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The Epic Madness of World War II

August 22, 2012 Topics: EthicsHistory

The Epic Madness of World War II

Mini Teaser: Antony Beevor’s The Second World War plunges the reader into the heart of darkness by rendering an intensely personal narrative of a war that stretched across several continents over nearly a decade.

by Author(s): Evan Thomas

Antony Beevor, The Second World War (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2012), 880 pp., $35.00.

WAR IS inherently dramatic, but military histories can be dull. Often written from the generals’ viewpoint, many traditional accounts of famous battles and campaigns mire the reader in a blur of unrecognizable geography and confusing unit identifications (the Third Regiment of the Second Division of the Fourth Army, etc.). These tomes are somehow arid and lifeless as well as dull; they make death and suffering abstract.

In his 1976 book The Face of Battle, the great modern military historian John Keegan established a new standard. Keegan, who died recently at seventy-eight, set out to tell what battle is really like from the perspective of the combatants, from the lowliest foot soldier to the field commanders. Among other eye-openers, he documented that armies and navies often permitted—or encouraged—their men to drink a tot or two of alcohol before going into battle to bolster courage or at least numb fear. Keegan’s in-the-trenches approach enormously influenced the telling of military history. Drawing from diaries and letters as well as official after-action reports, he showed that it was possible to be scholarly and analytical but also vivid and personal when writing about the conduct of war. Military historians now routinely describe the visceral sensations of combat, once considered unseemly—the terrible sights and smells, the human sensations of men engaged in mortal struggle, and the horrible toll imposed on the women and children caught in the middle.

An interesting question is whether these you-are-there books make war more or less seductive. In 2007, at an Aspen Ideas Festival, I watched with fascination as the novelist and writer Tobias Wolff struggled to explain why war continues to be appealing despite its ugliness, especially to young men uncertain about their manhood. In a memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, Wolff had written about his own decidedly unheroic experience as an army officer in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Wolff tried to bring out the pettiness, meanness and tedium of his time as a combat soldier, occasionally in danger but more often engaged in morally dubious activities such as trading TV sets for war souvenirs. But readers still found romance and bravery in his tale. “What is the weird attraction of war?” Wolff asked the audience in Aspen. He answered his own question: war has an “aesthetic quality,” however grotesque, as well as undeniable narrative power. Wolff noted that whole generations of novelists have written antiwar books that overtly seek to tell young men, “Don’t do this!” but end up subtly encouraging them to test themselves.

I thought of both Keegan and Wolff—and the lure of war, at once sordid and heroic, dull and pornographic—when I read Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. At over eight hundred pages, Beevor’s book is a doorstop. It is the third full-length treatment of World War II by a prominent historian in the past year. Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945 is terrific, sweeping and engaging. So is The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts. Do we really need yet another encyclopedic tour of well-trod battlefields? Beevor once studied under Keegan at Sandhurst, the royal military academy, and he served five peacetime years as an officer in the British Army’s Eleventh Hussars. His previous works include compelling World War II battle narratives such as Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942–1943; Berlin: The Downfall 1945; and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. His avowed motivation for writing this new, vast treatise about such a familiar subject is modest and self-deprecating: “I always felt a bit of a fraud when consulted as a general expert on the Second World War because I was acutely conscious of large gaps in my knowledge, especially of unfamiliar aspects. This book is partly an act of reparation.”

Beevor sells himself short. Perhaps he is being coy or practicing proper British understatement. (He is a public-school boy, educated at Winchester and married into a famous British family.) In his acknowledgment, he goes on to grandly but blandly say that his book is an “attempt to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in very different theatres of war.” This all sounds very worthy and high concept, like those soporific volumes by military historians of old.

