The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1939 — the vigil of Hitler’s assault on Poland and the subsequent Phoney War — gave little hint of the storm to come. As German troops engulfed Poland, however, Britain at last declared war on Hitler. Infamously, the Nazi science of massacre was put to the test in occupied Poland. Within two months of Hitler’s invasion, over 5,000 Jews were murdered behind the Polish lines. One year into the occupation a ghetto was established in Warsaw as a holding place for Jews prior to their deportation and death. A total of 265,000 of the city’s Jews were gassed over a single summer at Treblinka nearby. It was the largest slaughter of any single community in the second world war.
Historians are still trying to understand Hitler’s war against the Jews. There have been other massacres in recent times but none was so ferocious, so total in effect, as that willed by Hitler’s Germans in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe. Aided by the indifference of most Germans, Hitler and his race-engineers were able to create ruthless new ideals of totalitarian dominance. Overall, the second world war claimed the lives — Jewish and non-Jewish — of over 50 million people. It was the most catastrophic war mankind has ever known.
Several large, one-volume histories of the 1939-45 conflict have appeared in recent years. The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts was a smoothly readable volume which presented the standard British narrative of the war built round the rise and fall of Hitler (‘a world-class know-all’) and the dictator’s attempts to assert hegemony over Europe. Correspondingly little analysis was made of the Pacific theatre of operations, though the war in the Far East inevitably influenced the war in Europe. In All Hell Let Loose, published last year, Max Hastings concentrated on ordinary lives caught up in the war. The use of eyewitness testimony from farmers, housewives and black marketeers lent the book a refreshing immediacy.
The war continues to fascinate both young and old alike; but how to make a familiar subject new? Antony Beevor’s grimly compelling The Second World War is another immensely long work of historical synthesis based largely on secondary reading. Running to over 800 pages, the book has something of the ambitious sweep and narrative verve of Hastings, and much else besides.
Brocaded with details of the great campaigns and thoughtful explanations of Hitler’s murderous belligerence, The Second World War is an absorbing, unsparingly lucid work of military history. In his assessment of the war’s multiple theatres and fronts, Beevor highlights the significant yet often neglected (by western historians) Sino-Japanese conflict of 1937-45. While the war was won and lost by Germany on the Eastern Front, the Japanese campaigns set the stage for the coming ‘total’ war as pursued by the Führer and his minions.
Some historians (notably, the Glasgow-based Professor Evan Mawdsley) have argued that September 1939 was merely a ‘way station’ in an existing global conflict, and not the catalyst that started the war. Beevor would seem to agree that the ‘first clash’ of the war began in the Far East. While Emperor Hirohito was certainly not Hitler, the Nanking Massacre of 1937, when some 150,000 Chinese civilians were bestially slaughtered in his name, was a form of genocidal murder. Indeed, Hirohito’s view of Japan as an Asian master race had its grotesque mirror image in the Führer’s supremacist myths of the German Volk, Beevor suggests.
In the author’s lucid analysis, the liberation of Europe from the Nazis was not always a heroic prelude to healing and renewal. Liberated citizens often viewed their Allied saviours with anxiety, even hatred. One of the most harrowing chapters chronicles the Warsaw uprising of July-August 1944, when some 450,000 Warsavians rallied forces to drive out the Germans. The first units of the Red Army were already gathered at the Warsaw gates when the Polish underground took up arms. In the course of the 63-day uprising, the Poles succeeded in liberating swathes of the city, but when Hitler ordered
Warsaw and its citizens to be annihilated, the Soviets stood silently by and watched.
When the Red Army finally ‘liberated’ the Polish city five months later, in January 1945, there was hardly anything left to liberate. Those European peoples ‘caught between the totalitarian millstones’ of Hitler and Stalin, says Beevor, suffered grievously. In the contested ‘bloodlands’ of western Russia, central Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states, the power and malice of Nazism and Stalinism often overlapped and operated in belligerent complicity.
Along the way, Beevor notes the contribution made by the British Empire to the war effort. Thousands of imperial subjects fought and suffered in the conflict, and witnessed death on an unusual scale. As the battle with Japan intensified in 1943-44, Indian troops fought courageously in Burma alongside British contingents.
Earlier, the British West Indies had been exhorted to donate scrap metal to help build planes for Britain. In Jamaica, as elsewhere in the Anglophone Caribbean, families were proud to imagine that it was their saucepan — the silver-melt of their cookware — that helped buy a Spitfire for the Battle of Britain that culminated in the Luftwaffe’s defeat in September 1940. But was it right for Jamaica to back a European war for democracy, when its own people had been denied the right to self-rule? In India, unsurprisingly, millions saw little merit in the defeat of the Axis if they continued to endure British suzerainty.
Mercifully Hitler, the ‘most reckless criminal in history’, went down in the flames of Berlin in April 1945. So long as ‘good’ Germans are at the helm of Germany today, a Fourth Reich remains hard to imagine. Yet Nazism really did happen, and it came close to engulfing these shores. In an episode of Dad’s Army, Private Godfrey’s genteel sisters are seen to prepare their Regency cottage for the long-anticipated invasion. ‘The Germans are coming, Miss Godfrey,’ Lance Corporal Jones tries to give them warning. ‘Yes, I know, so many people for tea. I think I’d better make some more.’
Antony Beevor’s exceptionally powerful book is a reminder that all Britain might have become a Nazi colony, had Britain not won the war. For that reason alone, the union colours must fly over the Diamond Jubilee.