Atkinson (The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, 2007, etc.) brings his Liberation Trilogy to a resounding close.
The war, of course, ended in Allied victory—though, it often seems even in these closing pages, just barely. Among the challenges were not just a ferocious German war machine that refused to stop grinding, but an Allied effort often hampered by internal disagreements and the inevitable jockeying for power. One skillful player was British general Bernard Montgomery, whom Atkinson captures with a gesture in an opening set piece: “With a curt swish of his pointer, Montgomery stepped to the great floor map.” That map provided a visual survey of Overlord, the great 1944 multipronged invasion of Normandy, of which the author’s long account is masterful and studded with facts and figures. Many of the key actors—Eisenhower, Patton—will be well-known to American readers, but others will not, not least of them Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the oldest general at D-Day and perhaps the bravest as well. American readers may also not know that British and Canadian troops landed elsewhere in Normandy on that day and paid a fearful price; Atkinson is to be commended for giving equal billing to those Allies. Toward the end, those Western Allies finally worked out some of their big differences, just in time for the final savage campaign of winter 1944–1945, which included the Battle of the Bulge. Atkinson assumes little outside knowledge of his readers, so his story is largely self-contained; as such, with the other volumes in the trilogy, it makes a superb introduction to a complex episode in world history.
An outstanding work of popular history, in the spirit of William Manchester and Bruce Catton.
A thoroughgoing, long-overdue excoriation of the actors behind the humanitarian crisis that propelled the creation of Bangladesh.
Bass (Politics and International Affairs/Princeton Univ.; Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, 2008, etc.) largely lets the words of President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger from White House tapes reveal their perfidious actions on the world stage during the Pakistan-India crisis of 1971-1972. Nixon’s deep distrust of India—which he viewed as an ungovernable cauldron of Soviet-leaning liberals, lefties and hippies—and his longtime support of the military in Pakistan disastrously steered his and Kissinger’s resolve not to stay the hand of Gen. Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan against a dissenting East Pakistan in March 1971. In the terribly divided nation, reeling from a cyclone that had caused a massive loss of life, the democratic elections had trounced Yahya and overwhelmingly elected Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, who had hinted at autonomy if not succession for the East Bengali entity. Yahya’s ensuing military crackdown instigated a bloodbath against Bengalis and Hindus that was witnessed and carefully documented by the horrified staff at the American embassy in Dacca. Led by ambassador Archer Blood, whose cries of “genocide” were baldly dismissed by Nixon and Kissinger, the embassy sent a collective “dissent cable” to Washington chronicling their alarms. These leaks allowed Sen. Edward Kennedy and others to expose the truth of Nixon’s illegal military supplying to Pakistan. In his tremendously lucid analysis, Bass reveals the cold cunning of all sides in the face of the killing and fleeing of millions of refugees into India, including Indira Gandhi, who turned the humanitarian disaster into political profit. By revisiting these tapes and other primary sources, Bass holds these leaders to a much-needed reckoning.
A deeply incisive lesson for today’s leaders and electorate.
A superb account of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Often stepping back to discuss leaders and histories of the numerous Allied units (British, American, French, Polish, Italian, Indian, Canadian), Caddick-Adams, lecturer in Military Studies at Britain’s Defence Academy (Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives, 2011), gives equal time to the fewer, if painfully efficient, German defenders. Using interviews, journals, letters and official records from both sides, he delivers a relentless, blow-by-blow description of small-unit actions enlivened by more than the usual number of vivid personal accounts. Caddick-Adams does not quarrel with historians who argue that Hitler won the Italian campaign since the Allies, despite winning every major battle, never threatened Germany. Few disagree that the February 22 bombing of the abbey was not only unnecessary, but also positively harmful. The German high command had announced that the monastery would not be occupied; the only deaths inside were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge. German troops occupied the rubble, now an ideal defense, and repulsed attacks for a further three months. Fortunately for civilization, two Nazi officers had earlier urged and overseen the evacuation of the abbey’s immense library, archives and paintings to safety in the Vatican.
There is no shortage of histories of the agonizingly drawn-out debacle at Monte Cassino, but this is certainly one of the best.
A massive, wide-ranging chronicle of the events, personalities and failures of the run-up to World War I.
