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BOOKS ON WORLD HISTORY

Contents

  • General World History
  • Second World War

  • GENERAL WORLD HISTORY

    "A History Of The World" by Andrew Marr

    Like "A History Of Modern Britain" (2007) by the same author, this large book (it is almost 600 pages) is based on a televsion series (it was broadcast in 2012) and, in both cases, I enjoyed the series before reading the book. Like the previous book, this one consists of a small number of long chapters (there are eight) broken up into a series of mini-essays of typically five or six pages. A history of the world from 70,000 years ago is clearly even more ambitious than a history of one nation over six decades and Marr could easily have overwhelmed the reader with dates & names and facts & figures, trying to cover as much as possible. Instead he is very selective and composes many of his mini-essays in the form of narratives or even stories, using "a kind of history-writing that is currently very unfashionable, the 'great man/great woman' school of history". Marr is a good writer and his approach works well. He shows considerable knowledge and insight, constantly makes cross-references to other historical periods or developments, and is not averse to making his opinions known on such horrors as slavery and colonialisation.

    Part One covers the time from humankind's departure from Africa to the early Mediterranean civilisations. Marr describes the rise in agriculture along the great rivers - the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow River - before writing about the first European civilisation, the Minoans (around 3600-1160 BC) who, most scholars now believe, were not wiped out by a single cataclysm as previously assumed.

    Part Two is what is called "The First Great Age of Empire" from the Assyrians to Alxexander the Great. Underlining that history is not a continuus line of progress, Marr writes that "Around 1000 BC some great disaster or string of disasters hit the eastern Mediterranean, causing a dramatic depopulation". But then we have the Phoenician invention of the alphabet, the development of monotheism by the Jews, and the first multicultural empire of Cyrus the Great, followed by a 200-year experiment with democracy in ancient Athens, followed by the creation of the great empire under the war leader Marr calls "Alexander the ...Quite Good". Meanwhile, over in the east, Buddhism and Confucianism emerged as a result of the teachings of Siddartha and Kongzi respectively.

    Part Three covers from 300 BC to around AD 600 and the Classical Empires in China, India and Europe. As Marr explains: "By the time of Jesus's birth, around half the human beings alive on the planet lived under one of two great empires" - Imperial Rome and Han China. The third great empire, which embraced perhaps a quarter of the world's people, was that of Mauryan India. In the case of all these empires but the Roman Empire especially, war was a regular feature and Marr briefly speculates about how history would have been different had the Romans not won the Third Punic War against Carthage and notes that the Roman occupation of Gaul resulted in the disappearance of up to a third of the Gauls which he calls "a slaughter rate that rivals the worst butchers of the twentieth century". Meanhile, in "The Other Quarter", civilisations like the Nazca were emerging in the Americas that were several thousand years behind Eurasia in their development. Marr summarises the consolidation of Christianity throughout Europe and later the astonishingly rapid spread of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Part Four is what is characterised as "The Great Age of Islam" from AD 700 to 1480. While the population of the later Roman Empire was halved by the 'plague of Justian" (bubonic death) and then the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed between a third and half of all Europeans, for many centuries Europe became "a comparative backwater". In contrast, Islam enjoyed a Golden Age of science and discovery and China attracted the admiration of the likes of Marco Polo. On the other hand, Marr points out that during this period African slavery was widely practicised long before the arrival of European colonists and comments: "The Atlantic slave trade could not have happened without a strong previous tradition of slavery, as much part of Muslim history as the slave ships are of Christian history". This was also the age of the Mongol invaders and Marr highlights that: "In just twenty-five years, Genghis Khan conquered more of the earth's surface than the Romans managed in four centuries, creating (however briefly) the biggest land empire in history".

    Part Five covers the period 1492-1640 when "Europe erupts in all directions, while the rest of the world struggles on". New ships and global trade led to the Europeans taking over more and more of the rest of the world. Marr is clear than 1492 did not represent the 'discovery' of America but "an invasion" and points out that "The arrival of Europeans, from the viewpoint of its orginal inhabitants, was one of the greatest disasters in history", as the population of the Americas - originally on a par with that of Europe - was reduced by up to 95% by a range of diseases brought by the Europeans. Meanwhile Europe itself was convulsed by the religious arguments and wars of the Reformation led by Martin Luther and other dissenters. This was a time when Russia was taking on the size of modern times, led by the infamous Ivan the Terrible, and European mercantile expansion was started by the Portuguese and Spanish and then followed by the Dutch and English.

