World War Two: A Short History

Ashley Jackson commends a masterful - and concise - account of the horrific sprawl of the Second World War

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Reviewed by: Ashley Jackson
Author: Norman Stone
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £16.99

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Written with customary verve, Norman Stone’s account of the Second World War is an elegant and authoritative history. Brief but never breathless, it finds space to reflect on the post- 1918 causal context of this global tragedy, as well as to consider its ramifications after 1945.

Stone’s breadth of coverage is impressive, his intimacy with European history pronounced. He paints a finely balanced picture on the grand canvas of world war, affording the unspeakable eastern front its full due, and thoroughly explaining the Sino-Japanese struggle that collided with the rise of European fascism to create a truly global conflict.

Viewed from such a soaring height, the epochal extraordinariness of the war is powerfully rendered. Focusing on the key contours provides a sweep that reduces, for example, the Desert War or the Italian campaign to their proper (and, of course, not inconsiderable) station, and avoids the nationally focused perspective that dogs some other general accounts.

Stone’s strident narrative conveys a commanding sense of how it all fitted together: why Romania was important, for instance, as well as Burma and Iran; the significance of strategic bombing, armament production figures and new weapons technologies; the turn towards the ‘final solution’; and the derangement of the new German reich.

Despite all of that, it remains a familiarly ‘grand’ history, not a people’s history: a tale of strategy, major belligerents, dominant personalities, famous battles, and the struggle for industrial production. The text is peppered with interesting asides and morsels that hint at the depths of material behind the headlines, and the author’s familiarity with it.

There are deft sketches of generals and politicians, references to ‘sideshow’ campaigns and plenty of detail documenting human endeavour and suffering. Sometimes, an element of map fatigue creeps in as battles rage in the Russian vastness or across the Pacific; on other occasions, the confetti of statistics – how many troops, how many tanks, how many tons of shipping sunk or shipping produced – can boggle the mind. But this is just the way of it, the barely imaginable scope of the Second World War, “the nightmare that sits at the heart of the modern era”.

Stone describes the conflict – or the great multiplicity of national, ethnic and colonial clashes that comprised it – as “a total refutation of any notion of human progress and a conflict which still haunts us 70 years on”. It was a war driven by the “fanatical illusions” of madmen – Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Japan’s attack on the west, Stalin’s willingness to lose lives by the million, Mussolini’s delusions – and the gambles that attended them. Fuelled by the post-1918 intransigence of the victor powers, they caused a gory six-year mayhem that Stone captures with both concision and confident judgment.

There is hardly a shortage of general narrative accounts of the Second World War, with recent popular offerings coming from ‘big names’ including Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor and Andrew Roberts. Slightly older works include the late John Keegan’s tome, and behemoths from Gerhard Weinberg and Guy Wint (et al). A Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World War II has just been published, and a multi-volume Cambridge History of the Second World War is in preparation. But Stone’s product sets up its stall in a separate marketplace because of its brevity.

As an “attempt to convey what can almost not be conveyed,” especially to “those who have no memory of the conflict,” this is probably as compelling a general account as it is possible to contain in fewer than 300 pages. If you know your Second World War inside out, rushing to the bookshop to pick up a copy may not be necessary (other than perhaps for the pleasure of Stone’s prose). If you don’t, however, you might want to take this as your starting point and begin the ascent from here.

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Framed by pithy summaries of the interwar years and the conflict’s aftermath, Stone brings coherence to the story of this remarkable war. John Masters, wartime Gurkha officer and postwar novelist, wrote that “the war was an enormous, overshadowing, moving monster, far bigger than I imagined it would be”. Norman Stone has painted a compelling portrait of the beast.