“The frightening thing we learned during the course of World War II,” wrote the physicist Isidor Rabi, “was how easy it is to kill people when you turn your mind to it.” He was referring specifically to advances in weapons technology, in particular the atom bomb. But he was also painfully aware of how a moral collapse made killing easy. As Antony Beevor shows in “The Second World War,” ethical erosion did not stop at mere killing. In various countries, prisoners were used for medical experiments, and women were enslaved for sexual exploitation. In Germany, scientists developed techniques for rendering corpses into soap and leather. In the Pacific theater, some Japanese troops habitually ate POWs. During the war, atrocity was limited only by the confines of the human imagination.
Recounting carnage of this magnitude is a challenge that often overwhelms the historian. The problem is one of breadth and depth — the author must capture the immensity of war without smothering the reader in detail. Beevor has demonstrated, through his previous books on Stalingrad, D-Day and the fall of Berlin, that he understands precisely how to balance meticulous research with captivating prose. (Too often, historians can do one but not the other.) One senses, nevertheless, that those earlier books were just building blocks to this, his magnum opus.
Beevor’s book reveals how insubstantial are the stanchions that buttress individual morality. When societies collapse, killing becomes easy. Bountiful human creativity is then directed to the problem of slaughter. For instance, German soldiers, burdened with Jewish prisoners, ordered them to pile themselves head to toe — the “sardine” method. The technique meant that space in mass graves was more efficiently used and ammunition conserved.
Granted, we already knew that World War II was brutal. What, then, can Beevor add to this horridly familiar tale? Or, stated differently, do we need another history of that war? Yes, we do. While the war itself remains a constant, the way it is viewed evolves according to changing moral perceptions. In late 1945, for instance, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal decided to suppress evidence of cannibalism in order not to traumatize the families of soldiers who died in Japanese prison camps. Beevor thinks that this once-taboo story needs now to be told. He’s probably right. His skill lies in telling it without descending into gratuitous horror.
The challenge that confronts historians is how to convey the immensity of total war without losing sight of singular torment. Too often, the grandeur of great battles smothers the suffering of the individual. Soldiers become battalions that attack on faceless flanks. “One death is a tragedy,” Stalin famously remarked. “A million deaths a statistic.” In the grand narrative, human beings disappear. War is thus sanitized; Stalingrad and Normandy are re-created without the detail of men and women screaming in agony. That is how some readers like it — war without the carnage and putrefaction, without the dismembered limbs and torn faces.
But that is chess, not war. Good military history should stink of blood, feces and fear. Beevor’s book stinks. It reconstructs the great battles but weaves in hundreds of tiny instances of immense suffering. War is presented on its most personal level. We learn not only of the vanity of Gen. Mark Clark, the cruelty of Gen. George Patton and the stupidity of Gen. Maurice Gamelin, but also of the terrible misery endured by what the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley once called “the millions of mouthless dead.” Very few heroes emerge, because heroes are too often cardboard constructs. Detail adds nuance and dimension, clouding characteristics worthy of worship. “Say not soft things as other men have said,” warned Sorley to those who wanted to remember war. Beevor constructs a true picture by avoiding soft things. The book brims with horror, but so it should.
Beevor begins with the incredible tale of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army in 1938 and sent to Manchuria. In 1939, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp. When the Russians ran short of soldiers in 1942, they gave Yang a rifle and dispatched him to the Ukraine, where the Germans eventually captured him. When they ran short of soldiers, they sent him to Normandy, where he surrendered to the Americans in June 1944. He ended the war a POW in Britain.
Beevor calls Yang a “striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of . . . overwhelming historical forces.” That is true, but the value of this book lies in the way the author deals with those overwhelming forces. Too often, war is presented as a Frankenstein’s monster — an enormous ogre that man creates but cannot control. That, however, can be a copout, an attempt to evade responsibility for war’s horror. Beevor accepts that this war was much bigger than any of its participants but still manages to show how single individuals — be they great or small — added small points of hideous detail to a grand narrative of carnage.
So, yes, there was room for another big book on World War II. Now that Beevor has finished, that shelf is full. His book is the definitive history. This is World War II as Tolstoy would have described it — the great and the small.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Antony Beevor
Little, Brown. 863 pp. $35