Bob and Weave

Musings of an impostor. Welcome to the masquerade.

Book Review: The Second World War

Posted by flyingbk on 01/07/2014

It must be a new year since I am trying once again to blog regularly. My goal for now is to simply write reviews of each book I finish. I haven’t finished anything yet in 2014, so I’ll start with the last two I finished in 2013. Just one for now:

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

This is quite the hefty tome: It clocks in at 843 pages. But as one of my friends said to me: “How can you possibly fit the whole story of the World War II in such a small number?” True. But Beevor is able to give the reader a wonderful and comprehensive overview of the war from start to finish and in all its respective theaters.

A few notable revelations for me: 1) Just how much initial success Germany banked in its foray into Soviet Russia; of course, it was all for naught and it truly is remarkable how Stalin’s men are able to eventually turn the tables and wreak ruinous havoc on Hitler and Company. 2) The fatalistic and maniacally determined ways of the Japanese, and why the atomic bomb was most likely the correct course of action. Beevor does not argue explicitly in favor of the bombings, but does hint often at its pragmatism. 3) The final 100 pages or so of the book very strong in its examination of the talks between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. The former two obviously underestimated just how devious and determined Stalin was- and although I’m not sure what more could have done to prevent the construction of the Iron Curtain, there are lessons for us today regarding the irrepressible nature of evil and how an equally resolute counter is necessary.

But by far the most lasting and disturbing epiphany found in these pages is the monstrous level of cruelty that transpired from all parties in battle. Many of us know about the horrors of the Holocaust and the moral questions of civilian bombing (not just of Japan, but also Germany). But how much do we know about the mass rapings (brothels in Japan were even set up in advance to provide comfort women  for the Americans and Australians and thus “reduce the incidence of rape”) and bayoneting of women, the cannibalism of the Japanese (which included American POWs) and starving Russian citizens, and simply the loss of military and civilian lives, which to this day continue to boggle the mind?

I read this book as part of my 2013 mission to read longer books. Yeah, that goal was a mistake, and I don’t see myself doing that again. I had to will myself to finish it- not because it was boring, but because I just don’t have the patience to keep my interest glued for that long. But kudos to Beevor for compiling a semi-accessible history of the war. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who’s willing to take the time and energy to grasp the full scope of the deadliest conflict in human history.

Memorable excerpts (WARNING: graphic descriptions):

“The Nazis’ final attempt to manufacture a casus belli was truly representative of their methods. This act of black propaganda had been planned and organized by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy to Reichsführer -SS Heinrich Himmler. Heydrich had carefully selected a group of his most trusted SS men. They would fake an attack both on a German customs post and on the radio station near the border town of Gleiwitz , then put out a message in Polish. The SS would shoot some drugged prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp dressed in Polish uniforms, and leave their bodies as evidence. On the afternoon of 31 August , Heydrich telephoned the officer he had put in charge of the project to give the coded phrase to launch the operation : ‘ Grandmother dead! ’ It was chillingly symbolic that the first victims of the Second World War in Europe should have been concentration camp prisoners murdered for a lie.” (Kindle Locations 530-536)

“‘People turn into animals before our eyes,’ wrote a diarist. Some were driven insane by starvation. Soviet history has tried to pretend that there was no cannibalism , but both anecdotal and archive sources indicate otherwise. Some 2,000 people were arrested for ‘the use of human meat as food’ during the siege , 886 of them during the first winter of 1941– 2. ‘Corpse-eating’ was the consumption of meat from somebody already dead. Some people even snatched bodies from the morgue or mass graves. Outside Leningrad, a number of soldiers and officers resorted to eating corpses and even the amputated limbs of field hospitals.
“‘Person-eating’, which was rarer, came from the deliberate murder of an individual for the purpose of cannibalism . Parents , not surprisingly , kept their children in their apartments for fear of what might befall them. It was said that the flesh of children, followed by that of young women, was the tenderest. Although stories abounded of gangs selling human meat ground into kotleta, or rissoles , almost all cannibalism took place within the apartment block, with crazed parents eating their own children, or neighbours preying on those of neighbours. Some starving soldiers in the 56th Rifle Division of the 55th Army ambushed ration carriers, killed them, took their supply of food, buried the body in the snow and returned later to eat it bit by bit.” (Kindle Locations 5763-5773).

“The practice of treating prisoners as ‘human cattle ’ had not come about from a collapse of discipline. It was usually directed by officers. Apart from local people , victims of cannibalism included Papuan soldiers , Australians, Americans and Indian prisoners of war who had refused to join the Indian National Army. At the end of the war, their Japanese captors had kept the Indians alive so that they could butcher them to eat one at a time. Even the inhumanity of the Nazis’ Hunger Plan in the east never descended to such levels. Because the subject was so upsetting to families of soldiers who had died in the Pacific War, the Allies suppressed all information on the subject, and cannibalism never featured as a crime at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946.” (Kindle Locations 15454-15459)

The verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.

Next up: Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

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