General World History
- "Guns, Germs And Steel"
- "A History Of The World"
- "A Little History Of The World"
- "The No Nonsense Guide To World History"
- "The History Of The World In Bite-Sized Chunks"
- "Fifty Things You Need To Know About World History"
- "12 Books That Changed The World"
- "Speeches That Changed The World"
- "War. What Is It Good For?
- "What If?
- "More What If?"
Second World War
- "Munich: The Eleventh Hour"
- "The Storm Of War"
- "Europe At War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory"
- "1943: The Victory That Never Was"
- "The Nazi Holocaust: Its History And Meaning"
- "The Killing Of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich"
- “Britain's Plot To Kill Hitler”
- “Operation Basalt: The British Raid On Sark And Hitler’s Commando Order”
- “Night Of The Bayonets: The Texel Uprising And Hitler's Revenge”
- “China's War With Japan 1937-1945”
"Guns, Germs And Steel" by Jared Diamond
Diamond is professor of geography at the University of California Los Angeles and he is a noted polymath who won a Pulitzer Prize for this outstanding work first published in 1997. I read a 20th anniversary edition with a new afterword and by then the book was an established classic.
It is a hugely ambitious work as indicated by the sub-title: "A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years". It attempts to answer a fundamental question of world history: "Why did history unfold differently on different continents?" Or, to put the question in more provocative terms: why did 'civilisation' start in Europe and how did Europeans manage to colonise the rest of the world? Over 500 pages later, the answer to this question can be summarised as follows: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves". Diamond rejects utterly any notions of racial superiority.
Diamond argues that nomad hunter-gathers settled down to grow crops and rear animals first in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the so-called Fertile Crescent because the temperate climate provided a greater number of crops (such as wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea and flax) and mammals (notably the goat, sheep, pig, cow and horse)) that could be domesticated compared to any other part of the world. From then onwards, the key determinant was latitude. It was much easier for the relevant techniques and tools to spread east-west across the massive land mass of Eurasia, where the climate was similar and geographical obstacles surmountable, than it was for this process to occur north-south in the Americas, Africa and Australia.
When Europeans of seven states sailed to the Americas, guns and horses gave them an enormous advantage, but the real killer was the infectious diseases that had evolved from animals in Eurasia to which the indigenous Americans had no resistance: smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles and cholera. As Diamond reminds us, these diseases killed an estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population.
This thesis of the centrality of axis orientation has been called - but not by Jared himself - the "lucky latitudes". In this trans-disciplinary book, Diamond makes his compelling case by quoting voluminous evidence from the fields of geography, history, archaeology, language and other subjects. He applies all this evidence to a succession of studies of different parts of the world, always drawing the same conclusion: "the striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environments".
"Guns, Germs And Steel" is quite a heavy read with masses of detail and some repetition, but it is a formidable work which has advanced our understanding of both world history and current geopolitics.
"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 television 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
"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).
"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 summarise 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:
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 spiralled 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 100 million 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.
"The History Of The World In Bite-Sized Chunks" by Emma Marriott
In terms of 'punch per page', this is a winner: nearly 5,000 years of world history in less than 200 pages with every sentence offering information. Yet, for all its conciseness, it covers a great deal in an accessible manner, so that it can be read from beginning to end and/or used as a reference work. Also it is a balanced account, totally avoiding the Euro-centric bias of many early world histories, each of the six chapters being structured in the order: Middle East and Africa, Far East, Europe, The Americas and Oceania with sub-headings on almost page .
If there is a theme. it is that so much history has been about empire: creating, sustaining, and losing it. Maybe we are entering a new era in which geographical empires are literally history.
Of course, all empires are temporary and, as one reads this book, one learns of a succession of empires which at the time were the greatest or largest in history up to then: Sumeria in 5,000 BC, the Indus civilisation of around 2,500 BC, Assyria in the seventh century BC, the Achaemenian empire of around 560-530 BC, the Chinese Han dynasty of 206 BC - 220 AD, the brief but large empire of Alexander the Great, the mighty Roman Empire of 509 BC - 476 AD, the huge and cruel Mongol empire of the early 13th century, and of course the European colonial empires of Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, France and most especially Britain.
Not all empires or civilisations were ended or broken by conquest; so often collapse was the result of climate change or disease: the transition of the Sahara from farming societies to desert, the destruction of Minoan civilisation by a tidal wave, the Black Death of the 14th century which devastated Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the decimation of the population of the Americas by diseases such as smallpox and influenza brought by Spanish settlers and conquistadors, the deaths of so many Aborigines from infectious diseases such as smallpox, and - worst of all - the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 which killed approximately 3% of the entire world population.
