1939: In the Shadow of War by Robert Kee
Kirkus Star

1939: In the Shadow of War

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1939 as contemporaries knew it, through the newspapers, not as history finds it: that's what British newsman and historian Kee (The Green Flag, Ireland: A History) aims for--to unusual, unsettling effect. This is not a montage of incidents but an integrated narrative, divided into three time-segments--of which 1 January-15 March is the largest, and the cornerstone. The year remembered for its explosive end begins in Britain ""under a sort of cloud of relief"" on account of the recent Munich Agreement. Hitler is looking to German interests eastward--perhaps he will let France and Britain be. There is some perturbation about his intended elimination of Jews--but only cautious, guarded action. Mussolini looks most immediately bothersome--fighting for Franco in Spain, pressing claims against France in the Mediterranean and North Africa. In Spain itself, government forces hold Catalonia, as well as the area around Madrid, despite the arms embargo. Churchill and others, of course, continue to attack appeasement. In Kee's level reconstruction, some of the firmest voices are American. FDR, in his January address to Congress, urges amendment of the neutrality laws: ""There comes a time in the affairs of men. . . ."" The New York Times' Berlin correspondent warns: ""Today some eight million Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe are facing the choice of emigration or strangulation. . . ."" Throughout the year, the ""Jewish problem"" persists and Hitler's other intentions remain in doubt . . . even after he enters Prague in March. Was there evidence? Here, Kee's record shows a Third Reich touchy about its aspirations--and a masterful Fuehrer. Responding to a Roosevelt appeal, he first takes up Danzig and the Polish Corridor: ""just as [the Poles] desire access to the sea, so Germany needs access to her province in the East."" Roosevelt he twits--for his rhetoric, for ""one or two historical errors,"" for his intervention. (Doubtless the size of the US made the world seem s small ""that you perhaps believe that your interventions and actions can be effective everywhere."") To illustrate, rather tritely, that international affairs were not all-consuming, Kee slips in some of the usual song titles, films, and such--and also follows the course of two celebrated British murder cases. In Barcelona or at the Old Bailey, Kee tells a dandy story; in both instances, he distinguishes between press-engendered expectations, and the eventuality. The year absorbs and surprises; and so, often, does the news. The reader may draw multiple conclusions from both.

Pub Date: March 30th, 1984
Publisher: Little, Brown