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.
First a little bit of business. Last week I announced that I was giving away a copy of this book:
As promised, this morning My Own True Love drew a name out of my favorite summer hat. The winner is Jessica, who blogs about books at Quirky Bookworm. Send me an e-mail with your address and I’ll send Genghis Khan on this way.
Now, back to Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan’s influence didn’t end with his death in China in 1227. The Mongol army took his body back to the Central Asian steppes and buried it in secret. His soldiers sealed off the area around it for several hundred square miles. Known as the Great Taboo, the area was closed to everyone except members of Genghis Khan’s family and a cadre of specially trained warriors who were sworn to kill intruders. For more than 150 years, his descendants ruled over his empire, expanding it and finally divided it into four separate khanates. Long after the khanates collapsed in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, Mongols continued to guard the Great Taboo against intruders.
When the Soviets captured Mongolia in 1924, they feared the memory of Genghis Khan would become a nationalist rallying point. They squashed the name of the Great Taboo, but continued to guard the area, which they termed a Highly Restricted Area (basically, another way of saying Great Taboo). In fact, the Soviets went a step further than the Mongols and surrounded the Highly Restricted Area with an equally large Restricted Area. Instead of Mongol warriors guarding the borders, a Soviet tank base blocked the entrance into the security zone The dual forbidden zone was not governed as part of the surrounding province, but controlled directly from Moscow.
Soviet concerns were not entirely unreasonable; since the end of the cold War, Mongolia has celebrated Genghis Khan as their greatest national hero.
As part of their first-anniversary celebration*, DocumentaryStorm.com, a curated resource for watching documentaries on-line, hand-picked a selection of history documentaries for me to share with you. They’re very much in keeping with the non-Western, eclectic nature of History in the Margins. I think you’ll find them fascinating.
Make yourself a bowl of popcorn, kickback, enjoy the show–and wish the folks at Documentary Storm a happy anniversary.
The Emperor’s Tram Girls:Hiroshima, 1945. The Emperor’s Tram Girls were trained to drive tens of thousands of Japanese troops through the town. The drivers were young, pretty, bubbly girls who were picked for their winning personalities. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Then the bomb dropped.
The Pyramid Code, Part One: The Band of Peace. The Band of Peace is the area in which six different sites sit, among them the Great Pyramid at Giza. One scholar insists the pyramids were not built by slaves. So who actually built these structures?
Last Christians of Bethlehem. Barely any Christians still live in the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Christians have lived in Bethlehem for centuries, but in today’s political climate, they have fewer reasons to stay. See why.
Secrets of the Maya Underworld. Unlike other great empires, much of the Mayan world is in fact devoid of even the smallest river or lake. Then why did they populate Yucatan? The Maya believed that the freshwater pools, ëcenotesí, dotted across the area were sacred portals to the underworld.
*History in the Margins recently passed the one year mark, too. I just had my head too far down to notice. Why don’t we consider this a double celebration.