Clark (Modern European History/Univ. of Cambridge; Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, 2006, etc.) lays out the long and violent history of Serbian nationalism, the confusion in the dying Austro-Hungarian empire and the struggle for dominance between the British and Russian empires. While explaining the irredentist mindset of Serbia then, the author also illuminates the causes of the Balkan unrest that erupted again in the 1990s. Surely he read every journal, letter, accounting and government document related to every nation and player in this period; indeed, there are points where some readers may wonder if this is a case of research rapture. Patience will be necessary to wade through the myriad details. However, given the vast amount of available material on World War I and the daunting task of trying to produce a readable account, Clark has succeeded admirably. The most remarkable fact about the crisis that led to this war is that none of those involved had any clue as to the intentions of not only their enemies, but also their allies. In fact, they weren’t absolutely sure who the enemy would be. Consequently, many, including Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II, tried to head off the conflict right up to the end, each waiting for someone to do something as the world stumbled into war.
For readers who seek a quick overview of one of the most convoluted periods in history, look elsewhere. For those who enjoy excellent scholarship joined with logical composition and an easy style of writing, save a (wide) spot on your bookshelf for Clark’s work.
A small but crucial sampling of war reporting by one of the finest journalists of her generation.
Marie Colvin (1956–2012) was one hell of a reporter, right up to the point where she was killed by an IED while under intense shelling by the Syrian government. This collection only scratches the surface of nearly 20 years of war reporting for the Sunday Times, but it’s a remarkable portrait of the raw wounds of conflicts that burn on, even in times the Western world considers to be “peace.” The collection is sensibly divided into both chronological and geographical sections, and it spans the globe. If there was a hot spot in the world, Colvin seems to have gotten there, from the war in Libya to the genocides in Kosovo to the disproportionate response of Moscow to the Chechen uprisings. There are unusual interviews with figures like Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gadhafi, but one of Colvin’s many gifts was ferreting out the story of the common people suffering through unimaginable horrors—e.g., the girls raped as the result of systemized terror under Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe; the untrained, illiterate forces of the Afghani military expected to take over for the full force and fury of the American incursion. If journalists are expected to suffer for their stories, Colvin paid the full price for capturing these stories: Her nose was broken by a rock thrown by Palestinian demonstrators while she was posing as a Jewish settler; her eye was punctured by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in Sri Lanka, an event that led to her iconic eye patch. In her 2001 acceptance speech for a humanitarian award for courage, she pondered whether the stories were worth the damage: “Simply: there’s no way to cover war properly without risk. Covering a war means going into places torn apart by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that.”
More than just a war story; a harrowing examination of the tolls of the world’s conflicts.
An intensively focused study of the ill-begotten launch of the Great Game in Afghanistan.
Who would gain control of the portal to India: Britain, France, Russia, the Sikhs or the Afghan tribes themselves? And was there really cause for alarm at imperialist advances or a “dysfunctional” intelligence gathering by both the British and Russians? In his exciting, exhaustive study, British historian Dalrymple (The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, 2007, etc.) sheds light on the enormously convoluted rationale for the First Anglo-Afghan War, ostensibly provoked by Britain in order to reinstall the compliant Shah Shuja ul Mulk (chief of the Sadozai clan) to power in Afghanistan over Dost Mohammad Khan (chief of the Barakzais), who supposedly favored the Russians. In truth, the war exposed the greediness and ignorance of all sides: protecting the interests of the East India Company and catering to the competing ambitions of major players like Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, Polish agent Ivan Vitkevitch, William Hay Macnaghten and Scottish agent Alexander Burnes. The British garrison was soon outnumbered 10-1 by the rebel forces of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammad’s able, ferocious son; forced to surrender and retreat in ignominy back to India, the British left Shuja to fall to Dost’s assassins in April 1842 and gained virtually nothing save a more defined border. Dalrymple sagely points out that while the Afghans learned a valuable lesson from this early conflict, namely a firm rejection of foreign rule and a sense of nationalist integrity, the Western powers did not and, indeed, still perpetuate a policy of folly and waste.
A rich excavation of both British and Afghan sources, with gorgeous colored reproductions of Muslim and romantic renderings of the action and characters.
A gracefully presented narrative of the 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, which was based on a 1954 novel that was based on an actual Comanche kidnapping of a white girl in 1836.
Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington Post reporter Frankel (Journalism/Univ. of Texas; Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa, 1999, etc.) focuses on the American Southwest and the relationships between American Indians and whites. The author begins in 1954 with a shocking moment—director Ford, well into his cups, punching Henry Fonda in the nose. And away we go on a remarkable journey from Hollywood to Monument Valley and into the past as Frankel digs into American cultural history, unearthing some gold. He spends many pages telling the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the kidnapped girl. The Parkers searched hard for her afterward, but it was not until 1860 that she was re-captured in the bloody Battle of Pease River. By then, she was in every way but genetically a Comanche. Her transition back to white society was painful, and after some moments of celebrity, she fell into obscurity. One of her Comanche children, though, who came to call himself Quanah Parker, emerged as one of the principal spokesmen for American Indian causes. Frankel pursues Cynthia Ann’s and Quanah’s stories with gusto then, nearly 200 pages later, shifts his attention to Alan LeMay, author of The Searchers and nearly a score of other novels. Then it’s on to John Ford and the making of the film with John Wayne. An epilogue deals with the amicable reunions of the Parker descendants and relatives, white and Comanche.
