An excellent read is marred by factual errors, says Roger Moorhouse
Nicholas best has written an engaging tableau of eyewitness accounts of the dying days of the Second World War.
Beginning with the execution of Mussolini near Como in northern Italy on 28 April 1945 and ending with Germany’s surrender at Lüneberg on 4 May, Best ranges across what remained of the front line in Europe, and beyond; from Holland to Berlin, San Francisco to northern Italy.
In essence, the book is a simple agglomeration of the memoirs and diary accounts of those that witnessed these momentous days, albeit with a dash of context for good measure. Many of the accounts and the events that they describe will be well known to readers, but there are also a few surprises to leaven the traditional fare, such as the story of Operation Manna – the Allied airdrops of food to the Dutch – or the bloody liberation of Dachau.
Best enlists many of the usual suspects for his narrative, but has also done well to hunt down some rather more obscure sources, and throws in a sprinkling of celebrity stardust, with contributions from the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. Even Joseph Ratzinger makes a cameo appearance.
Inevitably, given the book’s breadth, there are errors, but there are some surprising ones that should really have been caught.
The Soviets are referred to throughout as ‘Russians’ – a common shorthand, perhaps, but a misleading and inaccurate one, nonetheless – Himmler’s mistress is incorrectly named, Goebbels is erroneously umlauted, the list goes on. Plus, the spartan endnotes do little to inspire confidence in the author’s research, and lend the book a worrying whiff of journalistic licence.
Yet, it must be said that Best’s narrative skills are so beguiling that it is easy for the reader to overlook such inadequacies and be swept along by the tale. This book might not satisfy
the purist, but can most definitely be read for the simple pleasure of a good story well told.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Vintage, 2011)