    Part Six runs from 1609-1796, the time of Englightenment and revolution. The period started with the age of absolute monarchs such as Louis XIV who ruled France for 72 years and Peter the Great who ruled Russia for 43 years, but a new type of constitutional monarchy later developed, led by the 'Glorious Revolution' in Britain in 1688 which Marr insists was actually an invasion by the Dutch. India had its own convulsions with noted leaders like Babur, Ashoka, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb who eventually ruled almost a quarter of the world's people. Over in the Americas, the Thirteen Colonies protested about a tax on tea before winning a war of independence. Down under, the first convict ships arrived in Australia - a journey from Britain of 36 weeks. Then the French Revolution descended into 'the reign of terror' before the arrival of the Napoleonic Empire - "a military dictatorship that would drown half of Europe in blood while choking the other half with gunpowder smoke". More widely, this was the time of the Atlantic slave trade, begun by the Portguese and embraced by the British and others in an atrocity that spanned nearly four centuries and involved an estimated 12.4 million Africans.

    Part Seven covers 1800-1918 and the rise of capitalism. Britain was the first nation in the world to have an industrial revolution and Marr suggests that it was not just because the country had large deposits of coal and iron but also due to its market system and inventors. He highlights the resultant growth in the English population: a doubling from 1780 to 1830. But he also draws attention to the human cost: almost a quarter of Victorian Britons died from lung diseases caused by air pollution. Elsewhere there were revolutions of a different kind: 1848 saw political revolutions throughout the Hapsburg Empire as well as in smaller countries like Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, while in 1856 Czar Alexander II freed the serfs who constituted more than a third of Russians. Over in the United States, the Civil War resulted in some 620,000 soldiers dead, almost as many as the number of Americans killed in every other war fought by that nation. Marr likes to personalise history and he picks out the fateful role of the Prussian bureaucrat Arthur Zimmerman whom he dubbs "the most destructive man of his generation", since Zimmerman was responsible for drawing the United States into the First World War, which in turn led to the ruinous peace treaties that provoked the Second World War, as well as being a key player in the transportation of Lenin into Russia which resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution.

    Part Eight is titled "Our Times" and talks us from 1918-2012. Marr notes that the Second World War is seen by some historians "as the second half of a single conflict". It was a conflict that killed perhaps around 70 million people - twice as many of them civilians as soldiers. He quotes the historian Timothy Snyder who has described 'the bloodlands' from central Poland to western Russia where, between 1933-1945, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people, none of whom was a solider on active duty. Later Comminist China suffered under Mao Zedong, "the greatest killer in human history". Inevitably Marr covers the Cold War and the more recent Iraq and Afghan wars ("battlefield successes but strategic failures"), but he also describes such positive developments as the decolonisation of much of Asia and Africa, the creation of the European Union, the economic transformation of China, and the impact of fertilisers, birth control, computers and the Internet.

    At one point in his impressive book, Marr asks whether it is unhistorical to compare Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin and asserts: "Once old authority - however intolerable, deaf to change, sclerotic and contemptible - has been toppled, there is rarely a new order waiting politely in the wings, more rational, more humane, more forward-looking". Such an observation is just as applicable to today's world, whether we are talking about the collapse of Communism in Russia, the 'Arab Spring' in North Africa, or the civil war in Syria. He makes the all-important point that "Democracy, it turns out, is not a system. It is a culture."

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    "A Little History Of The World" by E.H. Gombrich

    The origins of this work are fascinating. In 1936, 26 year old Ernst Gombrich was living in Vienna where he had a doctorate in art history but no job. He was asked to translate into German an English history book for children but told the intended publisher that he could do a better book himself. He was given just six weeks to do so and managed to produce a text that was so successful that it was published into many languages - but not English. Just before the Germans marched into Austria in 1938, the Jewish Gombrich moved to England where he spent the remainder of his life as a distinguished art historian.

    Towards the end of his long life (he died in 2001 aged 92), he began work on a revision of the book and a translation into English. He had not finished the translation when he died but it was completed by his assistant Caroline Mustill and published in 2005. In the course of 40 short chapters occupying just under 300 pages, this immensely readable work covers the highlights of 5,000 years of human history in a style infused with insight and humanity (the Nazis regarded it as "too pacifist").

    Starting with the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians, moving on to the Greeks, the Macedonians and the Romans, and not forgetting the civilisations of the Indus and China, Gombrich takes us through the history of the ancient world before we reach what he titles "The Storm", the first of successive invasions from the east: the Huns, the Avars, the Magyars and the Mongols. He highlights critical turning points for European civilisation such as the defeat of the Arabs by Charles Martell in 732, the withdrawal of the Mongols from Breslau in 1241, and the failed Turkish asault on Vienna in 1683.

    Exciting times like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment ("tolerance, reason and humanity - the three fundamental principles") are counter-balanced by the conquest of the New World ("This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it") and the seemingly endless European confrontations between Catholics and Protestants, so protracted we call one of them the Thirty Years War.

