Finest Hour

Currently reading: All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings, a history of the Second World War*

Currently watching: The World at War, a documentary series about the Second World War

Currently playing: Company of Heroes, a real-time strategy game set in…  the Second World War

Probably a bit unhealthy, this. The Second World War has always exerted a strange fascination on me. I remember a BBC dramatization of, I think, the Battle for France, but only one scene: the commanding officer of a group of captured British soldiers goes out of the shed they are being held in to ask their captors for water. The camera watches from inside the shed as he is shot at point-blank range, and then the rest of the prisoners are machine-gunned. I was horrified by the cruelty of it all. Later, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the media was full of features about it, and again, I was horrified – horrified, and humbled – by the sacrifice, by the gruesome stories of soldiers joining comrades on the beach only to find that they were actually dismembered corpses. That memory has stuck with me to the extent that I am now incredulous when I see how few lives, relatively, were lost on the beaches of Normandy – it simply doesn’t fit my childhood image of all-encompassing horror.

In a previous post, I suggested this horror was one element of what makes the Second World War so compelling. Upon reading that on average, 27,000 people died every day from 1939 to 1945, you can’t help putting things in perspective. While military history as self-help might seem at best absurd, at worst a bit exploitative, I genuinely do believe there is a lot to be learnt from the experiences of those who lived through the war. For example, coming off the back of reading a lot of Camus and Voltaire, this quote from Max Hastings’ Bomber Command:

“‘Strangely, for everyone, the acceptance and the giving-up of hope create and reinstil hope in a kind of reverse-process mental photonegative function. Little things become significant. The next meal, the next bottle of booze, the next kiss, the next sunrise, the next full moon. The next bath. Or as the Bible might have said, but didn’t quite, Sufficient unto the day is the existence thereof.’ […] ‘To be allowed to continue to live – nothing else mattered.’”

is just splendid. **

To my mind, what is consistently fascinating about the Second World War, more, perhaps, than any other period in history, is the sheer scale of everything. Not just the number of casualties, which isn’t so much an element of interest as the sobering fact underpinning it all. Nor is it just the scale of the military forces involved, the production efforts  (in 1943, the Soviet Union built 43 T-34 tanks every day), the material devastation. That may be by turns awe-inspiring and sobering, there’s something more.

At every turn when studying WW2, one is confronted by humanity pushed to extremes; political extremes, obviously, but also the extremes of cruelty and kindness, heroism and cowardice, incredible ingenuity and stunning blunders. Nothing seems half-hearted – while this may just be an consequence of writers of popular histories only quoting the best material, that they have such rich material to draw upon is telling.

These extremes were reproduced again and again across the world. Every front in the conflict has its own story to tell, and each of those stories is the story of hundreds, thousands of lives – for the most part, ordinary lives. At first glance, that whole history books have been written on the battle for one tiny Mediterranean island seems mad, but maybe that explains the enduring fascination with the period – sixty-seven years on, we haven’t run out of stories to tell.


*I had set out to make this a review of All Hell Let Loose. It clearly isn’t. It’s a very good book, if you’re interested in WW2, go for it.

**incidentally, I’ve just started readingsome Ernest Hemingway, and was reminded of the following quote from For Whom The Bell Tolls:

““There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.””