Bulldog and boffin: Churchill and his "Prof" Lord Cherwell (left) witness a demonstration of anti-aircraft defences at Holt, Norfolk in 1941
The ever-flowing torrent of Second World War books tends to provoke exasperation among the modern-minded. The enduring appetite for them seems sympomatic of an unhealthy obsession with bygone battles as well as a misguided nostalgia for an era when Britain was still great. When, they wonder, will historians let go and move on? The answer is probably never. Fascination with the War is not the same as fascination with warfare. It was the biggest event in human history, a manmade disaster of unparalleled awfulness. As such it will continue to appal and inspire as long as there is life on earth.
It was close to being a universal event touching hundreds of millions, each with a story to tell. Having spent years sifting through personal accounts of wartime by soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians, I have yet to read one that was devoid of some drama, insight or interest. They record the abysmal depths and the soaring heights that humans are capable of touching. The breadth of experience was on an equal scale.For the people at the centre of the European war; the inhabitants of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states and the Balkans the war mostly meant terror, hunger, pain, rape and death. For those in America and Britain, the conflict could bring opportunity — social, sexual and financial — a chance to shine and a sense of shared endeavour, so that many would look back on it as the best passage of their life.
Trying to wrap all this up in one volume is a colossal task, but historians seem willing to rise to the challenge. Antony Beevor's effort comes hard on the heels of Max Hastings's All Hell Let Loose, published to great acclaim and big sales only last autumn. Beevor engagingly explains that his book — which weighs in at a hefty 880 pages — had a "very simple and unheroic genesis". When consulted as a general expert on the period he became acutely aware of the gaps in his knowledge. He has thus laboured to "understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in the very different theatres of war".
Beevor's method is the same essentially chronological one he used in Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day. Event follows event. You start these books expecting the author to break off the account from time to time to reflect, analyse or judge. Beevor, on the whole, doesn't. The story keeps on coming. The method works. Eventually you feel yourself being carried along on the narrative flow, channelled this way and that through the pools and rapids by Beevor's expert helmsmanship. It is not until the end that he delivers a sort of verdict. The reader is mostly left to form his or her own views about the meaning of it all.
Several big truths loom out of the mass of absorbing detail. One is confirmation of the increasingly standard view that the period 1914-45 is best viewed as a single chunk of history. There was no real peace in the interwar years, merely a pause while toxic ideologies proliferated, bringing a devastating new lethality to the conflict when hostilities resumed. Another is the idea that this was unreservedly a "good war". Of the main combatants only Britain and the Dominions, and the United States can take any real pride in their conduct. The Nazis and the Japanese may have been defeated but communism was not, enabling the triumphant Soviets to enslave half of Europe for most of the next 50 years. Above all, as Beevor says, "Victory conspicuously failed to achieve world peace."