    Gombrich offers an economic and social history as much as a military and political one, examining the emergence of the great world religions and underlining the importance of writing, printing, trade, cities, and technologies (although the Internet comes too late to be mentioned). What emerges is how the centres of civilisation and power move around and how the futilities of war and injustice keep repeating themselves.

    The last chapter is entitled "The Small Part Of The History Of The World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back". He metions his role in the Second World War - listening to German broadcasts and translating them into English - and, while not using the word Holocaust, insists: "although many years have already passed since it was committed, it is of the utmost importance that it should not be forgotten or hushed up". He lightlights "the most important change" in modern history, namely the population explosion from 2 billion at the end of the First World War to 4.5 billion when he was working on the final chapter (it is now approaching 7 billion).

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    "The No Nonsense Guide To World History" by Chris Brazier

    Most of us obtain our knowledge of history from school and usually the history we are taught relates overwhelmingly to our country or region and frequently to particular periods or wars. I am a great believer that all knowledge, to be fully appreciated, requires context and connections. So we need an overview of world history that at least touches on all regions and all periods.

    But such an overview would be excessively lengthy and exceedingly dull. Right? Well, no. The "New Internationalist" magazine [click here], as part of its "No Nonsense Guide" series, has produced a history of the world in a mere 40,000 words. Obviously this is impressionistic, but Chris Brazier - co-author of the "New Internationalist" magazine since 1984 - has produced a commendable work that is immensely readable and uttery fascinating.

    Yet Brazier does more than summarize our history; in many ways, he reinterprets it.

    Above all, he breaks away from the Euro-centric narratives and interpretations that dominate Anglo-Saxon teaching of history. So he points out that:

    Also, Brazier attempts to correct the view of history that accords no role to women. Therefore he emphasizes that:

    Finally, Brazier reminds us that history is not just about 'great' men and bloody wars, but also about peoples and movements, which means that: "The 'march of history' does not have only one drumbeat". Consequently he ask us to remember that:

    One of the most remarkable features of Brazier's history is the seminal influence of slavery. Over the four centuries of the slave trade (mid 15th - mid 19th centuries), between 10-12M Africans were sold in the Americas and about 2M died along the way.

    Brazier argues that: "African slavery fed the European economic growth that spiraled into the Industrial Revolution - as well as providing the United States with a kick-start it could never have hoped for by the sweat of its settlers' brows alone". Conversely he suggests that: "This removed not only those most able to have children but also those most able to work. The ground for development was undermined and Africa is still counting the cost today".

    Is it possible to draw any broad lessons from such a history of the world? I believe that it is.

    First, most regions of the world have had a period of cultural flowering and even leadership. Therefore, it is condescending and ultimately racist to believe that some peoples or cultures are inherently inferior or unimportant.

    Second, all empires fall. Whether it is the Roman Empire of two millennia ago or the Soviet bloc of the 20th century, sooner or later all dominant powers eventually loose their pre-eminence. The current hegemony of the United States will not last forever.

    Third, progress is not inevitable. In the last 100 years, some 150 million people have died in war, around 100 million have died in famines, a further 100m died as a result of government repression, and - most unsettling to any notion of 'progress' - there were 14 million victims of genocide.

    To create a safer and fairer world we need to understand better our turbulent and multi-cultural history.

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    "Fifty Things You Need To Know About World History" by Hugh Williams

    Following the success of "Fifty Things You Need To Know About British History" - which was both a television series produced by Williams and a book written by him - he has tackled the even more ambitious project of trying to find 50 events that summarise world history. It is an immensely readable book of some 400 pages, because of the short chapters and lively style, and the structure of the work is assisted by Williams chosing 10 events under each of five broad themes as follows:

    Wealth:

    Freedom:

    Religion:

    Conquest:

    Discovery:

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    "12 Books That Changed The World" by Melvyn Bragg

    If you love books as much as me, you will have no problem with the idea of books changing people - but changing the world? Now that is a taller order; yet Bragg has little difficulty establishing that a number of seminal works - or at least the ideas in them - have truly changed our world. What is more controversial is his choice which is bound to be very subjective. Firstly, he has chosen to limit his selection to books by British authors. Secondly, he has adopted a rather elastic definition of what constitutes a book.

    His selection then - in the order in which he examines them - is as follows:

    It will be immediately apparent that this is an electic mix: a sports rule book, a Parliamentary speech, and a technical patent are hardly books as most people know them, while Magna Carta and Newton's tome were originally in Latin, the FA Laws (originally only 13) were written by a committee, Arkwright's patent was a mere three pages long, Faraday's work is actually three volumes, and Shakespeare's folio (the only fiction work) is in fact 36 plays (totalling about 900 pages). On the other hand, Bragg's choices enable him to cover religion, politics, economics, science, technology, sports and culture. So it is an informative and entertaining romp - but perhaps not as effective as the accompanying television series.

