The Second World War
by Antony Beevor
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 880pp, £25
Its war began before the war in Europe, with Japan’s invasion in 1937, and ended after that, with a civil war lasting until 1949. The legacy of that war still continues in the state apparatus of the People’s Republic.
So Antony Beevor’s major new history of the Second World War has good reasons for beginning not in Poland but in Asia. In August 1939, at Khalkhin Ghol on the Russo-Chinese border, the future military hero of the Soviet Union, Georgi Zhukov, inflicted a stunning defeat on the Japanese.
The battle’s effects shaped the Second World War in the Pacific. It checked the continental ambitions of Japan, making it look south — to its navy, the ocean and the colonies of the imperial powers.
The consequences were also felt in Europe. So chastened were the Japanese that the Soviet Union felt it could strip its eastern defences to feed the defence of Moscow against the German invasion in December 1941. In China itself the battle encouraged the Nationalists and fed some Americans’ hopes that the Japanese army could be defeated there, on the mainland of Asia. The war which followed, fought at the expense of the Nationalists, left the path open for Mao Zedong and the Communists.
The Nationalists’ principal problem was food. Beevor reckons that three million Chinese died of starvation in Hunan province during the winter of 1942-43, and concludes that hunger and disease killed more Japanese soldiers than combat. The Second World War was a battle for resources before it was a struggle between competing ideologies. Japan’s ambition to acquire territory was driven by its agricultural needs just as they prompted Hitler’s desire for living space in the East. Moreover, starvation became a weapon of war for all sides, as the peoples of Western Europe, too, came to realise.
So Beevor has little truck with the modern portrayal of the Second World War as the “good” war, fought for the ideals of democracy against the murderous regimes of fascism and militarism. This does not mean that he underplays the horrors of the death camps and gulags, or of rape and sexual violence but he cuts down to size even those who fought to end them.
Roosevelt, for example, is portrayed as wily and devious, while Churchill is linked to emotional notions of empire.
Most striking of all is Beevor’s portrayal of the fallibility of generals and admirals. Although he addresses combat exhaustion, much more pronounced is his attention to the manifestations of stress among senior officers. Eisenhower chain-smoked, Rommel’s health problems caused him to miss the opening of Alamein, and when Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad he had an obvious facial tic.
The level of operational command, rather than grand strategy or the horrors of frontline experience, shapes the magisterial narrative of the Second World War. Its military history is presented chronologically, with chapter titles which convey the simultaneity and interconnectedness of events in very different theatres.
This is the place to begin if you need to get your knowledge of the war in order. Beevor is not afraid to quote the familiar when it is important or to let his favourite voices have their say, but he also provides plenty of fresh insights for those who kid themselves that they know the story already.
• Anthony Beevor will be appearing at the Edinburgh Festival on Tuesday 21 August.