BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Second World War’

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* Roosevelt’s exaggerated view of Chiang Kai-shek as a fighting ally and a stable force in China led to many unnecessary frustrations in the war against Japan.

Mr. Beevor does not spare us immersion in the visitation of the horrors of war upon civilians, nor should he have, if World War II is to be accurately understood. The book reveals:

* The inhumanity of Japanese troops in their gratuitous slaughter of civilians and prisoners of war, including the use of prisoners for live bayonet practice. It also included the deliberate policy of saving prisoners, particularly on bypassed islands and bases, for cannibalism in the event stores of provisions ran out.

* The enormous scope of mass murder of prisoners and civilians by the German SS and the Hungarian Arrow Cross in areas of occupation, amounting to millions.

* The continental scale of mass rape of civilians by Soviet troops, particularly in their sweep westward across Poland and Germany.

* The effort by the German Nazi Party and army officials to maintain order in Berlin during the last months of the war by frequent use of executions on the street of individuals thought to be seeking escape from the Russians or deserting from their defense units. The use of “flying courts martial” became a deterrent as the Russians drew near.

Mr. Beevor does not slight his report of war against the Japanese, by land, air and sea. He reports the skepticism of Adm. Ernest King regarding the need to assault so many island bases of the Japanese in the Philippines, when bypassing them might have shortened the war and saved lives. But he wisely stops short of taking sides in the argument, given the difficulty of proving the merit of decisions never made.

In this reviewer’s view, the author’s conscientious effort to set out jarring and comprehensive truths imposes on the reader an obligation to read in the same spirit, to respect the size of the undertaking and not look for corroboration of the reader’s pet theses, favorite heroes or villains. The immensity of the events and the seriousness of the effort to report them dwarf such personal hobbyhorses. Mr. Beevor’s book gives us the opportunity to comprehend the greatest, most dire event of the 20th century — and tells us more about human nature than we may wish to know.

David C. Acheson is a former president and CEO of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

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