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    "Speeches That Changed The World" with an introduction by Simon Sebag Montefiore

    The publishers Quercus have certainly chosen an eclectic collection: a total of 55 speeches from 48 individuals (only seven of them women) starting with Moses and the Ten Commandents and Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, taking in four early American Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson), moving on to no less than 12 speeches around the Second World War, taking in more American Presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and George W Bush), not excluding black speakers (Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Shirley Chisholm) and concluding with the likes of Chaim Herzog, Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel.

    Each speech is accompanied by an introduction that provides a brief biography of the speaker and an explanation of how the speech came to be made. Whether these really are speeches that actually changed the world must be debatable; more accurately these are speeches that marked special moments in history ranging from the departure of Napoleon to the arrival of radium, from the anger of Adolf Hitler to the indefatigableness of Winston Churchill, from the dropping of the atomic bomb to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Although all the events were momentous, not all the speeches are equally fluent. Notably brilliant for their oratory though are the speeches of Kennedy and King.

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    “War. What Is It Good For?” by Ian Morris

    I went to a meeting at the British House of Commons where Professor Ian Morris set out the main themes of his book and this encouraged me to buy and read it. Morris grew up in Britain and studied at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities before moving to the University of Chicago in 1987 and on to Stanford University in 1995. He is now Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and a Fellow of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University.

    The title of this, his third, book is taken from the opening words of a song from Edwin Starr in 1969. It is quite a long work: a main text of almost 400 pages with another 70 pages of notes, further reading, and bibliography. But the historical scope is enormous - the entire history of humankind with a speculative look forward as far as the 2050s - and Morris has a certain narrative flair, so it is a fascinating read.

    For all its scope, the book can be summarised in four claims:

    1. War has created larger and safer communities.
    2. War seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies.
    3. War has been responsible for making more prosperous societies.
    4. War is now in the process of putting itself out of business.
    Expanding on these themes, Morris acknowledged that war is one of the greatest human evils. It has ruined livelihoods, provoked unspeakable atrocities and left countless millions dead. It has caused economic chaos and widespread deprivation, and the misery it generates poisons foreign policy for future generations. Yet, in his view, there is a case to be made that it is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.

    Most of the book is a run through the history of humankind through the prism of war. He explains how humans migrated from east Africa to the Fertile Crescent in the Lucky Latitudes where agriculture could develop before sea transport around the Mediterraean enabled the first empires to be created. Progress went into reverse when the horsemen of the steppes devastated the Eurasian empires before later the sea nations of western Europe colonised much of the globe. He summarises the main step changes in warfare as respectively fortifications and seiges, metal arms and armour, discipline, chariots, massed iron-armed infantry, cavalry, guns, battleships, tanks, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.

    He estimates that, in the Stone Age, between 10-20% of people died a violent death; that, at the time of ancient empires in the late first millennium BC, this figure was down to 2-5%; that, in what he calls the age of steepe migrations from 200-1400 AD, the rate of violent death rose to 5-10% in Eurasia; that, in the 20th century — despite its two world wars, atomic bombs, and multiple genocides — the rate plummeted to only 1-2%; and that, averaged over the world as a whole, today violence kills a mere 0.7%. Of course, these figures are only estimates since there are no reliable statistics before 1500 AD, but he is convinced that the orders of magnitude are broadly correct and demonstrate that overall the world has never been more peaceful. As he puts it: "the evidence of archaeology, anthropology. history, and evolutionary biology seems conclusive".

    He acknowledges that, at the height of the Cold War, we had the capacity through nuclear weapons to destroy humankind but he points out that, since a peak number of nuclear warheads in 1986 of more than 70,000, the number has been cut back dramatically (one estimate is a current total of 16,300).

    This analysis poses many questions. Is war then in fact a good thing? Without war, would we never have built the nation-states which now keep us relatively safe from random acts of violence, and which have given us previously unimaginable wealth? Is war perhaps the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies? And yet, if we continue waging war with ever-more deadly weaponry, are we running a risk of destroying everything we have achieved?

    Morris's conclusion is a controversial one. He supports the notion of the USA as a "globocop" and argues that the best option for the world over the coming decades is to support and bolster the strength of America so that it can continue effectively in this role, even as its economic decline continues remorselessly. He argues that "the next forty years promise to be the most dangerous in history" but believes that, if we can survive this uniquely challenging period, "the computerization of everything" will effectively render war obsolete. Optimistically he asserts: "We are beginning to play the endgame of death". If only ...

