A collection of short book reviews around the Second World War.
The Second World Wars
The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson is a truly outstanding book. It is outstanding not just for the broad strategic understanding that Hanson offers to the reader, but because it is written very clearly. It talks about the transformation from a traditional European border skirmish into a broader global war – and it does so in a manner that is very easy to follow and understand.
To my mind, this is the best book I have read in the 21st century about the battle of the 20th century. It does not discuss the conditions on the front line at great depth (although they do, of course, get a mention) but rather, The Second World Wars focuses on the broader strategic and economic situation. In that context, this is why America and the Allies was always going to win – they had more people and made more stuff. This was then leveraged to enable the Allies to fight in many different theatres simultaneously through the development of aircraft carriers and other new technology.
I agree deeply with this:
It is impossible to do justice to such a magnificent book in a short review. Given the vast quantities of ink expended on accounts of this great conflict, one would think that there was not much more left to say. Hanson proves that this belief is wrong. His fresh examination of World War II cements his reputation as a military historian of the first order.Mackubin Thomas Owens, the dean of academics at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and the editor of Orbis, is the author of U.S. Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil–Military Bargain.
All Hell Let Loose
Sir Max Hastings has written a number of books about various wars, from both a historical and reporter’s point of view. In All Hell Let Loose, he tries to cover a huge amount of ground – from the broad strategic decisions, through to the experience of individuals in different parts of the world – civilian and soldier alike.
In doing so, he is awfully ambitious – a global conflict over more than six years is a huge scope. I learned a lot, but came away feeling that it would make a wonderful reference or text book, with its narrative hampered by its huge scope. If you’re interested in the narrative of the broader strategic issues, you are better off reading The Second World Wars. If you are interested in the narrative of individual experiences, you are better off reading some of the books by – and about – indivuals below.
It is clearly an expansive story of WW2, and if you were interested in reading just one book about the war, this might well be a very good book to choose. If you have read this far through my reviews, however, I suspect that you’re going to be more interested in World War 2 than to read just one book. Compared to the truly outstanding The Second World Wars, I felt that All Hell Let Loose didn’t really capture the full strategic narrative of the war. On the other hand, I think that All Hell Let Loose did not detail the intimate horror of the war of other books below.
D Day Through German Eyes
‘History is written by the victors,’ goes the saying. The losers, however, also suffered the brutality of war – in many cases, by definition, the losing side suffered more. D Day Through German Eyes by Holger Eckhertz claims to be the story of the losers – but there are significant suggestions that the book is a fabrication. I have no capacity to verify the book or not, and when I wrote the review linked below, I assumed that it was a non-fiction book. Having now reading public discussion of the book, however, I now believe that the book is a fake, and I feel defrauded to have paid for it.
I wrote about the book last year:
The spectacular take-away from the book is that war is awful, war is evil, and that these almost-children were put in horrific positions by a truly evil Government machine. As figurative cogs in the wheel, they saw their friends and family members ground-up, spat-out, and set on fire in rotten situations… but due to dumb luck, they survived to tell the tale.14 June 2019, Michael Josem
Churchill’s Secret Warriors
Damien Lewis’ Churchill’s Secret Warriors is an attempt to write a reference book melded with attempts to tell an intimate narrative of a particular group in the war. In Churchill’s Secret Warriors, Lewis tells the story of the world’s first special forces units – a group of soldiers which would become the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS).
The special forces were not designed to face combat en masse, army facing army across clearly marked battlelines. Rather, these were designed to go behind enemy lines and cause havoc and carnage wherever they could. Churchill’s Secret Warriors tells a number of stories from different areas of the world – from Africa, to Mediterranean Islands and eventually mainland Europe, and to build a narrative about that.
In trying to be a reference book, however, Lewis needs to be dry and factual. In trying to tell a compelling narrative, Lewis needs to be emotional and capture the atmosphere. I felt that the result was good, but not great – by needing to be historically accurate and properly sourced, the book loses the opportunity to be flavourful and dramatic. Trying to combine two books into one is tough, and two separate but connected books might have been a better strategy here.
Precursor: Homage to Catalonia
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell is a graphic story from one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Obviously, this was set immediately prior to World War 2, and it tells Orwell’s personal service in the Civil War. Reflecting on Homage to Catalonia, in contrast to the books above, this is a very personal story of the experience in the war itself. The vast majority of that time was not spent fighting, and was spent waiting, training, idly waiting. Some of the stories are genuinely funny in a tragic way, and learning from Orwell’s experiences makes it no surprise that his side subsequently lost the war.
This book was not deeply impactful to me, and I think that I didn’t really get the context. Before reading the book, while I was vaguely aware of the Spanish Civil War, I knew very little of the broader strategy – I knew there was a fight between one side which was vaguely fascist against one side which was vaguely socialist. Orwell served with a group known as POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, an anti-Stalinist communist party. That sounds like the very definition of a ‘useful idiot‘ to me. To those of us who live in the real world, communism is what communism does – it beats down individuals and turns them into slaves for the political ideology. A communist who opposed the real world implementation of communism is just deceiving themselves about the evil of that way of thinking.