The Second World War

I picked up Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad in a charity bookshop a few years ago and spent about a week experiencing the shock and awe that Operation Desert Storm never quite got together. Part of that was Beevor's sheer ability to present anecdotes and analysis side by side with recorded facts without the story becoming jumpy or in fact leaving the realm of story and entering the worlds of either Top Trumps or a trainspotting mentality of weaponry and troop movements. 

Regrettably, on average the entire Second World War involved more troops being moved around than the battle of Stalingrad alone - with the battle of Stalingrad still being perhaps the most horrific clash of the entire affair. So a lot of Beevor's new book on the 1931 - 1945 world conflict (he makes the convincing argument that the Invasion of Manchuria was the true beginning of events) DOES involve countless and untraceable divisions and army numbers and the names of the Polish villages they're in / leaving / going to which can become dizzying if you decide to mentally trace these movements by and large without the use of any maps (a big oversight in such a story.)

No, if you read this colossal volume just skim over the lists of movements as the framework around which Beevor hangs the horror and intrigue of the war. 

It truly is fucking horrific. There is simply no other word. We all know the imagery of D-Day, perhaps Dresden and of course the stories of the Holocaust but it's the hidden and lesser known stories that were perhaps to terrifying to make it seventy years in public conscience. The rampant cannibalism from the Japanese army - just the general insanity of the Japanese army actually, quite probably more perverse in their ideology and more extreme in their methods than the Nazis. The en mass rape committed by the Red Army - even of their own liberated female POWs and then the fact that most of them were banished as traitors on return at the risk that word of the riches of Europe spread. The appalling suffering of the people of eastern Europe, first persecuted by Nazis then the USSR and the Chinese taking the same place in the eastern world. The anecdotes of individuals and stories from journalists like Solzhenitsyn suddenly make it real, I realised before the end that death and the prospect of extreme pain was a part of life for six years for most of the world's population.

Above the curdling terror that Beevor portrays is the political intrigue - the stubbornness of Churchill and De Gaulle and the cosiness of Roosevelt and Stalin. It's interesting to think that Roosevelt's biggest post-war concern was British imperialism, not communism. The warring tactics of generals trying to adapt to new technology and a new scale of death were responsible for some of the most flippant losses, including the British policy of blanket bombing cities. 

I can't really recommend this book, that would be irresponsible - you have to want to know the depths that civilisation is willing to plum and that requires an inner demand, not the recognition of others. It's probably for your own benefit that it's too big to carry anywhere.