Second World War: A Peoples History
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
£14.99/$25.00, ix-270 pages, ISBN 0192802240.
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 Peoples 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 Bourkes
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 populations behaviour regarding
Jewish persecutions and later extermination. The Goldhagen thesis5
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 Bourkes 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 Kerwards
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 Calders 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 Peoples 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
Other commentators place less emphasis
upon: nobody doubts Bourkes 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 ones 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.
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
Some Atlases and some Chronologies of the war have more pages
This includes what is generally known as The debate on
the origins of the Second World War.
This includes Decolonisation and Reconstruction
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Hitlers Willing Executioners:
Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf (distributed
by Random House), 1996. x, 622 pp.
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.
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
For people who can read French, an excellent starting-point
would be the special issue on La violence nazie of Revue
dhistoire moderne et contemporaine 47-2 (2000) and Aycoberry,
Pierre. La société allemande sous le IIIe Reich.
Paris: Seuil, 1998, 434 pp. Bourkes Further Reading
makes no mention of the copious historiography in German (well served
in La violence nazie).
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.