The madness of myths
From The Economist print edition
WHATEVER you think about the second world war is wrong, and this book will prove it. That, at least, is the contention of Norman Davies, a trenchant British-born historian whose scope, ambition and knowledge about Europe are unmatched. His aim in this new history of the war is to puncture the comfortable myths created by the combination of popular culture (especially in films) plus the self-centred history taught in schools.
Decades of junk history have given most if not all citizens of the countries that participated in it a picture of the war that is distorted, incomplete, or sometimes downright wrong. Britain's much-praised Dunkirk spirit and suffering during the Blitz is a sideshow compared with the gore and grit of occupied Poland. Most countries define second world war “war crimes” as something committed only by Germany and her allies; difficult subjects, such as Allied atrocities or Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, get short shrift.
Mr Davies's biggest demolition job is of the factual errors and ignorance that support the complacent national versions of wartime history. One notable example is the British myth that says that the island fortress stood “alone” against Hitler in 1940, which rudely neglects the efforts made by the Poles, Greeks and others.
But these pale beside the monstrous failure of the Western powers to appreciate, then or later, the nature of their Soviet ally. The biggest and bloodiest struggle by far of the European war was between two gangster regimes whose awful treatment of their own people and neighbours is unmatched before or since. That, argues Mr Davies, makes it hard if not impossible to say that the war was any kind of struggle between a good and evil side.
The Western alliance with Stalin and its consequences is the central theme of this book. But along the way the author pokes mercilessly at misapprehensions large and small. The war was not fought to stop the Holocaust. British and American readers may be surprised to learn (though they shouldn't be) that their countries' role in land warfare was so feeble. El Alamein, the much-praised British victory in north Africa, was a mere pub brawl compared with the battles of Midway and Stalingrad.
Mr Davies's two main weapons are the devastating statistic and the unexpected comparison. Stalin's death camps killed more people than Hitler's. America's army in 1939 was smaller than Poland's. The casualties of the 1944 Warsaw uprising were the equivalent of the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, every day for two months.
The effect is powerful and, for the most part, convincing. The war was an appalling and complicated mess, in which heroism, individual and collective, was balanced and often outweighed by cowardice, cruelty and incompetence, and—worse—dreadful compromises and surrenders dictated by realpolitik and dressed up in the language of patriotism and morality. After reading this book, not every reader will rethink his or her view of the war altogether, but most will find their thinking enriched and stimulated by new facts and viewpoints. The muscular prose and spiky jokes are treats too.
What is sometimes missing—oddly, in a book that aims chiefly to supply the missing context—is a sense of fairness and proportion. Mr Davies is sometimes so keen to puncture myths that he sounds almost vindictive. It is true that the British population suffered very little compared with the Poles. But that does not make what he calls Churchill's “gamble” to fight on in 1940 any less splendid. The sardonic iconoclastic tone that distinguishes the rest of the book seems to disappear when his beloved Poland is concerned. Most importantly of all: what was the West supposed to do when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union? Cheer him on? Stand back? Or reluctantly assume that one's biggest enemy's biggest enemy is to some extent one's friend.
Mr Davies's book also contains a number of irritating, trivial errors. U nas mnogo, a Russian phrase, for example, does not mean “we are many” but “we've got lots”. Readers' confidence in Mr Davies's judgment might be even greater if he got the small things right too.