Poor Man’s War

Richard Overy

  • Second World War by Martin Gilbert
    Weidenfeld, 846 pp, £18.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 297 79616 X
  • The Second World War by John Keegan
    Hutchinson, 608 pp, £19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 09 174011 8

It has suddenly become fashionable to sneer at the memory of the Second World War. The national press has been home to editorials and opinion columns archly condemning the anniversary as so much media junketing, as one long yawn. It is true that a great many people have jumped late and unceremoniously on the bandwagon, trivialising the past, capitalising cheaply on recollection. Yet the war is, for all that, a conflict we should never forget. It stands as an almost unbearable monument to human folly and wickedness. Fifty years on pundits can sound pious; remembrance becomes tacky and opaque; but we do have to take stock. Otherwise the war we pass on to the next generation (if it is recalled at all) will be war sanitised and domesticated, nostalgic, cute; war seen from René’s deplorable café, not from Auschwitz.

Martin Gilbert has built his own monument to the sufferers to mark the occasion. His history reminds us that the war has still spilt more blood than ink. The book is a bleak, desolate evocation of the horrors of war, a modern Waste Land, an unremitting catalogue of killing, atrocity and exiguous survival. One of the most horrifying stories in the ghastly record was that of a Polish Jew, Chaim Hirszman. One of only two survivors from the Belzec death camp, liberated by the Red Army in 1945, he was beaten to death by Polish anti-semites on his way back home after giving evidence to a commission of enquiry into Nazi terror. With odds like that it is a miracle that anyone survived at all. Gilbert lists at the end of the book, dispassionately and remorselessly, the full roll-call of the dead, 46 million. But the tally is almost certainly more than that. The deaths of Chinese villagers or Soviet prisoners are guesstimates. It now seems that as many as a million German POWs might have died in British, French and American custody in 1945-6. An exact reckoning can never be made. For Gilbert, the point is not the number of dead, but their sheer anonymity: they were, for the most part, people who got in the way, who were bombed, strafed, imprisoned, enslaved, who were victims in a vast war game.

At times Gilbert’s account of these deaths is like a nightmare, the images flashing uncontrollably from one macabre scene to the next, until they all merge together into one despairing authorial scream. Almost every page has a death, or deaths, somewhere. Sometimes just one, an assassination, the death of a spy; at times several hundred, Jewish women and children herded together to be mown down by Ukrainian Jew-haters; and finally death on a vast scale, 5000 Japanese soldiers committing mass suicide, 42,000 dying in the firestorm at Hamburg.

What this book certainly is not is a history of the Second World War in any conventional sense. It is full of information and detail, from the sublime to the ridiculous, so much so that the prose is always teetering on the edge of bathos. Yet all this information is simply presented as it comes, not even in the style of traditional chronicle, but just as a catalogue of episodes. Gilbert’s methodology is straightforward: one thing happens after another, and several things happen at the same time. This produces a clumsy and cramped prose, full of ‘it had continued,’ ‘January gave way to February,’ ‘December 7th saw,’ ‘now it was September,’ as if Gilbert himself were constantly disconcerted at the regular course of the calendar by which he navigates. Any real relationship between the episodes, any sense of causality much more sophisticated than the date, any means of discriminating among the welter of facts and anecdotes, is simply abandoned.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in