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    "What If?" edited Robert Cowley

    Academic historians use the word "counterfactual" for what we lay persons would describe as the "what if?" question of history. In this absolutely fascinating book, a collection of mainly American military historians, edited by Robert Cowley, have considered which battles of the last 3,000 years were so decisive to world history yet simultaneously so susceptible to different outcomes from relatively minor factors. As one of the writers puts it: "The heaviest doors pivot on small hinges". Twenty chapters reassess "what might have been":

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    "More What If?" edited Robert Cowley

    Following the success of "What If?" - a review of 20 military engagements published in 1999 reviewed above - the same editor two years later compiled this collection of 25 historical turning points, not all of them military with more of an emphasis on the 20th century (14 of the 25 events):

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    SECOND WORLD WAR

    "The Storm Of War" by Andrew Roberts

    I am not a fan of the politics of British historian Andrew Roberts - whether it is his fawning admiration for Napoleon or his unwavering support for the invasion of Iraq - but this review of the Second World War, published in 2009, is a masterful summation of a huge sweep of events written in a very accessible style with balanced judgements. In some 600 pages of main text, he covers the Western European/North African front, the Eastern European front, and the Asia/Pacific front with a commendably fair allocation of attention and he balances details of campaigns and battles, assessments of politicians and commanders, and personal recollections and testimonies. The provision of 22 maps is very helpful.

    Although the work is subtitled "a new history of the Second World War", there is nothing fundamentally novel here. Roberts quotes some previously unpublished documents but they are not especially important and, on all the major controversies of the war, he supports the consensus view: the mass bombing of German cities was not a war crime, the successful invasion of Normandy could not have come sooner, the Allies could have done nothing significant to block the Holocaust, and the use of atomic bombs on Japan was necessary. The immense strength of the work is that it conveys so much information - there are statistics on almost every page - in a manner which is so readable.

    Roberts calls the conflict "the most catastrophic war mankind has ever known". He explains that it lasted 2,174 days (the Chinese would dispute that), cost $1.5 trillion (this has to be a broad estimate) and claimed over 50 million lives (other estimates range as high as 80 million). Working with the 50 million figure, he calculates that this was 23,000 lives lost every day or more than six people killed every minute for six long years. He points out that "the Germans were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years", he argues that this was "the world's first wholly politically ideological war", and his central contention is that "this was the primary reason why the Nazis eventually lost it".

    In number of deaths, the Eastern Front was the supreme bloodbath. Roberts gives "the truly obscene figure" of around 27 million soldiers and civilans from the USSR who lost their lives in what the Russians continue to call The Great Patriotic War, although he asserts that much of the responsibility for this catastrophe lay with Stalin. He insists that "it cannot be reiterated enough that out of every five Germans killed in combat ... four died on the Eastern Front" and calls this "the central statistic of the Second World War".

    Inevitably and appropriately, therefore, Roberts devotes many pages to the great conflicts on this front:

    While the bloodiest battles were on land, there were huge clashes at sea. Besides the four-year old Battle of the Atlantic (when 145 Allied warships and 2,828 Allied and neutral merchant ships were sunk), in the Pacific there were gigantic encounters such as the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), the Battle of Midway (June 1942), the Guadalcanal campaign (August 1942-February 1943), and the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944), the last of which Roberts describes as "the largest naval engagement in world history" (216 US ships faced 64 Japanese vessels).

    Throughout this book, the dominant personality is Adolf Hitler. His supreme self-confidence and huge appetite for risk enabled his military forces to occupy or control no less than 14 countries by 1941, but then he overreached himself with Operation Babarossa which Roberts describes as "his cardinal error of the war". Roberts identifies many other specific mistakes of the Fuhrer, but his continued failure was his constant interference in the decisions of his generals, his repeated sackings and movement of those commanders, and his absolute refusal to approve any strategic withdrawals. Roberts concludes his excellent account of the war with the words: "The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi."

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    "Europe At War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory" by Norman Davies

    This 500-page work written by the British historian Norman Davies covers a familiar subject in what is intended to be a fresh manner with a new emphasis. Less than 60 pages is devoted to a chronological narrative of the actual warfare. The rest of the book is thematic, examining the war through the position of politicians, soldiers and civilians respectively. Unusually more space is devoted to the civilian perspective than the military one with over 140 pages describing the experiences and suffering of the 500M people afflicted by what was total war as never before encountered in human history.

    The main theme of this work is that the Western nations have failed to comprehend and acknowledge the scale of the battles and the deaths on the Eastern Front which are such as to require a balanced judgement to conclude that "the Soviet role was enormous and the Western role was respectable but modest". For instance, consider this table which sets out estimates of deaths in the major individual battles and campaigns.