Actually, Beevor plunges us right into the heart of darkness. Taking his lesson from his former teacher Keegan, he makes the war intensely personal, even as it rages across several continents over a span of almost a decade. (Beevor dates the beginning of the conflict to the Second Sino-Japanese War’s outbreak in 1937, not to the more customary starting gun, Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939.) He opens his story with a revealing anecdote about a young soldier who surrendered to American paratroopers during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The soldier, at first mistaken for Japanese, was Korean. He was conscripted into Nippon’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1938, then captured by the Russians and sent to a labor camp. Then, he was drafted into the Red Army in 1942. After being taken prisoner by the German army in 1943, he was sent to man the Atlantic Wall in 1944. He died in Illinois in 1992. Yes, it truly was a world war. It was also, Beevor writes, the “greatest man-made disaster in history.” Beevor’s contribution is to show convincingly how World War II, which Americans have come to regard as “the Good War,” was an epically stupid war, not to mention degrading and dehumanizing beyond belief. The cruelties and beastliness he recounts in clear, vivid, well-documented prose left me exhausted and sad. And, I have to admit, thrilled.

THE MOST mesmerizing, fantastically awful confrontation was in the East—the Godzilla versus King Kong death match of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Woe to the Pole or Ukrainian caught between these two monsters. Why the German people followed a psychotic criminal with a death wish—a shaman who promised a thousand-year Reich but had no heir and was sure he would die young—remains a mystery, even in Beevor’s insightful and unsentimental retelling.

Hitler was hardly subtle about his madness. His policy, stated on the first page of Mein Kampf—a copy of which every German couple had to purchase upon marriage—was to drive the Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe and Russia west of the Urals to create lebensraum, living space for the Aryan master race. “The Jews must get out of Germany, yes out of the whole of Europe,” Hitler told his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels on November 30, 1937. “That will take some time yet, but will and must happen.”

Germans didn’t really take his apocalyptic ambitions seriously, at least for the first few years of the Third Reich, according to Beevor. Enjoying the fruits of an economy heated by rearmament, they chose to believe the Führer’s avowals that he did not seek war. By and large, Germans accepted and even embraced Hitler’s paranoid fascism. The Gestapo, writes Beevor, “was surprisingly idle. Most of its arrests were purely in response to denunciations of people by their fellow Germans.”

In his megalomania, Hitler saw himself as a quasi deity. He was not religious; in a petty show of self-sacrifice, he gave up Christmas as well as watching movies for the duration of the war. But he believed providence was on his side, especially after escaping, by twelve minutes, a bomb intended to kill him in 1939. (The reaction in London, wrote a commentator, was “summed up in a calm British ‘Bad luck’, as though someone had missed a pheasant.”)

Still, he was in a hurry; Beevor notes that “in the spring of 1939, he explained his impatience to the Romanian foreign minister: ‘I am now fifty,’ he said. ‘I would rather have the war now than when I am fifty-five or sixty.’” In the struggle for world domination, he knew that ultimately he would confront the United States. He wanted to conquer Europe and Russia first, before America was ready to send a force across the Atlantic. He believed he had until 1943 or 1944; he regarded the Americans as a strong “Nordic” race undermined by a Jewish cabal. Yet, he foolishly declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor (FDR had declared war on Japan but not Germany). “A great power doesn’t let itself have war declared on it—it declares war itself,” proclaimed Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, probably echoing Hitler’s own words. “From that moment, Germany became incapable of winning the Second World War outright,” writes Beevor.

Probably, Hitler already had assured the Reich’s demise with an even greater blunder. In June 1941, he recklessly broke the taboo against a two-front war and ignored the injunction of Germany’s great statesman Otto von Bismarck to never invade Russia. Defeating “Jewish Bolshevism” would be easy, predicted Hitler. “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten edifice will come crashing down,” he told his commanders. Some were not so sure; they were rereading General Armand de Caulaincourt’s account of Napoleon’s march on Moscow and dreadful retreat. But they stayed mum.

Pullquote: Beevor’s contribution is to show convincingly how World War II, which Americans have come to regard as “the Good War,” was an epically stupid war, not to mention degrading and dehumanizing beyond belief.Image: Essay Types: Book Review