanced across hundreds of miles of desert, and “when things became difficult, he instinctively blamed jealousy within the Wehrmacht for depriving him of supplies,” while in fact the real reason was the sinking of transports in the Mediterranean by Allied ships and planes. His early successes were due mainly to luck: the Allied forces in North Africa were initially weak and poorly led. His unsupported advance toward the Egyptian frontier against orders from above convinced the chief of the Army General Staff in Berlin that he had “gone stark mad.”
Many other legendary commanders are cut down to size in Beevor’s book. Louis Mountbatten, appointed supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia in 1943, “was glamorous and charming and made good use of his royal connections, [and] possessed a great talent for public relations, but he remained a vertiginously over-promoted destroyer captain.” Douglas MacArthur was “an egomaniac obsessed with his own inflated legend” who regarded Roosevelt “as virtually a Communist”; his strategically dubious and wasteful decision to focus on liberating the Philippines rather than going straight for Formosa may have had something to do with his receipt of “a $500,000 gift from his friend Manuel Quezon, the Filipino President.”
Orde Wingate, whose force of “Chindits” ranged across Japanese-occupied Burma early in 1943, was a “manic depressive” who “wandered around naked, chewed raw onions, strained his tea through his socks, and sometimes wore an alarm clock on a string round his neck.” His expedition was a failure: he lost almost a third of his force of three thousand men and kept the rest going in terrible conditions only by ruthless discipline, “with several floggings and even some executions. A large number of wounded and sick were left behind.”
Patton was equally pitiless, and had “no patience with psychological breakdown.” Beevor recounts his famous visit to a field hospital where he asked a shell-shocked young soldier, a carpet-layer from Indiana, what was the matter with him:
“I guess I can’t take it,” the soldier replied helplessly. Patton flew into a blind rage, slapped him with his gloves and dragged him out of the tent. He booted him in the rear, shouting: “You hear me, you gutless bastard. You’re going back to the front!”
Striking a subordinate was an offense that should have earned Patton a court-martial; instead, Eisenhower merely ordered him to make a personal and public apology.
Even more brutal was Georgy Zhukov, “a squat fireball of energy and ruthlessness,” as Beevor memorably describes him, the Red Army commander whose conduct in the final phase of the war seems to have been mainly motivated by his desire to get to Berlin before his rival Marshal Ivan Konev. Beevor is highly critical of Zhukov’s change of plan in the approach to Hitler’s capital city, which caused widespread confusion and huge losses in the Soviet forces’ battle to take the Seelow Heights that barred their way forward. His repeated, desperate orders launching attack after attack cost his army “more than 30,000 men killed, as opposed to 12,000 German soldiers. Zhukov showed little remorse. He was interested only in the objective.” The Soviet general comes off rather better in Geoffrey Roberts’s somewhat two-dimensional biography, which makes good use of newly discovered documents in the Soviet archives, but even Roberts admits that he was sometimes stubborn where he should have been flexible.
A callous disregard for the life and well-being of their soldiers was a hallmark of Soviet generals such as Zhukov, as they threw their men into full-scale frontal attacks instead of developing more sophisticated tactics. Millions of lives were lost that should not have been (an estimated minimum of 11 million Red Army soldiers were killed in the war; some have put the figure at more than twice this level) and the war on the Eastern Front took many months longer to win than it might have. Roberts is at his most interesting when he describes the travails of Zhukov’s postwar existence, when his reputation as the Soviet Union’s leading field commander earned him the jealousy of Stalin and brought him censure and demotion.
The harshness of the discipline men like Zhukov imposed on their troops is nowhere better illustrated than by Roberts’s calculation that no fewer than 158,000 Red Army soldiers were executed by command of their own officers during the war, with tens of thousands more being sent to “penal battalions” in which the fatality rate was 50 percent or higher. Where Roberts merely mentions such statistics, however, Beevor succeeds in conveying the full horror of the conflict on the Eastern Front. Among many memorable vignettes is a scene from the winter of 1941–1942, where a Red Army officer near Kursk
saw a horrifying sight. An enormous space stretching to the horizon was filled with our tanks and German tanks. In between them there were thousands of sitting, standing or crawling Russians and Germans frozen solid. Some of them were leaning against each other, others hugging each other. Some propping themselves with a rifle, others holding a submachine gun. Many of them had their legs chopped off. This had been done by our infantry who had been unable to pull off the boots from the Fritzs’ frozen legs so they chopped them off in order to be able to warm them up in the bunkers.