Sadly the story of humankind involves so much misery - not just war and disease but slavery. The slave trade between Africa and the Americas in the 18th and 19th century is described as "the largest forced migration in history" with the transport of 9.5 million slaves and the deaths in transit of around two million.
I read this book during the coronavirus global pandemic, the most dramatic reminder in a century that we are ultimately one world with one fate. A vital part of working together is to understand each other's history and Emma Marriott's book is an excellent primer.
"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:
"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:
"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 Commandments 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.
“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:
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 Mediterranean 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 sieges, 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 steppe 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 ...
"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":
"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):
"Munich: The Eleventh Hour" by Robert Kee
This account of the build up to and conclusion of the infamous Munich Agreement of 29 September 1938 was published in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. Kee's writing style is a little convoluted, but this is an informative and readable account of what the author himself characterises as "a grotesque event".
The Munich conference itself was a brief affair with the outcome effectively determined in advance, so Kee tells us little of the meeting itself where there was no conference table, no formal agenda, no chairman and just three sessions with breaks for lunch and dinner. Instead, starting with the Versailles Agreement of 1919, he takes us on a two-decade tour of deliberations in Britain, France, Germany and Czechoslovakia with briefer visits to Russia and Italy. The British role was critical, thanks to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's determination to pursue a policy of appeasement in order to avoid a further war at any cost. So he made flying visits to Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgade, then Godesberg and finally Munich itself but, however honourable his intentions, he was guilty of constant evasiveness with the French and tremendous pressure on the Czechs which meant that his processes were duplicitous and the outcome was betrayal.
In the end, the Czechoslovak Government was not even represented at Munich. Once the Germans had seized the Sudentenland and the Hungarians and Poles had taken other chunks of territory, Czechoslovakia lost over a quarter of its entire territory and about a third of its population (including over three million Germans). In strategic terms, the most serious loss was the German acquisition of the mountains and underground fortifications on the western border which effectively made Czech resistance to the later invasion of March 1939 simply impossible.
Was it inevitable? Kee takes the reader through the efforts of the Locarno Pact of 1925, the Disarmament Conference of 1932-1934, and the weakness of the League of Nations, as Germany time after time breached the terms of the Versailles Treaty. He notes: "The failure of Britain and France to take any effective action over German remilitarisation of the Rhineland in March 1936 is often looked back upon as the moment when the chance of 'stopping Hitler' was lost".
Kee acknowledges that the Sudeten Germans had "legitimate minor grievances" but affirms that "By and large, though, the Czech claim that, in contrast with other minorities in the world, the Sudeten Germans were fairly treated as integral components of the state was not unreasonable". Mobilisation of the military by the Czechoslovak Government in May 1938 had troubled Hitler and the Czechs would have been willing to fight in September 1938 if they still had their western fortifications and if they were assured of support by allies. Indeed, if Czechoslovakia - supported by France and then Britain and Russia - had been allowed to stand up to German demands for the Sudentenland, it is possible that there could have been a coup in Germany against Hitler led by General Ludwig Beck, the Chief of the General Staff.
Kee writes: "Would it have been better to fight Hitler in September 1938 than in September 1939? The argument often put forward in justification for Munich, to the effect that it gained time, was not immediately widely used and only really began to take shape retrospectively after Hitler's entry into Prague and the eventual outbreak of war itself." He concludes: "whether Munich was right or wrong something dreadful happened there".
"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:
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."
"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.
|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|
|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.
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:
"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.
"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:
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:
"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 summarise 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 processes 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, collaboration 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 (predictably) to an immediate bloodbath but secured some vitally important political objectives for the nation.
"Britain's Plot To Kill Hitler" by Eric Lee
Operation FOXLEY was a Top Secret document produced in 1944 by Britain's wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE) to review how the German Führer Adolf Hitler might be assassinated and it remained secret until 1998 when it was published by what is now called the National Archives. The Foxley paper was a comprehensive examination which ran to 122 pages and the full text is reproduced in this 2022 book. It is preceded by an extended introduction of 63 pages by Eric Lee, a London-based American historian, which is carefully researched, well-written and utterly fascinating.
Lee suggests that, between 1921 and 1945, there were at least 46 attempts to kill Hitler, but none of these emanated from the SOE's Foxley dossier since, as the report came in the final year of the war, it remained - in Lee's words - "a brainstorming exercise rather than an operational plan". Of all the proposals considered, "the most likely option" was the infiltration of a sniper into the forests surrounding Hitler's Alpine retreat near Berchtesgaden and Lee identifies the only name suggested for the role as Captain Edmund Bennett. The next most likely plot would seem to have been the use of an undetectable poison and Lee suggests that thallium would have been deployed. Other more outlandish ideas included hypnotising Rudolf Hess and returning him to Germany on a mission to take out his former leader.
