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.

Why Gilbert has chosen this particular memorial is a mystery. He provides no introduction or explanation, nor even a preface by which we might come to terms with his purpose. There is a hint of arrogance here: this is a book so perversely at odds with the conventions of modern history-writing that the least we might expect is some guidance. Taken as it stands and with no clear idea of its purpose, aside from the powerful demoralisation which it must induce in any reader who ploughs through the card-index of horrors, it is hardly a successful history. It is virtually unstructured, a text which moves in jerks and starts from one scene to the next, from Benghazi to Burma, from Bohemia to Bataan, often on the same page, sometimes in the same paragraph. It is hard to read as a result, full of non-sequiturs and begged questions, as if it were glimpsing history from the window of a fast-moving train. There are numerous quotations but no footnotes, an added irritation where, as all too often, the quotation is made to stand for explication. What there is a desperate shortage of is any kind of analysis or explanation, any sense of cause and effect, any sense of a story that is interwoven. There are occasional glimpses of what an explanation might be, but before any of them are developed the text rushes off to another corner of the battle-field to see what is going on there.

This is certainly no bird’s-eye view of the war: but then it is hardly the worm’s view either. If Gilbert’s concern with the ordinary person caught in the maelstrom is to have real historical force some sense of the social context, of the social fabric under the impact of war, of the actual day-to-day experience of living under threat of early and arbitrary death, is essential. Yet the view from below, despite Gilbert’s righteous indignation at the fate of his subjects, remains superficial and obscure. The view from above is almost nonexistent, particularly when it comes to the campaigns and battles, none of which is satisfactorily explained. They start and they finish. Planes appear out of the sky; ships and submarines move on and off-stage. Why they are there, how many of them there are, the strategic and tactical purposes behind their deployment, the problems faced by the commanders, the logistical effort – these things are mostly ignored. In the discussion of the Battle of Britain there is almost nothing on the battle from the German side, so that the reasons for the suspension of German daylight attacks in September is left to Churchill to explain: ‘no doubt Herr Hitler is using up his fighter force at a very high rate ...’ There are at least half-a-dozen books that would have told Gilbert what that rate was, but not one of them appears in the bibliography. The whole fabric of the military discussions has a feel of Tolkien about it – orcs and goblins, elves and hobbits move backwards and forwards across the plain, unnumbered, unmarshalled, Good against Evil.

Of the many questions begged one stands out above all the rest: why did the war descend into such a mire of barbarism and horror? We are left to pass our own judgment. But there is no doubt who Gilbert is indicting. The balance of atrocity lies all with Germany and Japan. His book is a diatribe against the inhumanity of whole peoples, a revival of the hatreds of the war itself. Except for Katyn, this leaves unremarked the atrocities perpetrated by the Allies; nor is there any discussion of what one means by atrocity, what is permitted or expected in war and what is not. No doubt the soldiers of the Red Army felt justified in slaughtering the wounded remnants of the White Russian armies they found in Prague’s hospitals in 1945, but it makes it no less of an atrocity. Given the sheer scale of the horrors perpetrated in Eastern Europe by German forces and racial officials, the temptation to say that they deserved what they got is overwhelming. In Gilbert’s account two wrongs almost make a right. But it is is simply not enough to imply that the Germans are a barbarous people and that their post-war pleas were ‘hypocritical and absurd’. We have to come to terms with the reasons why, at that time and in that way, barbarism became possible.

The path to annihilation and terror was a complex one. Of course, the very fact of Hitler’s victory in 1933, against the historical odds, set the agenda. It meant that one possible outcome would be the emergence of a formal bureaucracy of race, and the rise, in the Party and the state of committed anti-semites and eugenicists. The more power Hitler acquired, and the less constraint the older officials and experts placed on him, the easier it became to enforce policies based on race. The existence of popular racism in Germany, directed particularly against Poles and Russians, combined with five years of intensive propaganda directed at the young men who would spearhead Germany’s assault on her neighbours, meant that the ingredients of the conflict were already in place. The war provided the opportunity for a concerted campaign of racial purity and external violence. Add to this the recruitment of local anti-semites and collaborators among the petty-bourgeoisie and villagers of Poland and the Ukraine, and the criminalisation of much of the SS and police forces moving into Eastern Europe, and the ingredients of repeated atrocity are there too. The regular soldiers were often disgusted at what they saw. Most Germans never saw it. Control over communication and extensive represssion saw to that.