Anecdotes and quotations such as these make Beevor’s account incomparably vivid. Any illusion that warfare is a noble activity must surely be shattered by this book. German and Japanese troops frequently laid booby traps on corpses, shot first-aid men, or pretended to give up and then threw themselves to the side while hidden machine guns opened up on the Allied troops moving forward to receive their surrender. It was small wonder that few prisoners were taken on either side at the height of conflict. Beevor gives full coverage to the mass murder, torture, rape, and massacre carried out by the Japanese and Soviet armed forces, but the Western Allies do not come out of this narrative smelling of roses either, even if the conduct of the British, American, and Commonwealth troops never plumbed quite such depths.
Beevor’s coverage is somewhat biased toward Europe and North Africa, which get three times as many chapters as the war in the East, and some relatively minor episodes such as the invasion of Crete by the Germans receive perhaps more space than they deserve, just because they feature the British as protagonists. Yet on the whole this is a reasonably fair and balanced account of the war with which American readers will not be disappointed. It is essentially a narrative of battles, interspersed with coverage of the main strategic conferences and summits: the same techniques Beevor used so successfully in his earlier books are applied here too, to equal effect.
Instead of a single battle covered in a single book, however, we have a long series of mini-narratives, one battle after another, covering the whole war from start to finish, and this leads to some serious limitations in coverage. The treatment of the causes and consequences of the war is perfunctory at best. The narrative presents the war as the outcome above all of individual decisions made by particular people. This helps readability, but there is next to nothing on the economic aspects of the war, though they were crucial in the end. We learn for example that Rommel was short of fuel and equipment but this is put down more to the reluctance of his masters in Berlin to send it, and the success of the British in sinking the ships that tried to transport it, than to the fundamental structural weakness of the German war economy. Some statistics would have helped. The administrative structures and political development of decision-making in the combatant states receive very little attention. Anyone looking for a rounded history of the war in all its aspects, or an explanation of why the Allies won, will not find it here.
Was it a good war? After many hundreds of pages of relentless depiction of death and destruction, cruelty and incompetence, terror and suffering, it is no surprise to find that Beevor considers World War II “the greatest man-made disaster in history.” The suffering continued, with the mass expulsion of twelve million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union’s imprisonment in the Gulag of three million Red Army veterans under suspicion of collaboration with the enemy, and millions of women traumatized, in Germany, China, Korea, and elsewhere, by the experience of rape. The dead included six million Jews (Beevor has two good chapters on the Holocaust), twenty million inhabitants of the Soviet Union or more, and up to fifty million Chinese, victims of a savage civil war as well as of the Japanese. World War II, Beevor concludes, has been given the mantle of a “good war,” but “provokes mixed feelings because it could never live up to this image, especially when one half of Europe had to be sacrificed to the Stalinist maw to save the other half.” Nor did it bring peace to the world, as civil wars and anticolonial conflicts broke out, spilling over into larger conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Yet it would be wrong to go so far as to condemn the war as either pointless or unnecessary, nor does Beevor do so. Given the aggressive intent and unbounded military and imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan, there was no way out other than through resisting them. As Michael Burleigh has argued in his moral assessment of the war, the Holocaust in particular, combined with Hitler’s ultimate intention of exterminating the Jews, Slavs, and other “non-Aryan” races across the globe, rendered the struggle of the Allies to stop him, however ethically compromised it may have become, morally justifiable in the end.7 Yet perhaps, too, it is time to take a step back from arguments about the war’s morality and gain a little distance from a conflict that began almost three quarters of a century ago. For all its limitations, Antony Beevor’s magnificently readable book offers us a chance to take a step in that direction.
Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (Pantheon, 1984). ↩
See, for example, Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon and Schuster, 2008). ↩
John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (Harcourt Brace, 1992); Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (Penguin, 1998). ↩
Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (Crown, 2008). ↩
Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, Total War: Causes and Courses of the Second World War (Pantheon, 1972; revised 1989). ↩
Cambridge University Press, 1994. ↩
Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II (Harper, 2011). ↩