Moving beyond the title of the book, Lee looks at efforts by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in the United States and the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) in the USSR to find their own way of decapitating the Nazi leadership. The OSS - like the SOE - looked at hypnosis, but had ideas of their own such as the injection of female sex hormones into Hitler's food. Lee explains that the Soviets had at least three plans to kill Hitler - each credible but all blocked by Stalin.
In a conclusion, Lee characterises Operation Foxley as "at best a half-hearted effort" and many of the more bizarre British and American ideas as appearing "completely bonkers" but sometimes on examination "rather interesting".
“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
“Night Of The Bayonets: The Texel Uprising And Hitler's Revenge” by Eric Lee
Like his earlier book "Operation Basalt", historian Eric Lee has managed to take a little-known and - in the grand scheme of the Second World War - small-scale incident and turn it in to a fascinating story by putting the events into a wider context with a variety of points of view. Both "Operation Basalt" and "Night Of The Bayonets" are set on a Nazi-occupied island but, whereas the first was located on a tiny member of the British-owned Channel Islands and involved only a handful of deaths, the second took place on the much larger Dutch island of Texel off the west coast of the Netherlands and the death toll was more than 3,000 with probably three-quarters of them being Germans.
What makes the uprising between 6 April - 20 May 1945 truly astonishing is that it lasted more than two weeks after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the attack on the occupying Wehrmacht was conducted by men wearing the same uniform: the Georgian members of the 822nd Eastern Battalion who had been taken prisoner from the Soviet Army and effectively forced to switch sides or instead to be killed or starved to death. Commenting on the Georgians' change of sides on two occasions, Lee states: They were young men who were simply trying to survive the war and get home".
Lee only devotes some 45 pages of a main text of 190 pages to the Texel Uprising itself, what he calls "the final battle of the Second World War in Europe", but cleverly and fascinatingly he goes back and forward in time to set the incident into a wider contect and to provide the reader with not just a story from history but an exercise in historiography.
So, drawing on another of his books ("The Experiment"), Lee takes us back to 1783 when Georgia lost its independence and became a protectorate of the powerful Russian Empire. He explains how, during the First World War, there was a Georgian Legion on the German side of the conflict and then, when there was an independent Georgia with a social democratic government from 1919-1921, the new state had the support of the Germans. Therefore, by the time of the Second World War, relations between the Georgians on the one hand and the Russians and Germans on the other was not a simple matter.
Then, looking at how the Texel Uprising has been commemorated and memorialised from immediately after the war (when the returning Georgians were treated by the Soviet Union as heroes rather than as traitors) through successive decades leading to present-day independent Georgia, Lee revals how different parties at different times have interpreted and presented those weeks of battle on Texel in ways which have offered a self-serving narrative. History may be in the past but it is never dead as this book illustrates all too well.
“China's War With Japan 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter
The Second World War is generally thought to be clearly delineated as taking place from 1939-1945, although the two major allied nations - the Soviet Union and the United States - did not enter the conflict until 1941. For China, though, the Second World War can be seen as a major period in a wider epoch of almost two decades of war. This started with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, a humiliation about which the Chinese Government was able to do little. Open conflict between China and Japan broke out with the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937 and did not end until the Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. This was not the end of hostilities in China, however, since there was then a civil war between Nationalists and Communists until the latter won in 1949. In this book, Rana Mitter, a British historian of Indian origin who specialises in the history of republican China, provides a brilliantly researched, well-written and commendably balanced account of the war of 1937-1945, although he frames the story with some information on the periods before and after.
This is not a simple tale of aggressor versus victim, since the Japanese were dealing with three different Chinese groups: the Nationalists in the south and centre led by Chiang Kai-shek headquartered in Chongqing, the Communists in the north under Mao Zedong based in Yan'an, and a collaborationist group in the east headed by Wang Jingwei based in Nanjing. Each of these three groups had changing relationships with the others and each ran an espionage network seeking out spies and dissenters. As if this situation was not complicated enough, various areas were controlled by Chinese warlords who had evolving alliances with the three main Chinese groups. Corruption was rife and Chiang Kai-shek's nickname was 'Cash My Check'. Most of Mitter's account is focused on the Nationalists since they did almost all the fighting against the Japanese with the Communists confined to a guerilla campaign in northern China. The Nationalists maintained some four million troops in the most populated parts of China, helping to tie down some half a million or more occupying Japanese soldiers who could otherwise have beem transferred elsewhere.
