Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory by Norman Davies
Some times a reviewer writes that a particular historian “makes the past come alive” – Norman Davies does not do this. What he does is more subtle and in many ways more important. Norman Davies’ gift is to get us to take a new look at the past that we thought we knew – to make you think again about those events that someone else may have made come alive, but that Davies has put into a new context. If you think you know the history of World War Two then you need to read this book. What Davies has done is not so much write a new history of World War Two, but instead write an outline of what such a new history might look like. Each of the seven chapters challenges key assumptions or myths that are commonly held about World War Two. Interestingly enough, the military history of World War Two – what is usually the entire book in most histories of the War – is covered in only one chapter. Most of the book is devoted to other aspects of the war, such as civilians and politics, a welcome counter-balance.
A key theme in the book is the notion of moral equivalence – that we should judge crimes by their enormity, not by who committed them. If we condemn the German concentration camps then we must equally condemn the Soviet Gulags, it should not matter to an objective history that one set of crimes were committed by those on “our side”. Likewise we should not write (or read) “victors’ history” and pre-judge World War Two as a fight between the forces of right and good on one side, and evil on the other. If we look carefully we can see that the vast preponderance of fighting (and, Davies argues, the most important fighting) occurred between Nazi Germany and the Soviets on the Eastern front. One of the conclusions that Davies draws from this is that we can see World War Two as being, in the main, a brawl between two gangsters – Hitler and Stalin – with the Western Democracies largely as bystanders.
I found the main thrust of the book wholly convincing, and whether one agrees with him or not, I think that any history of World War Two written after this will be required to address the issues that Davies raises. In short a must read if you are interested in military history, the history of World War Two or the history of Eastern Europe.