I have just finished reading Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us, which I found compellingly absorbing. Fast-paced and refreshingly short at no more than 270 pages of text, the book covers every aspect of war from prehistoric times to the present first hesitant steps in remote hostilities. This page-turner nevertheless had me pausing frequently to reflect and to question accepted views of the various aspects of war. As the author points out, conflict is not some kind of old-fashioned aberration we will grow out of but an essential part of the human condition, which will be with us as long as we last. It is therefore well worth taking time off to read this book and reflect.
On the subject of war, other books published in the past few years deserve to be singled out for their thought-provoking reassessments of the Second World War.
Roger Moorhouse’s First to Fight. The Polish War 1939 is the first thoroughly researched study of the war’s opening campaign. Using German as well as Polish sources, Moorhouse reveals what a breakthrough this first operation of the German army was, not just, as it is commonplace to state, in terms of mobility and the use of air power. It was from the outset a complete departure from what had become accepted rules of war and evolved standards of behaviour. Not only were civilians purposely targeted, with carpet bombing of towns having no military or strategic significance and strafing peasant women picking potatoes in the fields. It was the attitude of the Wehrmacht that was most unexpected. In most European wars over the past few centuries, soldiers have tended to treat their counterparts on the other side with a degree of fellow-feeling and even admiration if they demonstrated exceptional gallantry. Using German sources, Roger Moorhouse reveals that in September 1939 the officers and men of the Wehrmacht viewed their Polish enemies as beneath contempt and any prolonged resistance as insolence. As a result, when units surrendered on running out of ammunition after a heroic defence, they were maltreated and in many cases simply machine-gunned or incinerated with flame-throwers while still clutching their white flag.
Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning explores the same territory with wider scope and at greater depth. He explains that when considering the Second World War, the whole area lying between Germany and Russia should be treated separately from the rest of occupied Europe, as the conditions applied there by the invaders were fundamentally different from those obtaining in France, Holland, Belgium, Greece and elsewhere. Both the Germans and the Soviets were bent on destroying the very concept of the existence of nations such as the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other Baltic peoples, let alone the vast numbers of Jews living in the area, in order to be able to incorporate the space into their own states with only a small residue of leaderless slaves who could be exploited in any way and ultimately worked to death. The Germans were only marginally more ‘scientific’ in their approach than the Soviets. Both abolished every aspect of statehood – government, ministries, the legal and educational systems, newspapers, publishing houses, cinemas, theatres and public institutions of every sort, thereby reducing the area to a lawless condition comparable only to the Leopoldine Belgian Congo, in which former citizens became mere inhabitants of a no-man’s-land, human fodder without any rights, not even the right to life. The subject may sound repellently grim, but Snyder writes with such a gentle touch that one does not feel oppressed by it, and he provides so many fascinating insights that the reader is compelled to read on, and there are unexpectedly redemptive episodes and examples of humanity; as in all human affairs, nothing is quite black or white.
These two books are brilliantly complemented by Mary Fulbrook’s Reckonings. Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, which touches on the same aspects of the War from the perspective of both victims and perpetrators as they rebuilt their lives after its end. Her beautifully nuanced study goes a long way to explain how and why ordinary people are capable of committing atrocities in certain circumstances and then return to the comfortable banality of their former lives. It is not only full of fascinating facts and testimonies but it also gives one much food for thought, particularly on the subject of how populations can be swayed or manipulated even when they think they are sticking to their principles. A lesson for our and all times.