    Deaths in individual battles and campaigns
    Operation 'Barbarossa': battles of Byelorussia, Smolensk & Moscow 1941 1,582,000
    Stalingrad September 1942-31 January 1943 973,000
    Siege of Leningrad September 1941-27 January 1944 900,000
    Kiev July-September 1941 657,000
    Operation Bagration 1944 450,000
    Kursk 1943 325,000
    Berlin 1945 250,000
    French campaign May-June 1940 185,000
    Operation Overlord 6 June-21 July 1944 132,000
    Budapest October 1944-February 1945 130,000
    Polish campaign September 1939 80,000
    Battle of the Bulge December 1944 38,000
    Warsaw Rising 1 August-1 October 1944 (exc civilians) 30,000
    Operation Market Garden September 1944 16,000
    Battle of El Alamein October-November 1942 4,650

    The first seven of these campaigns were on the Eastern Front and, to give some kind of perspective, the death toll in Operation Barbarossa - the German invasion of the USSR - was 12 times that of the the opening phase of the invasion of Normandy by the Western allies. Controversially Davies opines: "All in all, the open-minded observer will be tempted to view the war effort of the Western powers as something of a sideshow."

    He underlines his theme by setting out estimates of military war dead in Europe.

    Military war dead in Europe 1939-1945 (estimated)
    USSR 11,000,000
    Germany 3,500,00
    Romania 519,000
    Yugoslavia 300,000
    Italy 226,000
    UK 144,000
    USA 143,000
    Hungary 136,000
    Poland 120,000
    France 92,000
    Finland 90,000

    Davies writes: "the most obvious conclusion stands out a mile: the war assumed a far grander scale in the East than in any of the fronts where the Western Allies were involved".

    If the main theme of "Europe At War" is to acknowledge the size of the Soviet effort and sacrifice in the defeat of Nazi Germany, the second theme is to highlight that the political leadership and military forces of the USSR were guilty of aggression and barbarities that easily bear comparison with that of their enemy. Davies does not flince from making such a equation. Indeed he writes of "the central paradox of the Second World War in Europe" as being that: "The two principal combatant states, which fought a series of campaigns of unparalleled ferocity, were both engaged in systems of internal repression of unparalled inhumanity". He adds: "If one sits back and forgets one's ingrained reactions, one should be able to see that the war in Europe was dominated by two evil monsters, not by one. Each of the monsters consumed the best people in its territory before embarking on a fight to the death for supremacy".

    He gives attention to:

    Although the German and Soviet barbarities permiate the text, Davies does not absolve the Western allies of what he would seem to regard as war crimes, instancing especially the mass bombing of German cities such as Hamburg and Dresden by the RAF and the USAAF, but also the maltreatment of German prisoners by the US military in 1945. This is war in all its unbearable horror and moral ambiguity.

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    "1943: The Victory That Never Was" by John Grigg

    The thesis of this book is easily stated: the Western Allies could and should have invaded France in 1943, rather than 1944, which would probably have shortened the Second World War, certainly spared many lives and possibly have altered the course of the subsequent Cold War.

    Grigg, a freelance journalist, first put forward this thesis in the original edition of "1943" published in 1980. The book was republished in 1999 with a preface in which the author states: "The text is unaltered from the original edition of 1980, because nothing that has appeared since...has drawn my attention to any factual inaccuracy, or caused me to feel less confident in challenging what is still the predominant view".

    I only read the reissue of the book in 2000, as a result of a recommendation from my good friend Eric Lee. I found it immensely refreshing and stimulating to read a book about the war that is so strategic in its thinking, so comprehensive in its sources, and above all so willing to challenge traditional judgements.

    Grigg asserts that the conventional wisdom on the timing of the invasion is "blind as well as bland" and brings a forensic judgement to bear on events and decisions so often regarded as almost inevitable.

    His argument has many strands, the main ones being that Roosevelt and Churchill allowed themselves to be misled by key military advisers into placing far too much importance on the role of the Mediterranean theatre and that Churchill especially was wrong to believe that carpet bombing could break the Germans and wrong to marginalise the involvement of de Gaulle and the Free French.

    He criticises Roosevelt's gratuitous and mistaken insistence on "unconditional surrender", Admiral King's obsession with the Pacific Theatre, the erratic and fanciful political thinking of Churchill, General Brooke's fallacious concentration on Italy, the brutality of Harris's bombing policy, and the excessive caution of Montgomery when boldness was needed.

    He makes a moral, as well as an operational, critique on area bombing: "As a calculated policy for terrifying civilians of all ages into submission, it was a grave affront to those minimal standards of civilisation which a civilised country should respect, even when engaged in a life-and-death struggle - it was simply heinous".

    One by one, Grigg addresses and dismisses the main counter-arguments to the view that the cross-Channel invasion should have been a year earlier.

    “Impossible to land in 1943”. While the Germans were tied down on the Eastern Front, by the end of 1942 the American Army alone had 5,397,000 men trained and ready.

    “Atlantic Wall too strong”. In fact, the Wall was much stronger when the invasion occurred that it was the year before.

    “Not enough landing-craft”. The armada which set sail for Sicily in July 1943 was larger than that which set sail for Normandy in June 1944.

