Ordinary people in hell

Antony Beevor’s new volume advances the progress of military history towards more detailed analysis

By David Cesarani, October 18, 2012

The Second World War / By Antony Beevor / Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25

Churchill:  historian of, as well as major actor in, Second World War

Churchill: historian of, as well as major actor in, Second World War

British military historians are in the vanguard of a genre that has been given new life. Today, it is as much about the routine experience of servicemen and women as it is about strategy and tactics. Nazi ideology and the fate of the Jews is integrated into the narrative and informs analysis of decisions made at the highest to the lowest levels.

J F C Fuller’s ground-breaking 1948 account of the Second World War was subtitled: A strategical and tactical history, and was just that. But Fuller disliked Jews and was silent about the Nazis’ racial war. Churchill’s failure to mention the fate of Europe’s Jews is more surprising. His young researchers had to prod him into making reference to the mass murder of the Jews towards the close of his very personal war history. Basil Liddell Hart’s best-selling narrative, published in 1970, does not have an entry for Jews in the index.

Perceptions began to change in the 1970s, following the appearance of books about what was now identified as the Holocaust, along with a greater appreciation of events in Russia and the Far-East. The TV series: The World at War included an episode on genocide, R A C Parker’s short history, published in 1989, had a chapter devoted to the impact of the war on Europe’s Jews.

Antony Beevor’s The Second World War is the first attempt to provide a comprehensive, global narrative for a wide readership. Max Hastings’s All Hell Let Loose. The World at War 1939-1945, published last year, was innovative and impressive insofar as it placed the catastrophe of Europe’s Jews alongside those of other civilians. But Hastings eschewed analysis in favour of capturing the range of experiences from abysmal misery to heroic zeal.

From his first pages, Beevor shows that antisemitism impinged on policy, in Moscow as much as in Berlin. When Stalin decided it was necessary to conclude a non-aggression pact with Hitler, he sacked his Jewish foreign minister, Maxim Litvinoff, and ordered the NKVD to purge the ministry of Jews with the words: “Clear out the synagogue”.

The future of Jews and non-Jews in German-occupied Poland was determined by racial thinking. The racism that pervaded the ranks of the German armed forces powered a wave of looting, rape, and casual murder from the outset of hostilities. Jews were automatically associated with communism and blamed for any opposition to the occupation.

Hitler attributed British bellicosity to Jewish plutocrats manipulating Churchill. He believed it was necessary to subdue the Soviet Union in order to destroy Jewish Bolshevism and ultimately take on the “Jewish-dominated” USA.

Beevor lays bare the complicity of the German army in the “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union — “Most soldiers were convinced by Hitler’s claim that the Jews had started the war” — and is unsparing in his descriptions of the anti-Jewish violence of German troops and their local collaborators.

He is less sure-footed on the development of Nazi policy from the “Shoah by bullets” to the “Shoah by gas”. Although he gives chapters to both, and mentions the deportation of Jews when describing the occupation in various countries, he makes slips. He repeats the legend that the deportations took up scarce rolling stock when the trains that took Jews to the death camps were actually a minuscule fraction of German rail transport.

Drawing on the wartime journalism of Vasily Grossman he provides a powerful description of Treblinka, making the point that it “established a more intense killing cycle than Auschwitz-Birkenau”. He recounts the Treblinka uprising well, but mangles the Sonderkommando revolt in Birkenau.

Despite such hiccups, Beevor has set a new benchmark and those going to him for an account of the conflict will find themselves unavoidably confronted by the tragedy of Europe’s Jews amid the cataclysm of war.

David Cesarani’s biography of Disraeli in the Yale series on ‘Jewish Lives’ will appear next year.

Last updated: 8:45pm, October 18 2012