This is a book about which my husband and I have fairly strong disagreement. While I thought the author was repetitive and annoying after his initial valid points, my husband liked it so much he read it twice! I will give my summary first, followed by his dissent.
Review by Jill:
Davies’ extensive history of WW2 is divided into five subject areas: military, politics, soldiers, civilians, and media. Each area is explored chronologically, so that we go back and forth, five times, sometimes over the same material. Throughout, several themes predominate:
1. Western powers aggrandize their roles in WW2. To the contrary, the most important battles were in the East, and the 1945 victory in Europe was “above all” Stalin’s. These facts are obscured by “relentless Western publicity pursued to the greater glory of Western interests….” [And in fact, Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of all military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them, not the West.]
2. Most histories of WW2, looking through Western conceptual lenses, see Hitler’s Germany as the “most” evil. America’s “war-time love affair with the USSR” put Soviet atrocities out of focus, and romanticized the role of “the Russians.”
3. The USSR was multinational, not just Russian; Ukrainians and Byelorussians suffered more than any other group;
4. Stalin was way more evil than westerners give him “credit” for; and
5. Poland got screwed by all parties (including the allies) big time.
These points are important and well-taken, but Davies tends to beat them to death in this extremely detailed overview.
Some of his observations are nicely crafted. For example, in describing Britain’s situation after March 1941 when Lend-Lease started, he suggests that Britain became an “island aircraft carrier, to which U.S. military assets could be transferred as the need arose.”
On the other hand, some of his observations are questionable. Hitler was “only human” if, albeit, “obnoxious”?!!! David Irving (an English Holocaust denier) displayed “the wrong shade of opinion”?!!! Ariel Sharon “alleged” there were Jews who fought with the Allies?!!! Some 150,000 “Jews” fought with the Wehrmacht?!!! (N.B. This number actually represents the number of “mischlinge” or those who were designated as Jews only because of Hitler’s insistence in going back to the fourth generation past for racial purity. Most of these men were born and raised Christians and were ardent German patriots.)
Oddly, in spite of Davies’ anti-Soviet, anti-Stalin bias, he doesn’t make a strong statement about Roosevelt’s pandering to Stalin. He does opine that Roosevelt was much more wary of Churchill as an “old imperialist” than of Stalin. Yet later in the narrative he avers (speaking of the Tehran summit) “Roosevelt was inclined to humor Stalin.”
Davies’ world of the Gulag, the Katyn Forest, Sobibor and the like seems so alien from our current reality that it is hard to come away with useful lessons for the present. Tony Judt, in the May 1, 2008 New York Review of Books (writing about WW2 historical treatments generally), charges that “teaching the War through vectors of the suffering of particular groups” (as does Davies) only serves to make us feel separate from other groups’ sufferings. Thus we lose a sense of a shared past in favor of au courant atrocities. The underlying message is that these “Historical Horror way stations” are past us, and “we may now advance…into a different and better era.”
I’m afraid one of my biggest criticisms of this book is rather fuzzy: that is to say, in my opinion this book lacks “background music.” Davies’ long delineation of particulars is cold and lifeless, even with, and in spite of, the inclusion of many inspiring stories. As Saul Friedlander observes in “Reflections on Nazism,” language can establish emotional distance by “showing that all the chaos and horror is, after all, coherent and explainable.” Thus Davies evokes nothing with his recitation of numbers of war dead – not even understanding, since the numbers are beyond rational comprehension. And of the cultures that were lost, there is not a word. I believe one can learn more about the pain and loss of WW2 from listening to the music of Kreisler than by reading Davies’ neutralized analyses. My husband loved this book; but he would much prefer lists of tanks and planes to evocations of life and love. I would have preferred to see Davies advance his theories in a nice long article in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, rather than a 560-page book. I give this book three stars; he would give it five. His review follows….
Review by Jim:
I thought this was a far better book than my wife gives it credit for being. It is as much a book of historiography as a work of history. It points out how both popular and scholarly works in both the West and East (Soviet) have skewed their perceptions to promote the political preconceptions of their audiences. Davies emphasizes how Western historians have poorly expressed the comparative magnitudes of the war in the East with the war in the West. He also shows that both Eastern and Western historians have underestimated the criminality of the Soviet behavior in the war. The Germans were not the only barbarians who fought the war.
In his reassessment of the writing about the war, Davies observes that the Holocaust and the plight of the European Jews has had a large share of the ink spilled on the period. If this were the only book written about WWII, one would say that Davies greatly underestimated the enormity of the Nazi treatment of the Jews. But that is not his point. He is starting from a position in which there does exist a considerable corpus of Holocaust literature, and remarkably little about the plight of the Serbs, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Bylorussians, and the entire Polish people. Moreover, little is written about the fate of millions of Germans, mostly women and children, who were uprooted, raped, and/or killed during the Red Army’s final thrust into the Reich.
Davies’s choice of organization does cause some repetitive treatment of some events, as he analyzes them sequentially from the respective coigns of vantage of military, politics, soldiers, civilians, and media. Nonetheless, I think that is necessary since he makes some fairly controversial assertions, and he must martial his authority on each contentious point.
A sampling of Davies’ observations and conclusions indicates how inaccurate in his view is the general account of the war given by western media:
1. The first campaign of the war was a joint invasion of Poland by both Germany and the Soviet Union.
2. The Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 was as blatant as Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941.
3. The Germans conquered only about 10% of the land mass of the Soviet Union, and most of the occupation covered the USSR’s western republics, Ukraine and Byelorussia. Stalin was much more willing to sacrifice the “politically suspect” ethnic and religious minorities in border states than Russians.
4. The communists “proved to be incompetent at almost everything except espionage, deception and war.”
5. Roosevelt’s entourage was riddled with fellow travelers who proved incapable of grasping the nature of Stalin’s regime.
6. The Soviets maintained larger concentration camps with more inmates than the Germans did.
7. Forcible repatriation to the USSR involved millions who were being sent to their deaths or to long prison terms for the “crime” of not fighting to their deaths against the Germans.
8. The victory of the USA and Britain was at best only partial, leading to 45 years of the cold war, a military standoff with the co-victors and the imposition of a totalitarian tyranny in the Soviet zone of Europe.
The book may not thoroughly original, but it is one of the best comprehensive reevaluations of our perception of the most significant event of the twentieth century that I have encountered.
Published by MacMillan, 2006