    “Technical resources inadequate”. The remarkable 'Mulberry' artificial harbours, used at Arromanches and (less successfully) at 'Omaha', could have been produced in 1943, if there was the pressure to manufacture them then.

    Grigg believes that the invasion victory of 1944 "seems almost ridiculously cheap". He contrasts the 10,00 casualties, of whom about 2,500 were killed, with the 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of them killed, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

    As for "the victory that never was", he writes: "By not invading until 1944 the Western Allies prolonged Europe's agony and condemned a multitude of heroes and innocents to death".

    Grigg writes extremely well and his arguments are cogent and (seemingly) compelling. So often, historians benefit from hindsight, but one of Grigg's strengths is that he uses the information and the arguments available at the time.

    Therefore it is difficult to find fault with the cold logic of his case, but of course war - like life - is not logical.

    As Grigg himself recognises all too well, a successful invasion in 1943 would have required a clear and determined strategy to that effect in 1942. However, the psychological effect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 and the German victories in North Africa in early 1942 meant, I believe (and I have written a book about the war centred on 1942), that at this time the Western Allies simply did not believe that they could mount a successful cross-Channel attack so soon.

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    "The Nazi Holocaust: Its History And Meaning" by Ronnie S Landau

    In the first 15 or so years after the Second World War, no single expression was deployed; by the early 1960s, the term increasingly used has been 'Holocaust'; other expressions that have been utilised are 'Churban', 'Shoah' and 'Judeocide'. All refer to the Nazi slaughter of the Jews between 1941-1945, an event that Ronnie Landau (a couple of whose lectures I have attended) argues in the first chapter is both unique and universal - unique as an entire event in terms of its scale, methods and purpose, but universal in the sense that so many component elements manifest themselves too often in both history and the present.

    In fact, he devotes only three of his ten chapters to the history of the Holocaust itself, dividing the period into three segments:

    The figures are chilling:

    Numbers of Jews murdered in Europe (estimated)
    Poland 2,800,000
    USSR 1,500,00
    Romania 425,000
    Czechoslovakia 260,000
    Hungary 200,000
    Germany 170,000
    Lithuania 135,000
    France 90,000
    Holland 90,000
    Latvia 85,000
    Greece 60,000
    Yugoslavia 55,000
    Belgium 40,000
    Austria 40,000
    Italy 15,000
    Bulgaria 7,000
    Others 6,000
    Total 5,978,000

    Put in words rather than numbers, this death toll represented - in Landau's language - "more than one third of all the Jews in the world, more than one half of all the Jews in Europe, and and more than two thirds of all the Jews in the Nazi sphere of influence"

    In fact, the majority of Landau's clear, concise yet compelling book is spent not on the narrative of the Holocaust itself but on attempting to provide meaning to what Winston Churchill called "probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world". Meaning is aided by both context and perspective.

    In terms of context, three positionings are offered:

    In terms of perspective, three viewpoints are offered: The Holocaust is a huge and complex subject but this is an excellent guide to the key facts and interpretations.

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    “Operation Basalt: The British Raid On Sark And Hitler’s Commando Order” by Eric Lee

    The only part of the British Islands to be occupied by the Germans in the Second World War was the Channel Islands. No attempt was made to liberate them – that would have been futile – but seven commando raids were mounted and this book tells the story of the most eventful and consequential. It was codenamed Operation Basalt and took place on Sark, only the fourth largest of the islands with a population of fewer than 500, on the night of 3/4 October 1942.

    Lee – an American living in London – has meticulously researched the raid and written a detailed and exciting account of why it was mounted, how it was conducted, and what resulted. The intention was to capture one or more German soldiers in order to obtain intelligence. The raid succeeded in that one German engineer was seized and taken back to England where he provided much useful information. However, three Germans were killed – one knifed and two shot – and those who were shot had their hands tied at the time which caused the German propaganda machine to condemn the incident as a war crime

    The entire operation only lasted eleven and a half hours and the commandos were only on the island for four and a half hours, so there is a limit to what can be written about the raid itself, but Lee precedes the narrative of the raid with an explanation of life on German-occupied Sark, dealing with issues of collaboration and deportation, and follows the audacity and confusion of the raid with an explanation of what subsequently transpired, notably further deportations from Sark and Hitler’s infamous Commando Order to kill any British commando whatever the circumstances of his capture.

    We think of the ‘fog of war’ as relating to battles but it is astonishing how much uncertainty there is even over such a small-scale operation as Operation Basalt. For a start, the raid involved 12 commandos from the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and 12 Commando, led by Major Geoffrey Appleyard who received a Distinguished Service Order but, even today, we are not absolutely sure of all the names of those on the raid. Only one of the commandos is still alive and he cannot remember. There was even someone who claimed to be on the raid who certainly was not.

