Thursday, June 20, 2013

So many war books, so little understanding: a look at three volumes, two grand and one small.

Do we need any more books on the Second World War?


            Yes we do. Next question?


            Alright: which book?


            Good question, glad you asked. (And aren't you glad you did?) There are three actually that I completed quite recently – I could go further back and include five, but these three are the ones that lodge in my mind, completed very nearly one after the other. Two very large doorstops and one piddly little pamphlet. Two excellent, mind-expanding volumes, and one I wouldn’t use as a high school text-book. Each useful in its own way.


            The first, Europe at War: No Simple Victory by Norman Davies, a mind bogglingly extensive and exhaustive tome (actually less than five hundred pages, which is actually quite astonishing – I could have sworn it was twice that) basically arguing that we need more WWII books (hence, my intro).


            See, for all the extensive scholarship on this subject – probably more than on any other topic ever – according to Davies, we still don’t get it. All our national mythologies, the comforting myths we the victors soothe ourselves with – are wrong.  The good war, the noble crusade, the Great Patriotic War. Britain’s finest hour, and all the feel-good smugness of Saving Private Ryan. All fantasies of nations who each needed to glorify their own role in the greatest organized slaughter in history.   


            It’s not that we are unaware of the facts. The funny thing about this book is that nothing in it really new – none of it should come as any surprise to anyone who’s actually studied the war in depth – it still feels shocking to realize how divorced our illusions have been from the reality.

            Each country has its own set of mythologies. We in the west tend to maximize our role in the defeat of Hitler, out of all proportion to our actual contribution; the fact is that for the most part, we were bystanders, watching from the sidelines while the fate of the world was decided by Soviet Russia. For it’s part, Russia tends to maximize its virtue, playing the innocent victim driving out the evil invader, downplaying or ignoring altogether its early role as a Nazi ally, its role in the dismemberment of Poland, its invasion of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland, the campaigns of mass rape by the Red Army, or any number of atrocities which Davies recounts in stomach churning detail. Nor do contemporary Russians make enough of the tremendous amount of Lend Lease aid they received from the Americans (who themselves tend to make far too much of it).


            Nor does is the virtue of the west unblemished. How could it be after the strategic bombing campaigns which killed hundreds of thousands? The incineration of enemy infants was not an unfortunate by-product of war, but official policy for both the British and US governments.  This evil tends to be downplayed before the all-encompassing evil of the Final Solution, and excused as one method of bringing the later to a halt. Whether the policy actually worked or not is another matter entirely. At the very least, it should not sit comfortably on the side of virtue.



            Democracy has been sited as one of our great causes, but can we forget that Britain at the time was subjugating vast populations in Asia and Africa? Or the United States, even as it fought for democracy segregated its own people among racial lines (to say nothing of its origin in slavery and the displacement or out-and-out murder of Native populations)?


            Davies isn’t interested in moral equivalence (and funny how even mentioning these undisputed historical facts opens one up to such a criticism). But he does think that sanitization and romanticism have blinded us to history, causing us to simplify what really is not a simple victory.  


            Which brings me to the second tome-like volume: All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings. At first glance, Hastings is a much more straightforward historian than Davies (from a journalistic rather than academic background); his book mostly just recounting facts rather than a call to re-evaluate our perceptions. But there are so many, mainly from first hand accounts and primary sources, that we can’t help but re-evaluate our perceptions anyway. Confronting this Sargasso Sea of information fresh from the reading of Davies book can be a helpful exercise.


            What are we to think of the Battle of Britain after Hastings’ asserts that “the Luftwaffe’s clumsy offensive posed the one challenge Britain was well placed to repel”? Or the Battle of the Atlantic when we learn that “the submarine force commanded by Donitz was weak” and that “99% of all ships which sailed from North America to Britain arrived safely”? We’re not accustomed to thinking of these battles from that perspective.


