A Brief Second World War

By Benjamin Schwarz

May 2002 ATLANTIC

 

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The Second World War: A Short History

by R. A. C. Parker
Oxford University Press, 330 pages, $15.95

At last this book is back in print. Military historians try to impose order—but not an artificial order, with tidy accounts of battles and neat blocks and precise arrows on maps—on events characterized, even defined, by chaos. This is always a daunting task. It is nearly impossible when the subject is not merely a battle or even a campaign but World War II—the most complex and important event in modern human history. A number of accomplished historians—among them John Keegan, Gerhard Weinberg, Martin Gilbert, Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint, Williamson Murray, and Allan Millett—have written single-volume accounts of the war. But this one, originally published in 1989 as Struggle for Survival and revised in a British edition in 1997, is by far the best. Briskly written, The Second World War manages to be at once succinct and thorough, sharp and nuanced, as it elucidates various aspects of the conflict—air, naval, and ground operations; war finance; military technology; propaganda; and changes in tactics, to name a few—along with its disparate theaters and campaigns: the North Atlantic, Western Europe, the Pacific, China, North Africa, Italy, Russia, and the Balkans. Unlike most other one-volume chronicles of the war, which concentrate almost exclusively on military operations, The Second World War puts the conflict in the widest context, surveying its political, diplomatic, demographic, and economic ramifications as well (R.A.C. Parker, who died last year, was primarily a scholar of pre-war British diplomacy). In addition to its other virtues, this trenchant, elegant survey contains the most lucid summation I’ve read of the Nazis’ murder of the European Jews. Parker’s accounts of both this fraught subject and the almost equally contentious topic of strategic bombing are cool and balanced; his judgments are skeptical and subtle yet sure.

Alas, The Second World War has a single, but egregious, flaw. Parker’s magisterial view of the conflict forces him to conclude, quite correctly, that “the great Russo-German land battle determined the whole course of the war.” But, in common with every other British or American history of the war, Parker’s treats the Eastern front cursorily. (His decision to assess the second Battle of El Alamein in greater detail than the Battle of Kursk—the pivotal event of the war and the largest battle in history—is indefensible.) Everyone who wants to be well informed should own—and read—this chronicle. But to truly grasp the war the reader must pair Parker’s book with the authoritative survey of the epic Russo-German struggle, David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s When Titans Clashed (1995). Ultimately, Parker failed to impose order on the war; but no one has come closer.

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