The Second World War: A People’s History
Joanna Bourke
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
£14.99/$25.00, ix-270 pages, ISBN 0192802240.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Few subjects have received the same historical coverage as the Second World War (World War II for the Americans, the Great Patriotic War for the Soviets/Russians and the Greater Asia War for the Japanese, as Bourke reminds us on p.3). First, of course, there are the hundreds of ‘popular’ books, very often large-size albums with a profusion of illustrations, which perpetuate the old clichés on ‘our glorious allies’ and ‘our vicious enemies’. Leaving aside all the ‘personal narratives’ on the theme of ‘my war against the Japs’ or ‘my escape from Stalag XYZ’, bookshop shelves are also full of ‘special interest’ publications, primarily for ‘military buffs’, which detail all the versions of the Spitfire plane or the German Tiger tank, the nastier ones being devoted to the minutiae of SS daggers.

Academic histories of the war have been written from many points of view, and often with very different axes to grind: historical interpretations of the Second World War were often themselves weapons in the Cold War which followed it – or were the result of it, as many would continue to argue, and in defeated and occupied countries like France books on the war years were too often inspired by considerations of domestic politics. A considerable number of historical controversies subsist, leading to an unabating flow of monographs and articles, from the evaluation of the motives of the Appeasers1 to the use of the Atom Bomb.

How then can one write a History of the Second World War in 270 pages2, even ‘limited’ to A People’s History? This is the challenge which Bourke boldly takes up, with mixed results. The intended format of the book is that of a chronological narrative interspersed with personal testimonies, generally in the form of extracts from published diaries and letters written by participants and eye witnesses. In practice, however, the narrative takes up most of the text. The number of pages devoted to each of the subjects gives the reader an idea of the difficulty: The Declaration of War in Europe3 (17); Occupied Europe (22); Battle of the Atlantic (8); War in China, Burma, and India (19); War in South-East Asia and the Pacific (26); Italy, the Balkans, and the Desert (19); The Holocaust (25); Liberating Europe (13); Hiroshima (25); Aftermath4 (26); The Memory of War (11). Every one of these topics already fills whole libraries: it is only by an extraordinary tour de force that one can hope to subsume such a quantity of facts, most of enormous military complexity, often themselves the result of an extremely complicated historical legacy, and with vast economic, ethical, ideological, psychological and geopolitical implications, in a maximum of 26 pages.

This tour de force is probably beyond the reach of human endeavour, and one is often irritated to find important omissions in Bourke’s text, however excusable they may be due to lack of space. A case in point is the discussion of Germans-posing-as-victims on p.220: the point made for the Germans would have found an even better demonstration in the case of Austria, ‘the first victims of Nazism’ according to post-war mythology, but there is no mention of that country anywhere in the book. One can also find fault with the reductionist approach (again, no doubt dictated by space limitations) adopted for exceptionally sensitive questions like the ‘complicity’ versus ‘coercion’ interpretations of the German population’s behaviour regarding Jewish persecutions and later extermination. The ‘Goldhagen thesis’5 is only mentioned in allusive terms, and recent fieldwork like that of Gellately is totally absent from the discussion6, just as his latest – and important – book is omitted from the bibliography7. The point here is not that the actual text tells us too little: it is that indications for further reading for those who are interested in the complexity of that subject are cruelly lacking8. The same holds good for Bourke’s discussion of the debate on Collaboration-versus-Resistance in France since the Liberation: she can be excused for not exploring all the contradictions which are so closely related with the French political divide, but there should be more on it in the ‘Further Reading’ section than Kerward’s Occupied France: Collaboration and Resistance, 1940-1944, since historical research on the subject has moved very fast since 1985, when that book appeared. Bourke cannot be accused of neglecting publications on German and French history while giving all her attention to those on Britain, since a modern classic like Angus Calder’s The Myth of the Blitz is not only not referred to in the notes when discussing the myths of Dunkirk and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ (pp.35-36), but also totally absent from the bibliography, like his The People’s War, surely another major publication on wartime Britain which at least deserved a mention. Here again, the section on ‘Further Reading’ only has three and a quarter pages, which does not make it very helpful for the layman who wants to know the state of the art as far as the historiography of all these complex topics is concerned.

