Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Second World War” by Simon Adams

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Like the analogously named book about World War I, this small book is replete with excellent maps, great photos, fascinating fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics. But of course, limiting a vast subject like “World War II” to “fifty things” is going to leave some gaps.

50 Things You Should Know About WW2 Interior Lo Res_Page_08

Perhaps the most significant omission to my mind is the matter of the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States. This involved the forced relocation and incarceration in 1942 of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62% of whom were U.S. citizens. Men, women, and children were sent to camps in barren, inhospitable locations. As many as 25 persons lived in spaces intended for four. Their belongings, businesses, and savings were confiscated. (Losses were estimated by the government as more than $200 million in 1942.) None were ever found guilty of disloyalty; a 1980 U.S. Government Commission concluded the incarceration had been the product of racism.

Japanese American Children in an American internment camp

Japanese American Children in an American internment camp

Similarly, Britain’s roundup of Italians and Germans (including Jewish citizens from those two countries who had fled to Britain to avoid the Nazis) gets no mention whatsoever.

The author includes a “blurb” on the 1944 Warsaw Uprising of the Polish Resistance, but nothing whatsoever about the 1943 uprising of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, one of the more amazing acts of resistance in modern history. [You can read a summary of what happened here.] Nor is there any mention of The Katyn massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police in 1940, and only acknowledged by Russia in 1990. (Churchill and FDR both knew about what happened at Katyn, but chose not to criticize their Soviet ally.)

Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising.   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Another omission seemed unfortunate to me. Although the author devotes a relatively large section to the British code breakers of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing, it is a shame he did not take the opportunity to report on how the British government “rewarded” Turing for work acknowledged as “essential” in defeating enemy U-boats and helping the Allies at D-Day. (In fact, by some accounts, it has been estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years. And yes, the post-war world does receive some coverage, so it cannot be said to be outside of the purview of the work.) Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexuality; forced to undergo chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment; and died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 (whether self-induced or not has never been conclusively established).

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Nevertheless, the author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject as well as some “fun facts” (like the derivation of code names for various military operations) and gives a good, if incomplete, overview of what happened during the war. Importantly, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

50 Things You Should Know About WW2 Interior Lo Res_Page_23

Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the subject of World War II to students. All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear. Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics. A brief “who’s who” photo gallery and glossary are at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2015

Note: This book and others about World War II throws around some pretty big numbers about casualties, but they are not necessarily easy to conceptualize. An excellent animated data visualization by Neil Halloran entitled “The Fallen of World War II” helps translate the abstract numbers into terrifying relatable terms. The video first analyzes soldier fatalities by nation, then civilian deaths, and finally offers a perspective of WWII in the context of previous conflicts and those that followed. It is exceptional and unforgettable, and well worth the eighteen minutes. You can watch it here.

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One Response to Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Second World War” by Simon Adams

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This does sound like a great way to introduce the war to students.

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