When Antony Beevor’s The Second World War arrived in the mail*, I was intimidated. I read and write about war-related topics a lot, but I wasn’t sure I was up to almost 800 pages of pure military history.
I didn’t need to worry. Beevor begins his broad-sweeping history with the story of a single Korean soldier whose experience of the war took him from Japanese-controlled Manchuria to the Allied invasion of Normandy. The vignette is a perfect metaphor for the narrative structure of the book, which Beevor begins with the Japanese defeat by the Red Army at the battle of Khalkin Gol in August, 1939–one month before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. It reminded me that Beevor is known for his lively style, cinematic vignettes, and ability to evoke the experience of the ordinary soldier in the battlefield. All of which he uses to good effect in this work. Secure that I was in good hands, I dove in.
Reviews of The Second World War uniformly describe the book as epic and authoritative. It certainly deserves both adjectives. But what caught and held my attention was not the undoubted excellence of the broad narrative, but Beevor’s underlying awareness of the war as “an amalgamation of conflicts” rather than a single war. He looks at individual conflicts as self-contained units as well as placing them in the larger context of global war. He moves from sharp political analysis to clear descriptions of battles** to the experience of individuals caught up in the overwhelming forces of war. In addition to the old horror of concentration camps, he gives us the new horror of Japanese cannibalism in their prison camps. In short, Beevor has managed the hat trick of looking at history on a broad scale and close up at the same time.
Beevor’s The Second World War is an excellent, if demanding, read. Well worth the time and shelf space for anyone interested in military history in general or the history of the early twentieth century in particular. If you’d like a quick introduction to Beevor and the book, check out History Today’s interview : Beevor by the Book
* As anyone who spends much time reading blogs knows, I’m required to tell you that the publisher sent me a copy of this book for review. My personal position is that if I don’t like the book, I don’t review it. No bashing. No puff pieces. No kidding.
**With equally clear maps. Thank you, Little Brown.