It is a tragic story. Mitter narrates the doomed attempt to defend Shanghai which involved more than 200,000 Chinese soldiers, the six-week 'rape of Nanjing' by Japanese soldiers in a horrific war crime which caused up to 300,000 deaths, the short-lived Chinese victory at Taierzhuang, Chiang's decision to breach the dykes of the Yellow River causing the death of half a million Chinese, the Japanese victory at Tianjiazhen achieved with the use of poison gas, the Nationalist burning of Changsha to prevent it falling to the enemy, the endless Japanese bombing of the Nationalist capital Chongqing, a famine in Henan province which caused another four million Chinese deaths, and the messy fighting in Burma. Meanwhile the United States felt unable to provide more than minimal resources and gave Chiang an American chief of staff Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell whose abrasiveness still echoes in Sino-American relations to this day.
Most people appreciate that the Soviet Union suffered a much, much larger death toll than other combatant nations, but very few comprehend the price paid by the Chinese. According to Mitter, the war against Japan resulted in an "unimaginably great" toll of between 14-20 million dead and 80-100 million refugees plus the devastation of infrastructure. He refers to China as "the forgotten ally" whose contribution to the war was not appreciated at the time and is still not widely understood. Interestingly it is not just non-Chinese who have neglected the country's wartime role; it is the Chinese themselves. Since most of the fighting against the Japanese was done by the Nationalists who lost a civil war to the Communists and fled to the island of Taiwan, the events of 1937-1945 do not fit into the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party being the source of all the nation's success.
The war ended what the Chinese call 'the century of humiliation' (1842-1945), when a variety of imperial powers (notably Britain) controlled key parts of the country's territory and trade, and the Chinese leadership is now determined to see the nation as a global power equal to the United States. As Ritter summarises the Chinese view: "at an earlier time when its contribution was needed, China delivered, and it should now be trusted as it seeks, once again, to enter international society playing a wider role".
"A Short History Of Europe" by Simon Jenkins
My young granddaughter did not think that this book looked 'short' but, at around 300 pages to tell the story of some two and half millennia, this can truly be termed a concise history and Jenkins has done a splendid job in making it very accessible and immensely readable. The alliterative subtitle of the work is "From Pericles To Putin" which neatly advertises the breadth of the subject. There is no escaping it, however, the history of Europe is one bloody war after another.
Starting with the Greco-Persian Wars (499–449 BC - "among the deciding events in Europe's evolution") and the three Punic Wars (264-146 BC), following the fall of Rome and waves of invasions from Huns, Vikings and Normans, we had no less than nine Crusader Wars (1095–1291) and the interminable Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453). There were also the Hussite Wars (1419-1434), the Thirty Years War (1618-1648 - "regarded as Europe's bloodiest before the twentieth century"), the Nine Years War (1688–97), and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) before we had the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871 - "as pointless as that over Crimea").
Then, after the peaceful period known as the belle époque (1871-1914), Europe was the starting place for two truly huge and devastating conflicts that consumed the globe: the First World War (1914-1918), including the nighmare of the trenches, and the Second World War (1939-1945), including the unique horror of the Holocaust. Jenkins gives figures of 17M and 40M as approximations for the respective European death tolls of these worldwide conflicts.
Wars often lead to treaties and Jenkins highlights the most important in term of the evolution of modern Europe, including Verdun (843) - "No treaty was more significant in the early history of Europe") - Augsburg (1555), and Westphalia (1648 - "often awarded credit for fathering the concept of the nation state"). Other important settlements were at Utrecht (1713), Vienna (1815) and Versailles (1919).
This history includes many awful experiences such as the Black Death (a peak of 1347-1351), when "As much as a third of the world's population died and, in Europe already weakened by famine, possibly more" and Communist terror, when "Stalin's rule in the [nineteen] thirties and forties brought more death and misery to the people of just one European country than any government in history". But there have been magnificent triumphs, most notably the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) and the Reformation (16th century) - "processes as well as periods" - and of course the Enlightenment (late 17th-early 18th century). Meanwhile, the history of Europe is permeated with the role of the Catholic Church with the shenanigans of a succession of venal popes (sometimes two or even three at a time).
In his epilogue (written in 2018), Jenkins talks of "the violent conflicts that have been Europe's default setting". And yet, with the horrible exception of the wars around the break-up of post-Communist Yugoslavia, Europe has enjoyed over 70 years of peace and - at a time when Brexit is consuming political debates in Britain - one has to acknowledge the role of the European Union in this. Jenkins himself asserts: "For all their flaws, the EU's treaties of Rome, Maastricht and Lisbon have presided over over half a century of not just of peace but also of prosperity".
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON
Last modified on 8 October 2022
Any of these books can be purchased on-line from any one of the following suppliers:
Amazon click here
Waterstones click here