Europe at War 1939-1945, by Norman Davies

War crimes - and blunders
Click to follow

Although the Second World War ended over 60 years ago, it still reverberates in culture and politics. The history shelves of bookshops sag under the weight of tomes chronicling all aspects of the 1939 to 1945 global conflict. Yet, as Norman Davies points out, there is still no single volume that gives a satisfactory overview of the war, encompassing every theatre, and giving due weight to each. No historian has managed to write a global history that does as much justice to the home front as to the combatants. More seriously, historians writing in different national contexts continue to churn out patriotic and partial accounts.

Despite the passage of time and the decline of divisive ideologies, the history of the war still exists in fragments. This lack of consensus was exposed by the discordant celebrations in the US, Europe and Russia to mark the 60th anniversary of its end. In the fine opening passage with which he begins this onslaught on the myths and misconceptions of the war, Davies shows how politicians could barely agree when the war began, let alone what it had been about.

His chief concern is with the double standards that inform popular history and academic studies. As a leading historian of Poland, Davies sees the war through the eyes of a country occupied and violated by two totalitarian juggernauts, and on both occasions abandoned by the democracies. The Poles have little patience for the "anti-fascist" version of history, perpetuated by the Left, in which the democracies led by Churchill and Roosevelt made common cause with Stalin to defeat evil. To Davies, the war was actually "a clash of two evils".

Stalin outdid Hitler in mass murder. His concentration camps were bigger. During the conflict British and Americans remember as "the good war", he deported millions of innocent people to Siberia. Davies smashes the myth that between 1941 and 1945 the life of Soviet citizens improved. Wartime Russia resembled a vast prison camp harnessed to a formidable war machine. The Red Army raped and pillaged its way across Europe, imposing a new terror on the countries it "liberated".

So far, so good. Unfortunately, Davies feels that if he is to judge the Soviets by the principles they helped set down at the Nuremberg Tribunal, he must do the same to the other Allies. He accuses the British and Americans of miscellaneous "war crimes", such as the bombing of Dresden, which are contentious at best. His equally laudable intention to restore balance and proportion to the geo-strategic perception of the war, showing that its centre of gravity was in Eastern Europe, leads him to belittle every other theatre.

He dismisses the North African campaigns and the Mediterranean theatre, despite the superb work of Douglas Porch and others that demonstrates it was the hinge of Allied success. Davies claims the Axis "cut their losses" in Tunisia when, in fact, Hitler kept sending troops and material there until the very end. He writes that "a modest Allied amphibious force crossed from North Africa to Sicily", when it landed more men than Operation Overlord did in Normandy a year later.

Davies chides Montgomery for his "snail's pace progress" after the break-out from Normandy, whereas the Allied forces advanced so far, so fast that they outran their supply lines. In his effort to impress on readers the titanic nature of the struggle on the Eastern Front, he asserts that "Soldiering in the western armed forces was not particularly hazardous". This is an unforgivable insult to the men of the rifle and tank companies in the Allied infantry and armoured divisions that commonly absorbed over 100 per cent losses (counting the casualties among replacements) as they slogged from Normandy to the Rhine.

It is more disturbing to find Davies losing his grip when dealing with Eastern Europe. The German Field Marshal Walther Model would have been flattered to learn that he "skilfully extracted the remnants of Army Group Centre" from the great battle of encirclement unleashed by the Red Army in June 1944. In fact, when the trap shut, the army was annihilated and Model only plugged the hole with troops rushed from other fronts. Davies even gets confused between the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and the Nazi-backed coup in Budapest in October. This is important, because the timing has implications for understanding the Nazi onslaught against the Hungarian Jews.

But Davies is no surer when dealing with the Holocaust. He states, bizarrely, that the Germans cleared Jews from the Rhineland in 1933, although the area was not fully under German sovereignty until 1936. According to him, "Bulgaria was the only Axis country to deflect insistent German demands for the deportation of its Jews". Romania and Finland also refused to hand over "their" Jews to Adolf Eichmann. Davies also misplaces Eichmann. He locates the man responsible for organising the deportations in the "Race and Resettlement Office" of the SS Main Office, whereas he operated out of Office IVB4 of the Gestapo.

Davies says he recognises the singularity of the genocide against the Jews, yet also holds that it was "not exceptional, either in scale or in pain". One might have more sympathy for his attempt to situate the attempted extermination of the Jews in a comparative context if he got his facts right about the other atrocities. What is his evidence for asserting that "Auschwitz had consumed several hundreds of thousands of Catholic Poles"? It seems extraordinary to dub the barbaric displacement of 600,000 Poles a "limited exercise in resettlement" just because the Nazis had even grander plans, albeit unfulfilled, while Stalin managed to best them in both theory and practice.

Davies raises difficult questions about collaboration and victimhood, and the way that memory and history has been framed since 1945. But this could have been accomplished just as well in a shorter book. Instead of a vigorous essay he has produced a strange hybrid, somewhere between a history and a handbook, perfunctory where it is not perverse. While undoubtedly readable, it is also unreliable. I have seldom read a book with so many errors, so badly edited. Davies comments that "A bad historian is even more dangerous than dead documentary wood". How true.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of 'Eichmann: his life and crimes' (Vintage)