Friday, October 22, 2021

The Second World War, by Dominic Sandbrook

I raced through this enthralling, vivid account of the Second World War, part of a new series written by Dominic Sandbrook for his eight year-old son. There's a lot of pluck and excitement, largely told from the perspectives of individual eye witnesses, ordinary soldiers and civilians as well as the brass. There are accounts from children caught up in the action, from women and ethnic minorities - the war not exclusively Boy's Own.

I should declare an interest: I know Dominic a bit, have made three short documentaries with him for the Doctor Who DVDs, and his history-for-adults book White Heat was extremely useful when I wrote my book on The Evil of the Daleks and my audio play The Home Guard.

Much of his account of the war is familiar - key battles, famous speeches, the real people who inspired the movies. What really struck me is how Dominic conveys the "world" bit of the war, cutting from events in Europe to Khalkin Gol or Singapore, or how the war in the deserts of Africa differed from experience in Burma. The Nazi attack on Stalingrad, for example, feels very different in the context of everything else going on at the same time.

It's all told in a breathlessly engaging, slightly tabloid tone, all short paragraphs and direct quotations. Yet this is skilfully  peppered with nuance and an eye for historical irony. Here's Hitler touring the newly conquered Paris, having posed for photographs in front of the landmarks:

"At the chapel of Les Invalides, Hitler stood for a long time before the tomb of Napoleon, another ordinary soldier who had risen to become an all-conquering emperor. Then, without a word, he turned away.

For the man who had painted postcards [in Vienna], this bright morning in August 1940 was the greatest moment of his life. Twenty years earlier he had been a nobody. Now he was the master of Europe.

After just three hours, the trip was over. It was only 9 o'clock in the morning, but Hitler had seen all he wanted.

As they drove back the airfield, he said quietly: 'It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris. I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.'

At that moment, Speer glimpsed the lonely, pathetic human being behind the mask of cruelty, and felt 'something like pity' for him.

Then the mask slipped back into place, and Hitler's familiar stern expression returned. And a few minutes later, as silently as he had arrived, the dictator was gone. He never came back." (p. 128)

There are a few notable absences - such as nothing on the V2. But my only objection is the lack of an index and that Sandbrook doesn't cite his sources - "I don't have room," he tells us in his note on page 353. I find this frustrating with the Horrible Histories books too: that you can't check the claims made with such authority. "History is sources," as a former tutor used to tell us sternly. (And, ahem, it helps when I inevitably pinch bits of this to use in other things...)

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