Clash of the Titans: Antony Beevor’s The Second World War and Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945
This year, respectively on the 8th of May and the 15th of August, we will mark the 70th Victory in Europe (V-E) Day and the 70th Victory over Japan (V-J) Day. It will be 70 years since the end of the Second World War.
History, though, is never as neat as we would like it to be. Even in these momentous moments there are differences of interpretation that reflect more profound estrangements. In Britain, the US and France V-E Day is celebrated on the 8th of May, but in Russia, which suffered more military and civilian deaths than all the western allies combined, the event is marked a day later. Similarly, V-J Day is observed in the UK on the 15th of August (the day after Japan’s surrender), in the US on the 2nd of September (the day the surrender document was signed) and in China, which suffered almost as many deaths as the Soviet Union, on the 3rd of September.
The start of the war is equally ambiguous, and it is here that we encounter the first difference between Antony Beevor’s The Second World War and Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945.
As is obvious from its title, the latter single-volume history of the conflict begins with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the 1st of September, 1939. ‘Poland betrayed’ is the fitting title of chapter one: Britain and France had pledged to declare war on Germany and offer military assistance in the event of an invasion of Poland, but, to the dismay and horror of the ruling military junta in Warsaw, neither country had the means or inclination to meet the second part of its promise.
To begin a chronicle of WWII with Operation Himmler, Germany’s fabrication of Polish aggression and subsequent attack, means going back eight days to signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the second, secret aspect of which split Poland in two and gave each side a roughly equal portion. This would date the start of World War II to the 23rd of August, 1939.
In The Second World, Antony Beevor makes a different case. He begins his history with the extraordinary story of a Korean man named Yang Kyoungjong. In 1938, at the age of 18, Yang was captured in Manchuria by Japanese forces and forcibly conscripted into the Japanese Army. A year later, three months before the Nazi-Soviet dismembering of Poland, he was captured by the Red Army during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. It is with this crucial engagement that Beevor begins The Second World War.
In his introduction, Beevor discusses the various competing arguments about the start of the most terrible conflict in human history. He points out that some Asian historians date the conflict to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Perhaps sensing that 1000 pages is about the limit for most human wrists, Beevor begins on the 12th of May, 1939, on the barren steppe around the Khalkha River astride the disputed frontiers of Mongolia, Manchuria and Russian Siberia.
It is no exaggeration to say that Germany’s defeat in Russia, and thus the outcome of the war in Europe, can be traced to the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. It is greatly surprising, therefore, that Hastings would make no mention of it. Briefly, the Red Army, led by Georgii Zhukov, routed the Japanese in the intense summer heat. From the resulting position of strength they were able to negotiate a truce that convinced Japan to seek territorial expansion in Indochina and the Pacific rather than in Manchuria and Siberia. The significance of this became clear two years later when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler asked Japan to invade Russia from the east, but the Japanese refused. With his eastern flank secure, Stalin was able to transfer most of his Siberian divisions westward on the Trans-Siberian railway. These extra troops were crucial for the Red Army, which relied mostly on strength in numbers against the more disciplined and tactically astute Wehrmacht. Furthermore, if the Red Army had lost at Khalkhin Gol, Zhukov, one of the few competent generals to have escaped Stalin’s purges, may not have survived. Instead, his reputation enhanced, he was chosen by Stalin to lead the crucial and successful defence of Moscow and subsequent counter-attack in the winter of 1941/42. In the spring of 1945, he would lead the Red Army to the gates of Berlin.
Beevor’s 993-page volume exceeds Hastings’ by 125 pages. About a sixth of this difference comes from the focus on Khalkhin Gol; the rest stems from Beevor’s slightly more detailed descriptions of military tactics. Hastings, as he writes in his introduction, aims ‘to illuminate the conflict’s significance for a host of ordinary people of many societies, both active and passive participants – though the distinction is often blurred.’ This involves many more words from the letters and diaries and written accounts of the time. In this department Hastings comes out on top.