A thoroughly researched, clearly written account of an obsessive search through the tangled borderland of fact and fiction, legend and myth.
Does the world need another book on that dismal year? Absolutely, if it’s by Hastings (Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945, 2011, etc.). After many accounts of World War II, the veteran military historian tries his hand, with splendid results.
Most readers will be familiar with many of the facts. When Austria mobilized to take revenge on Serbia for its role in the June 1914 murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Russia protested. Austria’s ally, Germany, warned it to keep its hands off. Russia’s response was only mildly threatening, but it wasn’t mild enough for the pugnacious German general staff. Deciding war was inevitable, they convinced a dithering kaiser, and the dominoes fell. Who’s to blame? Hastings loves Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 classic The Guns of August but agrees that her verdict—everything got out of hand; it was no one’s fault—is passé. Hastings shows modest respect for the German school, which blames Germany; historian Sean McMeekin, who emphasizes Russia's role; and even Niall Ferguson, who believes that Britain should have remained neutral. He concludes that national leaders (mediocrities all, with a few frank dimwits) focused with paranoid intensity on selfish interests, that stupidity trumped malevolence, and that German paranoia won by a nose. World War I historians deplore the slaughter at the Somme and Verdun, but these pale in comparison to the final months of 1914, when modern weapons mowed down armies who still marched in dense masses led by mounted officers with colors flying and bands playing. Readers accustomed to Hastings’ vivid battle descriptions, incisive anecdotes from all participants, and shrewd, often unsettling opinions will not be disappointed.
Among the plethora of brilliant accounts of this period, this is one of the best.
A grim, original study of the nurses, teachers, secretaries and wives who made up a good half of Hitler’s murderers.
Doing “women’s work” included participating in the entire Nazi edifice, from filling the government’s genocide offices to running the concentration camps, Holocaust Memorial Museum historical consultant Lower (History/Claremont McKenna Coll.) proves ably in this fascinating history. With a third of the female German population engaged in the Nazi Party, and increasing as the war went on, the author estimates that at least 500,000 of them were sent east from 1939 onward to help administer the newly occupied territories in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltics. They were also enlisted to run Heinrich Himmler’s Race and Resettlement Office, work in military support positions, and serve as teachers and nurses in the field hospitals and on train platforms. As key “agents of the Nazi empire-building, tasked with the constructive work in the German civilizing process,” why were so few brought to a reckoning after the war? Sifting through testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews and pursuing the stories of a dozen key players, the author exposes a historical blind spot in this perverse neglect of women’s role in history. She finds that, similar to American women being allowed new freedoms during the war years, young German women often seized the chance to flee stifling domestic situations and join up or were actively conscripted and fully indoctrinated into anti-Semitic, genocidal policies. Many were trained in the eastern territories, and some of their select tasks included euthanizing the disabled, “resettling” abducted children and plundering Jewish property. The women’s newfound sense of power next to men proved deadly, writes Lower. That their agency in these and other crucial tasks was largely ignored remains a haunting irony of history.
A virtuosic feat of scholarship, signaling a need for even more research.
McMeekin (History/Koç Univ.; The Russian Origins of the First World War, 2011, etc.) treads familiar ground but delivers a thoroughly rewarding account that spares no nation regarding the causes of World War I, although Germany receives more than its share of blame.
Historians love to argue about who started World War I. Blaming Germany fell out of fashion soon after the Armistice succeeded, replaced by an interpretation that blamed everyone, exemplified by Barbara Tuchman’s classic 1962 Guns of August. Within a decade, German scholars led another reversal back to their own nation’s responsibility. Russia, huge and backward but rapidly modernizing, was the key. German military leaders led by Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, believed Russia would attack Germany as soon as it felt confident of victory and that only a preventive war could save the nation. Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s murder by a Serbian terrorist proved a godsend. Austria yearned to crush Serbia, the pugnacious Balkan nation stirring up the Slav minority in Austria-Hungary’s rickety empire. Von Moltke decided it was time to set matters right since Austria’s cooperation was guaranteed. Russia’s refusal to stop mobilizing in support of Serbia allowed him to warn that it was about to attack and that Germany had to strike first. It did so by invading Belgium on August 4, the act that made war inevitable.
