Richard Toye: Review of Antony Beevor's "The Second World War"

Richard Toye’s most recent book is “Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made.”

Toward the end of this powerful narrative of World War II, Antony Beevor quotes a report, by the Australian war correspondent Godfrey Blunden, of an encounter with some American troops who had just been released from German P.O.W. camps. They had been in Europe only a few months, thrown into combat and almost instantly captured during the Ardennes offensive, Hitler’s last big throw of the dice. The men now had “xylophone ribs” and “gangling arms.” Some of their fellow prisoners had been beaten to death by their guards for attempting to take sugar beets from fields. Blunden wrote: “They were more pitiful because they were only boys drafted from nice homes in a nice country knowing nothing about Europe, not tough like Australians, or shrewd like the French or irreducibly stubborn like the English. They just didn’t know what it was all about.”

Did anyone else? Even today, the meaning of this horrible, epic war remains elusive. In “The Second World War,” Beevor calls it “the greatest man-made disaster in history.” That description is very plausible; less so is his idea that it was part of an “international civil war between left and right.” In 1941 the veteran anti-­Communist Winston Churchill allied himself with Joseph Stalin, frustrating the efforts of the Nazis to turn the war into an anti-­Bolshevik crusade. Nor were the Japanese much concerned that President Roosevelt was (relatively speaking) a man of the left; they attacked Pearl Harbor because of American threats to their interests, not to their ideology. On the other hand, ideological slogans could be strong motivators. Men clung to the idea of fighting for the Führer, or for the emperor, to keep them going in the face of certain defeat. Russians, for their part, were encouraged to fight for the motherland, rather than for the ideals of international socialism, in what was labeled the Great Patriotic War....

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