            National mythologies of any kind don’t fare very well. The French might prefer to forget that more of them served Petain than DeGaul (660), and modern anti-racists probably won’t believe that Moorish troops pillaged and raped their way through Italy.  I myself was not thrilled to learn that Canadian troops did indeed murder helpless prisoners of war in Northern Europe, and that our Merchant Marine performed poorly against Kriegsmarine U-Boats. (283). I do wonder what the Canadian media, which aggrandizes this country’s war record to an almost Soviet degree, would make of this.


            Like Davies, the East is of paramount importance to Hastings. He does not openly state but quite strongly implies that it was Stalinist brutality, more than anything else, which ground the Wehrmacht down. The relentless, suicidal offensives, the scorched earth policy, the murderous coercion of the NKVD blocking brigades, and the sociopathic indifference to human life: could it all have been necessary? Is it possible that this was the only way to stop the Nazi machine, and that the democracies, lacking these inhuman qualities, didn’t have what it took? It’s a hell of a thought. 


            For me, the single most shocking revelation was that as early as November 1941, leading German industrialists, believed the war had already been lost for Germany. Long before Kursk, long before Stalingrad,  before the Germans had been repulsed before Moscow, before the Germans had suffered any real defeat and still lay at the height of her powers, the practically indestructible masters of Europe, those in the know had already given up hope. There is an eerie, gloomy foreboding about the passage. It presents a picture of an entire nation heading inextricably towards its doom. Imagine if Germany, with all its grand industry, its economic might, its technology and phenomenal powers of social organization, had devoted itself to good? What might it have achieved? Instead, it chose the path of evil and was destroyed as if by Divine decree. This is Greek tragedy on an epic scale.



            Now, we come to the pamphlet. Norman Stone’s World War Two (did he trademark that title?) is clearly meant as a “short history” rather than a game changer, like either of Davies’ or Hastings’ books. It limits itself to just the briefest of outlines and comes in at less than two hundred pages (199 to be exact).

            This tremendous brevity becomes a problem as Stone continually fails to explain his statements or justify them with evidence. There are no footnotes either, so we’re often left to guess just where Stone got his ideas from. Where for instance does he get the idea that the Russians “could not have held out” if the Germans had maintained air superiority? This is not an idea I have encountered in any other account. For much of the war the Germans did have air superiority in the East, and the Russians did hold out. How was the invasion of Norway “one of the moments at which Hitler lost the war”? (It has to do with the Kriegsmarine I gather). Again, it’s not a thesis I’ve heard elsewhere. Why does he think an invasion of the continent “should have been possible” in 1943? Much in here is unspecific and unsubstantiated.

            Stone also shows an aversion to chronological order, jumping to the future then back again, often in the same paragraph. So we get a description of Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun just before a description of Market-Garden, and Stalin’s declaration of war on Japan before the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima. There are long tangents into entirely new subtopics and then back again, as if Stone were following some stream of consciousness process, when perhaps a separate chapter might have been more appropriate. The effort feels disjointed.  Anyone not already familiar with the events described would probably not feel any wiser having read it. It would be no use at all as a textbook.

            That said, this little book is not without its charms. The final chapter on Europe’s reconstruction is quite well done, as if Stone felt himself on firmer ground. And a lot of the minutiae are more interesting than the (non-existent) analysis. We learn that Hitler and Eva were married by the deputy chief of garbage collection for Pankow, that Hitler suffered from flatulence after the Bomb Plot (is there no indignity that man didn’t put himself through?), that the descendants of Richard Wagner presented Hitler with the original draft of Parsifal then demanded it back when the war was lost. (Hitler was a fan of Parsifal? Why am I not surprised! There's no one else who deserved to own it more.) Details which are perhaps not appropriate for a “short history”, but nevertheless the saving grace of this volume.  One wishes Stone had devoted himself to more of these little details rather than compiling a “short history”, of which we have plenty (though still not enough, if Davies is to be believed). It’s stuff like this that keeps it all interesting.