Another interesting difference is in each historian’s description of one of the war’s most important figures, Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on the 10th of May, 1940, as the Wehrmacht prepared to invade the Low Countries and France. As one might expect from a Daily Mail columnist, Hastings is generous in his praise of Britain’s war-time leader: ‘glorious rhetoric’, ‘grace, dignity, wit, humanity and resolution’ and ‘epic personal achievement’ are just some of the phrases he employs when discussing Churchill in the chapter ‘Britain Alone’. By contrast, Beevor, describing the same period, opts only for ‘pugnacious’, and points out that responsibility for the Norway failure in April 1940 was much more the fault of Churchill (then Lord of the Admiralty) than of Neville Chamberlain, as the former admitted privately after he had usurped the latter.
A more minor but equally telling dissimilarity is the account of Ireland’s role in the conflict. Though in 1939 still part of the Commonwealth, the Irish government of Éamon De Valera maintained a strict neutrality throughout the war, even to the point, Hastings icily notes, of denying British ships access to Irish ports, a decision which fatally widened the Atlantic ‘air gap’. Hastings attributes this to De Valera’s ‘fanatical loathing’ of his British neighbours, and takes time at the end of the book to document De Valera’s notorious offer of official condolences to the German embassy in Dublin following Hitler’s suicide on the 30th of April, 1945. Beevor, by contrast, makes no mention of Ireland or De Valera.
One common feature of the two volumes is the eye-witness testimony of the Soviet Russian journalist Vasily Grossman. Both employ Grossman’s famous description of Russian civilians fleeing the German advance towards Moscow in October 1941:
I thought I’d seen retreat, but I’ve never seen anything like what I’m seeing now… Exodus! Biblical exodus! Vehicles are moving in eight columns, there’s the violent roaring of dozens of trucks trying simultaneously to tear their wheels out of the mud. Huge herds of sheep and cows are driven through the fields. They are followed by trains of horse-drawn carts, there are thousands of wagons covered with coloured sackcloth, veneer, tin… there are also crowds of pedestrians with sacks, bundles, suitcases. This isn’t a flood, this isn’t a river, it’s the slow movement of a flowing ocean… hundreds of metres wide.
Both also include a much more stomach-churning observation from the same front. When a Soviet fighter plane landed back at its base with human flesh stuck to its radiator a quick examination ended with a gruesome and gleeful conclusion: “Aryan meat!” ‘Everyone laughs,’ a war reporter noted. ‘Yes, a pitiless time – a time of iron – has come!’
It was from this ‘time of iron’ that Beevor wrote his most famous book, about the great battle for the City of Steel, Stalingrad. While Hastings describes the Battle of Stalingrad in a broader chapter on the decisive year of 1942, Beevor devotes a separate, 20-page chapter to it. The irony in Beevor’s efforts is that, as both historians note, neither the fanaticism with which Hitler attacked the city nor the stubbornness with which Stalin defended it bore any relation to its strategic value. Just as Hastings’ praise of Churchill complements his earlier book Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940-1945, so Beevor’s admittedly gripping chapter on Stalingrad may prompt one to purchase his earlier work on the battle for the city that carried Stalin’s name.
Incidentally, among the millions of prisoners taken by the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union was the aforementioned Yang, who had been shipped west following the Nazi assault. He languished in a German prisoner of war camp for a year before being conscripted into the Wehrmacht and transferred to Normandy, where he was captured by American troops following the D-Day landings in June, 1944. The many personal accounts Hastings includes have a greater emotional weight than those of Beevor, but for sheer grandeur and improbability, nothing can surpass the tale of Yang Kyoungjong.
A further, more modern comparison of these two immense books is whether they work better in print or ebook form. For those able to handle (in all senses) more than 800 bound pages, the print versions display the numerous maps and photos with much greater clarity, while also allowing for quicker reference. They also provide a richer psychological reward; one almost wants to suffer some minor physical discomfort while reading of so much cruelty and suffering.
Published two months apart in 2012, these two histories provide, in different ways, enthralling and erudite accounts of humanity’s most shameful hour. If I recommend not one but both it is because such an endeavour would double one’s knowledge of a conflict whose intricacies and horrors are almost endless.