Tuchman remains irresistible, and David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer (2004) is the best modern history, but McMeekin delivers a gripping, almost day-by-day chronicle of the increasingly frantic maneuvers of European civilian leaders who mostly didn’t want war and military leaders who had less objection.
After World War II, why did the United States admit many high-level ex-Nazis for a variety of purposes (the space program, anti-Soviet espionage) but relentlessly pursue prison guard John Demjanjuk?
Rashke (Trust Me, 2001, etc.) follows the bizarre, jagged trajectory of the various trials of Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker from Cleveland whose tangled experiences in the war sent him from courtrooms and jails in Ohio to Tel Aviv to Munich, sites where he was variously accused of being the heinous Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka (a charge ultimately dropped) to serving as a guard at the Sobibor death camp, a charge of which he was ultimately convicted when he was 90 and dying. But Rashke, whose research is prodigious, has a much busier agenda than just the Demjanjuk case. He also describes the numerous other cases of ex-Nazis brought to America, many quietly under the aegis of the FBI, the State Department or the CIA, war criminals (in many cases) who escaped prosecution because of their usefulness in the U.S. Some were high profile (rocket scientist Werner von Braun at NASA); others flew totally below the radar until Soviet and American archives opened decades later. Throughout, Rashke raises moral questions (is it conscionable to employ ex-Nazis?) and draws distinctions (what’s the difference between working for and working with an occupying force?). His accounts of Demjanjuk’s various legal proceedings are swift but also enriched by much relevant quoted testimony. The author also explores the profound passions of all involved—from the families of those whose relatives suffered and died in the camps to the Demjanjuk family and their Ukrainian-American neighbors who never believed the accusations.
A richly researched, gripping narrative about war, suffering, survival, corruption, injustice and morality.
Before the Greatest Generation, there was the Forgotten Generation of World War I, the remaining members of which are depicted in this gloriously colorful swan song.
It’s stunning to think that the last veteran of the American Expeditionary Forces of World War I, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at the age of 110, but more amazing perhaps is the fact that there were “dozens” of aged veterans still around by 2003, when New York journalist Rubin (Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, 2002, etc.) took on the task of tracking them down and interviewing them. The French did a better job of recording and honoring them, mainly since they were truly grateful for the Americans’ stepping in and driving back the Germans after four years of mostly brutal stalemate, while back in the U.S., the veterans didn’t have a GI Bill or much recourse. From the numerous interviews Rubin conducted with these extraordinary people during the last 10 years, he conveys a vivid glimpse of an entire society gradually brought into the conflict, from the 1917 book, Arthur Guy Empey’s Over the Top, which first brought the experience of fighting in the trenches home to Americans, to the Tin Pan Alley hits that sold the war to the people, to the lost regionalisms spoken by the centenarians who shared their stories in a lucid, forthright manner. Most were farm boys and laborers who signed up in the initial excitement of spring 1917 (“I was just looking for—for a life,” one mused), admitting they had nothing against the Germans, especially considering most were sons of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Rubin’s subjects tell of meeting Gen. John Pershing, getting gassed, manning the machine guns, and being continually horrified and, above all, lucky to get out alive.
A wonderfully engaging study executed with a lot of heart.
An illumination of a crucial battle within “the war to end all wars” redefines the power and possibilities of graphic narratives.
Sacco (Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, 2012, etc.) has long focused his artistry on conflict, but this is a radical formalistic departure. First, it is wordless—no dialogue, no narrative. Second, it is pageless—a 24-foot-long panorama, which opens like an accordion. Third, it is chronological, to be viewed (read?) from left to right, as the optimistic illusions of the British soldiers advancing on Germans turns into a tragic, bloody massacre. On this first day of the Battle of the Somme—July 1, 1916—almost half the 120,000 British troops who had somehow expected an easy victory were dead or wounded by nightfall. It was, writes historian Hochschild (To End All Wars, 2011) in the booklet that accompanies the art, “the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country’s military, before or since.” The booklet also includes an author’s note, in which Sacco explains his decision to focus on this one day and the inspiration of both the accordion panorama and the medieval tapestry. He also writes of a challenge that ultimately adds to the richness of the art: “Making this illustration wordless made it impossible to provide context or add explanations. I had no means of indicting the high command or lauding the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.” The work comprises 24 plates, with three on each of the yard-long panels of the accordion foldout, as the faceless soldiers fall to their bloody, anonymous deaths.