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World War II history looks at the big picture

The Second World War

By Antony Beevor

Little, Brown

863 pages, $35

By Edward Cuddihy


This time, acclaimed British historian Antony Beevor has taken on what at first appears an impossible task.

He has set out to record a complete and detailed history of World War II in one volume - albeit a pretty hefty one - while overlaying it with his own views in the hope of rescuing it from becoming just another entry in the heap of World War II histories.

Keep in mind, World War II probably is the most written about human conflict since the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Amazon lists more than a quarter million titles containing some form or other of World War II.

That's as it should be. The war was the culmination of a suicidal orgy of death and destruction unlike anything in the annals of humankind. Yet less than 75 years later, a new generation has only a foggy notion of its destruction and carnage. Some daft revisionists would even deny its most horrific feature. Beevor might say: Not so fast.

It is possible that a thousand years from now, historians will see the Second World War as the nail through the heart of a European culture that took 4,000 years to build.

Still, it is difficult to imagine anything new to write about World War II. So how does Beevor fare?

First, there are no startling factual revelations in this work. In fact, there is some natural repetition from his earlier successful histories, especially Stalingrad, Berlin and the best-selling D-Day.

It is his world view of the conflict and the vastness of his scope that separates him from so many others. You see it clearly in his perfectly thought out "whys". Why Italy? Why Warsaw? Why Pearl Harbor? Why the Nazi flip-flop on Russia? Why Winston Churchill? And even why Adolf Hitler?

You might say Beevor sees World War II from farther away than most British and American authors. Besides London, Paris and Berlin, Beevor's World War II takes place in Warsaw and Stalingrad, Indo-China and the Philippines, the Baltic and the Low Countries, North Africa and the Ukraine, the Gulf of Finland and the Coral Sea.

Beevor is a battles and supply lines kind of war historian. The conflict between political and battlefield strategies is his meat and potatoes. As in D-Day, this volume is strong on military maneuvers and troop strength, with little humanizing anecdotal material, beyond some telling German letters home from the Russian front.

It is that macro view that makes his work stand out. Where Churchill insisted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which united the Americans against the Axis, assured eventual Allied victory, Beevor looks in the opposite direction for the seeds of Nazi defeat.

He sees the beginning of the end of the Third Reich playing out on the banks of the Volga and Don rivers where a million Russians began grinding the Nazi invaders into the frozen, barren terrain.

It is on the Eastern front where Beevor matches unspeakable Soviet atrocities against unspeakable Nazi atrocities, and with one huge exception, he gives the atrocity edge to Joseph Stalin, who murdered millions of his own civilians, sending hundreds of thousands to war with no weapons just to hinder the Wehrmacht and deplete German ammunition stocks.

Of course, the indefensibly reprehensible exception was Hitler's "final solution," which poured all of Germany's organizational skill and industrial might into the total annihilation of a people.

When Beevor documents the Holocaust, he does it with a vengeance, listing names of Hitler's military advisers, minor military officials, German medical scientists and the industrial leaders who contributed to the cruelest and most dastardly act in the history of the Western World. It is as if he is saying to those who might wish to deny the holocaust: And don't you ever-ever forget!

Beevor carefully develops this theme from the early months of expulsion of Jews from the motherland to places where they would eventually starve or die of disease.

By 1941, that strategy was proving too slow for some in the Reich. Even mass shooting, it was thought, put too much psychological strain on the executioners. That's when Berlin industrialized genocide. Beevor insists that by 1943, so many Germans had taken part in some aspect of the "final solution," including profiting from confiscated belongings, that a huge minority of the German population was aware of the extermination taking place.

In keeping with his view from afar, Beevor chronicles atrocities on all sides. Japanese atrocities on the Asian mainland reached a scale challenging the Nazis, and generally go underreported in Western histories.

In Russia, Soviet leaders showed disdain for human life with a resulting tens of millions of military and civilian deaths. And a case can be made against Britain's indiscriminate carpet bombing of German cities and the American vaporization of two populated Japanese cities.

In its total disregard for the sacredness of human life, World War II had no parallel in the history of mankind. And therein lies its fascination. The largest and most destructive pitched battle the world ever has seen took place within many of our lifetimes. And now it seems unlikely, largely because of technology rather than because of any newfound enlightenment, that it ever will be repeated.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.