Toward the end of this powerful narrative of World War II, Antony Beevor quotes a report, by the Australian war correspondent Godfrey Blunden, of an encounter with some American troops who had just been released from German P.O.W. camps. They had been in Europe only a few months, thrown into combat and almost instantly captured during the Ardennes offensive, Hitler’s last big throw of the dice. The men now had “xylophone ribs” and “gangling arms.” Some of their fellow prisoners had been beaten to death by their guards for attempting to take sugar beets from fields. Blunden wrote: “They were more pitiful because they were only boys drafted from nice homes in a nice country knowing nothing about Europe, not tough like Australians, or shrewd like the French or irreducibly stubborn like the English. They just didn’t know what it was all about.”
Did anyone else? Even today, the meaning of this horrible, epic war remains elusive. In “The Second World War,” Beevor calls it “the greatest man-made disaster in history.” That description is very plausible; less so is his idea that it was part of an “international civil war between left and right.” In 1941 the veteran anti-­Communist Winston Churchill allied himself with Joseph Stalin, frustrating the efforts of the Nazis to turn the war into an anti-­Bolshevik crusade. Nor were the Japanese much concerned that President Roosevelt was (relatively speaking) a man of the left; they attacked Pearl Harbor because of American threats to their interests, not to their ideology. On the other hand, ideological slogans could be strong motivators. Men clung to the idea of fighting for the Führer, or for the emperor, to keep them going in the face of certain defeat. Russians, for their part, were encouraged to fight for the motherland, rather than for the ideals of international socialism, in what was labeled the Great Patriotic War.
In the West, national values were wrapped up with the concept of freedom — more so, perhaps, than with ­democracy, which seemed to many people a rather less tangible concept. But whether the outcome of the war was experienced as a victory for freedom depended very much on who you were and where in the world you happened to live. The Soviet advance into Eastern Europe created new types of suffering, including for Russian P.O.W.’s who, after their supposed liberation, met persecution at the hands of their own government. “Abandoned by incompetent or terrified superiors in 1941, Soviet soldiers had starved in the indescribable horrors of German camps,” Beevor writes. “Now they found themselves treated as ‘traitors of the motherland’ because they had failed to kill themselves.”
Beevor does not spare us the details of such cruelties; the book is a grueling but gripping account. It is filled with stories of drowning, sickness (notably dysentery), starvation, massacre, mass rape, looting, ethnic cleansing and experiments with napalm, as well as the staggering statistics of death and injury through aerial bombing and the normal course of combat. Beevor’s trademark — which he has deployed in previous books like “Stalingrad” and “D-Day” — is the use of eyewitness testimony to deliver haunting particulars. He quotes, for example, a Red Army soldier writing to his mother in the spring of 1945: “One walks on corpses, sits down to rest on corpses, one has one’s meals on corpses. For about 10 kilometers there are two corpses of Fritzes on each square meter.”
This was not the worst. Beevor also quotes postwar investigators who found that the “widespread practice of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in the Asia-Pacific war was something more than merely random incidents perpetrated by individuals or small groups subject to extreme conditions. The testimonies indicate that cannibalism was a systematic and organized military strategy.” The horror is occasionally leavened by black comedy. Marrying shortly before their joint suicide, Hitler and Eva Braun are asked by the registrar, in line with Nazi eugenic law, whether they are of pure Aryan ­descent.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is the attention it gives to the Sino-­Japanese war, which broke out in 1937 and then merged into the larger conflict. For Beevor, this is “a missing section in the jigsaw,” and it certainly will not be well known to most Western readers. He shows us the relationships between Japan’s activities in China and the wider war elsewhere. He notes that the Soviet victory over Japan on the Mongolian-­Manchurian border in August 1939 “not only contributed to the Japanese decision to attack south, and bring the United States into the war, it also meant Stalin could move his Siberian divisions west to defeat Hitler’s attempt to take Moscow.”
Another of the book’s virtues is its clearsightedness on military issues. Beevor is no respecter of reputations. He finds both the British general Bernard Montgomery and his German adversary Erwin Rommel to be seriously overrated. Rommel “refused to accept personal responsibility” for his failures in the desert in 1942, while the escape of what was left of his forces after the battle of El Alamein was possible only because of “Montgomery’s slow reactions and excessive caution.”
Eisenhower is one figure who comes out of the book relatively well. He was a good handler of men, able to put the insufferable Monty in his place with a gentle but firm reminder of who was boss. Ike may have been politically naïve, but his April 1945 decision to halt his troops on the Elbe rather than race the Russians to Berlin, Beevor plausibly suggests, was defensible on pragmatic grounds. Beevor is also a scathing critic of Allied bombing policy, although he ducks the question of whether it was morally equivalent to the Luftwaffe’s own attacks on civilian areas.
In certain ways, this is an old-fashioned book. Over 30 years ago, the economic historian Alan Milward poured scorn on “the seemingly countless works on military history in which armies and navies come and go, commanded by greater or lesser figures deciding momentous historical issues, and nothing is said of the real productive forces which alone give such events meaning.” But Beevor is resolutely a diplomacy-and-battles man — and even the diplomatic bargaining generally takes a back seat to the bloodshed. In some respects, the focus on the carnage is salutary, as a reminder of war’s true human cost. But it is as well to remember too that there were acts of kindness and heroism alongside the folly and the murder. Almost by way of relief, we are told the story of Dr. Ara Jerezian, who helped save Hungarian Jews from death, though he was a member of the fascist Arrow Cross ­movement.
Beevor might have recounted more such episodes, without in the least risking the charge of taking too sunny an approach. It is instructive to read of unimaginable slaughter; it is equally instructive to read of efforts to transcend it.
Richard Toye’s most recent book is “Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made.”