Once this stage was reached the vicious downward spiral began. Convinced that this really was a final racial conflict for survival, Hitler spurred his countrymen on to every effort. The struggle for survival, Darwin’s unfortunate analysis of nature, was applied to the war Germany was fighting. Total war produced its own horrific legitimisation. When the Allies bombed German cities and slaughtered German women and children, Hitler’s soldiers were prepared to gun down the Allied crews who did it. When Soviet partisans caught German troops, they had no time to take prisoners; subjected to a diet of propaganda against the sub-human Asiatic hordes mobilised by Stalin, German soldiers abandoned Geneva too, and gave no quarter. The sad fact is that barbarism in modern war is very difficult to prevent once civilians are drawn in. In Vietnam and Afghanistan frightened young conscripts far from home sometimes, but not always, responded to terror with terror. When, in the German case, a nationalist population with a marked military tradition was hijacked by a circle of semi-criminals, terrorists, crackpots and pirates who traded cleverly on Germany’s longing for order and national revival, prospects for terror were greater still. Without Hitler and his entourage the war would never have happened: but we cannot be sure that any society in the grip of a cruel authority which shunned decency and encouraged public crime would not behave in the same way in war. There are secret policemen, camp guards, torturers in every community; careerists, collaborators, criminals were not just Germans, but came from every country Germany conquered. This does not make all Germans criminals, nor evil an endemic feature of modern popular states. Gilbert’s book takes us back to a crude, undifferentiated condemnation of the wicked nations that unleashed war. He tells us what horrors are, but not how they arise or how they might be avoided, nor who perpetrated them.

John Keegan’s book could not be more different. It is a conventional, well-produced text, written fluently enough, blending narrative and analysis together – the fruit of the years Keegan spent at Sandhurst teaching the outlines of the Second World War. It is an account strong on campaigns and the familiar contours of the conflict. It is weak on foreign-language sources and weak, too, on more recent historiography; better on land power than either sea or air power, and better on fighting than on home fronts, economies, and the horrors related by Gilbert. Keegan gives the persecution of the Jews a mere two pages. Most of Keegan’s deaths occur in the course of battle, and not every battle gets the same weight. He has chosen a number of battles which he regards as typical of their kind during the war – an air battle, a city battle, an amphibious battle, and so on. This sometimes gives the sense that the text is several books rolled into one, and it might well have been better simply to take the battle-types and make them the centrepiece. As they stand, they do not give us a real typology, for they are not discussed in terms of military analysis, but blend into the general narrative as brief battlefield histories.

The result is a book that is generally well-judged and informative, but rather old-fashioned. It suffers from occasional lapses which make the information less valuable than it might otherwise have been. Erhard Milch, State-Secretary in the German Air Ministry, is wheeled on as a regular soldier turned airman and battlefront commander (he was head of Lufthansa in 1933 and the Air Ministry’s senior administrator after that); Blomberg was not sacked as part of Hitler’s scheme for taking control of the Army, but, to Hitler’s disappointment, resigned on a point of Army honour; the Poles did not defy Hitler after getting Western guarantees, but had already decided to fight over Danzig the week before; Keegan seems unaware of the German He 177 heavy bomber, authorised in 1938, flying missions in 1943. Keegan’s strength lies in his ability to offer a highly readable account. He starts his discussion by attributing the era of the world wars to the growing professionalisation, size and political influence of the armed forces of the great powers; the militaristic nationalism of the Twenties and Thirties he ascribes additionally to the Freikorps spirit of the disgruntled and brutalised veterans of the trenches. But he places the blame for the war firmly on Hitler, over the long march from crisis to crisis. This produces a rather one-dimensional approach, taking too little account of the wider international framework and the pressures which permitted Hitler to get as far as he did, both at home and abroad. Keegan seems less at home with German material than with British, so that his arguments about the coming of war would have benefited from a more extensive treatment of Chamberlain’s options than Hitler’s. Nevertheless he appreciates that general war in 1939 came about as a result of Hitler’s miscalculation that the Polish conflict could be localised, and his failure to see how determined Britain and France were to arm to the hilt after Munich.

Once war has broken out, Keegan does not exaggerate Britain’s contribution, recognising that defeat of the Axis really did need American economic strength and the willingness of Soviet soldiers to bear the brunt of the harsh fighting before 1944. By the time we get to Barbarossa the arguments become more and more submerged beneath the campaign accounts. Keegan is at home here, perhaps too much so, since they make for rather conventional reading. What he does stress is the importance of the economic factors in determining victory, a dimension entirely lacking in Gilbert. But neither this nor the home fronts and domestic politics, the impact of war on society, really get the space they deserve. Keegan has a rather idealistic view of warfare: his opening chapters are peppered with references to ‘large, strong young men’, the ‘fit and strong’ peasants who made up Europe’s armies. In fact, many of those who went to war came from desperately poor villages where hardship, even malnutrition, was their lot. Part of any explanation for the vicious character of Japanese or German or Soviet war efforts must stem from the fact that many soldiers were recruited from backward, chronically poor villages where day-to-day life was itself a dour struggle for existence, and a harsh and brutal attitude to other people and to city life was easily translated into military habits. Modern Europe is no longer like this: the fit young men work in factories and offices making money. Yet in Afghanistan, Iran or Lebanon the same rural poor can be found stocking the armed forces, and giving little quarter.

Keegan’s war is a cleaner one than Gilbert’s. Neither book is a complete history. Gilbert’s is an account of what he calls ‘human pain’. Keegan sees his subject as the ‘war to end all wars’. Unluckily, Gilbert is nearer the truth. The pain goes on: war or civil war has been fought somewhere every year since 1945. But general war, the pitting of entire continents against each other, the stuff of Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been kept in check by the settlement of 1945 and the threat of nuclear conflict. For that, if for no other reason, it is worth reminding ourselves, at periods of ritual remembrance, what the cost of that last great war was.