    As a sound historian, Lee is scrupulously honest in identifying his sources and admitting when there are inconsistencies or doubts and he is notably even-handed in his assessment of such controversial matters as whether the raid was worth it in terms of the intelligence obtained and the German reaction both on the island and on the Western Front.

    Link: author's web site on the book click here

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    "The Killing Of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich" by Callum MacDonald

    This book was first published in 1989 and four years later I purchased a copy on a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London. However, it took me two decades to read the work and I was then prompted to do so by reading the 'novel' "HHhH" on the same subject by the Frenchman Laurent Binet [for my review click here]. It is clear that MacDonald was a major source for Binet's fictionalisation of the characters and events. My reason for reading both books is my strong interest in the assassination because it took place at the height of the wartime exploits of my Czech father-in-law, so that I included a couple of paragraphs about it in my biography of him [for information on him click here] , and the church in which the assassins Kubiš and Gabčík died in a massive shoot-out with the SS is literally at the end of the street in which my closest Czech friends live, so that I have visited it several times.

    Professor Callum MacDonald was a gifted historian - he died in 1997 - and this was his first book. It is a meticulously researched and carefully crafted work that exhibits a deep understanding of the pressures that led to the assassination. Only two of the 10 chapters are devoted to the assassination itself and its aftermath; three chapters summarize the rise of Reinhard Heydrich to the position of Obergruppenführer in charge of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from 29 September 1941; and five chapters detail the creation of a Czech political and intelligence capacity in exile in Britain and set out the considerations and proceses that led to the fateful decision to commit the most high-profile political assassination of the Second World War.

    At the time and for decades after the war, there was doubt about who ordered the killing and specifically on the role of the Czechoslovak exile President Eduard Beneš. Although Beneš was careful never to leave any documentary record of his involvement or to acknowledge it publicly, it is clear to MacDonald, notably from the 1964 lecture and 1981 memoirs of Beneš's intelligence chief František Moravec, that the President authorised the operation and that it would not have happened if he had not launched it and, even in the face of strong opposition from some quarters of the home resistance, insisted on maintaining his resolve.

    Why did Beneš support such a high profile assassination when it was clear that the reprisals would be savage? It was far from simply revenge against the brutal Nazi occupation of the Czech lands and the action of 'the Butcher of Prague' as Heydrich was known. At the time, the war was far from being won and Beneš feared that the Allies might reach a compromise peace settlement with Hitler that left the Czech lands under German control.

    Above all, he was desperate to reinforce the wartime claim to an independent Czechoslovakia in the face of Allied concerns (especially from the Soviet Union) that the Czech resistance was doing so little to assist the war effort (the Slovaks were technically a nation independent of the Nazis) and anxiety that the Czech resistance was collapsing, collobration was increasing, and the Czech economy was being marshalled behind the German war machine. More specifically Beneš was concerned that his major intelligence asset - an agent codenamed A-54 who was in fact a Abwehr officer named Paul Thümmel) - had just been arrested, so that his key bargaining chip with the Allies would be lost with nothing to replace it.

    What actually happened? On 27 May 1942, at a tight street corner in Prague, two resistance parachutists - the Czech Jan Kubiš (cover name ZDENEK) and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík (cover name OTA NAVRATIL) - stopped an open top car carrying Reinhard Heydrich with the intention of killing him. Gabčík was supposed to shoot him, but his sten gun jammed; the back-up plan was for Kubiš to throw a specially-made bomb into the car, but it exploded on the side of the car; this, however, was sufficient to wound Heydrich and a week later he died, probably as a result of the explosion driving fragments of horsehair and wire into his spleen. Kubiš and Gabčík, together with five other parachutists, eventually found refuge in an orthodox church near the city centre, but they were betrayed by one of the other parachutists and all died in the shoot-out with the SS.

    What were the consequences of the killing? Some 3,000 Jews were immediately deported to the East (only one survived); the villages of Lidice and Ležáky were wiped out; over 250 relatives and helpers of the parachutists were arrested and condemned to death; and over 3,000 Czech members of the intelligentsia were arrested and more than a third condemned to death. As MacDonald records: "The Czechs paid a heavy price in blood for the death of the tyrant, with over 5,000 victims of Nazi reprisals." But the international reaction to the atrocities - especially the destruction of Lidice (which I have visited) - led the Allies to repudiate the Munich Agreement of 1938, re-established Czechoslovakia's claim to its pre-Munich borders, and provided legitimacy to the planned post-war expulsion of almost two million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war.

    So the assassination, codenamed Operation ANTHROPOID, led (predicably) to an immediate bloodbath but secured some vitally important political objectives for the nation.

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    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON

    Last modified on 27 April 2016

    Any of these books can be purchased on-line from any one of the following suppliers:

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