There are, of course, enough books about the Second World War to fill the Grand Canyon. There are illustrated books, novels, personal memoirs and narratives. In my rather limited experience there’s not too much in print which could be called ‘a commentary.’ But a commentary is exactly what this book seems to me to be. It presumes that the reader has a reasonable knowledge of the events of the war. Perhaps even, there is a presumption that those who read the book have certain views about the right and wrongs, good and evil and winners and losers of the war in Europe. If that’s the case then many will have their ideas about the conflict rudely shattered.
Davies acknowledges throughout that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped him enormously as he prepared his reflections on the greatest conflict in history. The end of the Soviet Empire led to the increased availability to the researcher of papers long since buried in the deepest vaults of the Soviet Union and its subject countries. This must also explain why so many books about the war have been published since 1989.
One theme running throughout the book is that there was not one but two totally evil dictators operating throughout the war; Hitler and Stalin. Indeed, if one was choose the most dreadful of these two, one might choose Stalin based on the exhaustive evidence in Davies’ book. That’s not to excuse in any way the utterly appalling atrocities committed by the Nazis but, as Davies points out, Stalin was practising mass murder long before the Fuhrer. In a way, this overall theme is the one aspect of the book which troubles me personally because I’m not sure when I first became aware that Stalin was such an ogre. I was a boy when he died in 1953 and I do remember folk chatting about Krushchev’s de-Stalinisation speech of 1956 but later evidence suggests that only a tiny fraction of the truth was revealed. Growing up, I became aware that the Russians were the ‘bad guys’ in the Cold War as they controlled the governments of the majority of East European countries. But Stalin as a mass murderer? I think it is only now that I’m learning the truth.
The other theme that stood out to me was anti-Semitism. I have never for one second in my life had even the tiniest inkling of an understanding as to why the Jews have been so atrociously treated throughout history. We all know about the Holocaust but were we aware that pogroms continued long after the war had finished in many Eastern European countries, notably Poland whose treatment of the Jews had been almost as bad as the Nazis prior to 1939? Many survivors of the death camps were not made especially welcome when they returned to their homes after the war. This was not just in Poland, where there was more than one disgraceful pogrom, but throughout Western Europe where many returnees were treated with indifference and even distaste. No wonder many of them turned their backs on Europe and headed for Palestine.
Norman Davies’ book Europe at War looks at the war from many aspects, far too numerous to be listed here. He looks at the war, for example, from the point of view of children, writers, film makers and photographers, poets, women and politicians. He examines the effects that the war had on heavy industry and agriculture, on life behind barbed wire in prisoner-of war camps, concentration camps and slave labour camps. He examines the lives of those who lived under occupation and looks at the war at sea , in the air, on land and the armaments that were developed during the conflict.
In the introduction, the author describes the book as an ‘essay.’ This is strictly speaking true but it’s a five hundred page essay with exhaustive footnotes and a magnificent index. Highly recommended. Not to be missed.