For the academic reader, however, the major source of irritation is the scarcity of footnotes. Some scholars multiply the number of footnotes ad libitum in an attempt to impress their readers, but Bourke goes to the opposite extreme. The typical result is a discussion like that on ‘Hiroshima’ on pp.186-187, where we find many sentences beginning with ‘Many commentators now argue that…’ ‘In contrast, others argue that…’ ‘Finally, recent research has…’ ‘Other commentators place less emphasis upon’: nobody doubts Bourke’s professional ethics, nobody would suggest that these sources do not exist, but even though a little intellectual stimulation is never bad for the reader (‘Who are those others who place less emphasis, I wonder? Now, let me think!’ and this kind of mental titillation) we would like her to quote chapter and verse, or perhaps their names (which would at least be some help), in the end notes, if only because we might be tempted to have a look at the books and articles written by these mysterious ‘commentators’. Whetting the intellectual appetite of one’s readers by referring them to important examples of original research should be one of the primary ambitions of any serious academic author.

The book therefore begs the question: for whose readership is it intended? Not for the ‘popular’ market, obviously. The publisher and the austere format, with excellent little-known black-and-white contemporary photographs, mostly of harrowing scenes of extreme cruelty and distress, make this clear. No ‘exciting’ scenes of ‘action’ and ‘derring-do’ here. The book is also not a monograph of original research, but an attempted synthesis of the existing historical work on the Second World War. As such, it is too ‘serious’ for a middle-brow buyer, but too ‘sketchy’ for the serious scholar, especially with the paucity of footnotes and indigent bibliography considering the size of the subject. The undergraduate, who can be tempted by the unusually low price for a ‘scholarly’ hardback, will also deplore that the book cannot really be used as a tool for further research. If we leave aside History teachers in secondary schools, who would also presumably like to know the names of the ‘commentators’, there only remains the ‘educated public’, whatever that expression may mean. That public will find the narrative extremely clear, with no jargon9, and the maps and chronology will no doubt be very helpful while the notes and bibliography are largely sufficient for its needs. The ‘readable’ serious history book on the Second World War par excellence – why not? And congratulations to Joanna Bourke for writing it, as few of us would have been capable of doing it so competently.


1 Of course, nowadays only their motives remain in dispute: hardly anybody would defend the efficacy of their policy. Here, the conciseness of the book makes its limitations only too obvious. When Bourke mentions ‘the “guilty men” ’on p.14, the origin of the expression, arguably a very interesting point of British domestic politics, is not only not explained, but it does not even deserve a note. May we remind readers of this review that the book Guilty Men was recently reprinted by Penguin Books with a new Introduction by Michael Foot, one of the three co-authors of the original (1940) volume by ‘Cato’? Likewise, on page 167, the reader who is unfamiliar with Lord Haw-Haw will be extremely puzzled by the short explanation given: ‘(alias for William Joyce, who had fled from Britain at the beginning of the war and worked as a broadcaster in Germany)’.

2 Some Atlases and some Chronologies of the war have more pages in themselves.

3 This includes what is generally known as ‘The debate on the origins of the Second World War’.

4 This includes Decolonisation and Reconstruction

5 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf (distributed by Random House), 1996. x, 622 pp.

6 Except perhaps in disguised form in the sentence on p.152: ‘One of the most disheartening results of recent research has been the realization of the widespread popular complicity in the mass murder of Jews and other groups’.

7 Robert Gellately. Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Oxford: University Press, 2001. xvii, 359 pp. Likewise, no mention is made of Eric A. Johnson. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York: Basic Books, 1999. xx, 636 pp.

8 For people who can read French, an excellent starting-point would be the special issue on ‘La violence nazie’ of Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 47-2 (2000) and Aycoberry, Pierre. La société allemande sous le IIIe Reich. Paris: Seuil, 1998, 434 pp. Bourke’s ‘Further Reading’ makes no mention of the copious historiography in German (well served in ‘La violence nazie’).

9 And almost no mistakes. ‘65,000 kilometres still held by Soviet troops’ (p.128) must surely be ‘square kilometres’. ‘War memory in the Soviet Union is masculine’ (p.220) should either be ‘was masculine’ or ‘War memory in the former Soviet Union’. One is also puzzled by the expression ‘Butcher Harris’ on p.163, with absolutely no mention of his far more common nickname, ‘Bomber Harris’.