Best single-volume histories of WWII
January 7, 2012 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Best single-volume histories of WWII, a survey by Edward Kosner

1987: Robert Leckie, Delivered from Evil [LT][AZ]
1989: John Keegan, The Second World War [LT][AZ]
1989: Martin Gilbert, The Second World War [LT][AZ]
1994: Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms [LT][AZ]
2010: Gordon Corrigan, The Second World War [LT][AZ]
2011: Max Hastings, Inferno [LT][AZ]
World War II is grand opera—a sprawling epic of power, anguish, loss and death. The great episodes in the war are like arias, familiar but so enthralling that they can be savored over and over, long after their first performance. Working from essentially the same material, Max Hastings and the authors of these and other works about the great war tease fresh meaning and insight from the score and find previously unheard grace notes that give perpetual life to this bloody extravaganza.
posted by stbalbach (47 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
I would throw in the BBC Documentary The World at War as a remarkably thorough documentary on the subject. I found most histories on the subject (sounds like a weird phrasing?) too American-centric. To me it was always, 1. France falls, 2. Dunkirk, 3. Russian pushed back. 4. USA HELL YEAH 5. USA PUSHING THROUGH 6. UH OH NAZIS PUSHING BACK WILL USA MAKE IT? 7. USA MADE IT! 8. Japan, Midway. 9. BOMB! 10. America, winning two fronts at a time!
posted by geoff. at 9:55 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The World at War was famously an ITV production. Jeremy Isaacs and all that.
posted by the cuban at 10:02 AM on January 7, 2012


Delivered from Evil is a worthwhile read for anyone who wants a broad overview of the war. I'm looking at the Weinberg and Corrigan for my Amazon list.
posted by pjern at 10:05 AM on January 7, 2012


Although I haven't read any of the other titles mentioned, I can say straight up that A World At Arms is one of my favourite books, and is 1) what got me into reading fat non-fiction books and 2) the standard against which I compare most other non-fiction.
posted by pmv at 10:08 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Keegan is the best summarizer and liveliest prose writer.

Weinberg has the most comprehensive understanding of the global event. (But his maps suck.)

Gilbert's attention to the daily civilian atrocities makes it the most accurate to the human experience.
posted by Trurl at 10:10 AM on January 7, 2012


most histories on the subject too American-centric.

Of the 6 works mentioned above, 4 are by British authors. There are many other good WWI histories by and about non-American experiences. The problem is, American's were really good at film (Hollywood and all) so they made tons of film during the war, which went immediately into the public domain (work of the US Govt), and thus starting in the 70s and 80s created an entire industry of cable TV shows regurgitating free content 24x7 in endlessly reassembled ways. So the lesson is, don't just rely on those B&W TV shows for your WWII histories.

I find it interesting the first single-volume history wasn't published until 1987 (not counting that outlier in 1948). Apparently no one thought it worthwhile, the war was thought too big to fit in a single book. But having read one of these (Delivered from Evil) I can say it's a genre unto its own that really is excellent, it's non stop drama and you really get a sense of the wars progression and context that are missing when reading about it in sections.
posted by stbalbach at 10:16 AM on January 7, 2012


World War II is grand opera—a sprawling epic of power, anguish, loss and death.

And it was the worst thing that ever happened.

A young friend of mine (mid-20s) is big on WW2 history. He recently remarked to me that the main hook for him was just how BIG it was, uncontainable -- the kind of subject one could study for a lifetime and still only be scratching the surface. I imagine he'd snort at the notion that any one volume could justify the adjective "best".
posted by philip-random at 10:24 AM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd love to find a history of WWII from the Russian viewpoint. After all, the "Eastern Front" is where the war was really fought. 90% of the German casualties and some huge percentage of the overall casualties world wide were there. As the original article quotes, "The Soviet Union," Mr. Hastings reports, "suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent . . . the United States and Britain 2 per cent each. Only 3.66 per cent of U.S. Marines died, 2.5 per cent of the Army, 1.5 per cent of the Navy."

Most of the (very little) television I've seen from the Russian viewpoint was post-war propaganda films extolling the virtues of the Motherland. Perhaps that was what it was really like?

I would summarize WWII as a giant battle between Germany and Russia, a large battle between China and Japan, and skirmishes elsewhere. The relative size of battles like Stalingrad, Kursk, etc. dwarfs much of the fighting on the Western front (which had all the film attention.)
posted by blob at 10:42 AM on January 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


That was was too big to be seriously limited to one volume...The naval war, the genocides, the Russian front, the European front, the Pacific war etc etc.
posted by Postroad at 10:54 AM on January 7, 2012


the notion that any one volume could justify the adjective "best"

In the genre of single-volume histories of WWII, these are among the best.

summarize WWII as a giant battle between Germany and Russia

This is a populist revisionist view but it's based mostly on casualty statistics as an arbiter of what constitutes involvement in the war which is misleading. Obviously the ultimate sacrifice demands attention, but the war wasn't won by Russia 65% with United States and Britain 2 per cent each, that's a distorted view. It ignores many other factors.
posted by stbalbach at 11:50 AM on January 7, 2012


William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich covers the European theatre with aplomb.

BTW, The best short history of the American Civil War is to be found in Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking People. He's no Shelby Foote, but as a short summary, he nails it.
posted by three blind mice at 12:11 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


It ignores many other factors.

You could write a whole book about it.
posted by Trurl at 12:14 PM on January 7, 2012


For those interested in the run-up to (the European theater of) the war, I'm reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson right now and it's done a pretty good job of conveying the mood and happenings among the upper diplomatic echelons in Berlin in the 1930s.

Not sure how much these huge volumes cover that aspect.
posted by Defenestrator at 12:34 PM on January 7, 2012


> I'd love to find a history of WWII from the Russian viewpoint.

I can recommend without reservation Russia's War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945 by Richard Overy and Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale. Read those and you'll have a very good grasp of what it was like for the Soviet Union and its soldiers. If you're particularly interested in Stalingrad, you'll want Antony Beevor's brilliant Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.
posted by languagehat at 2:15 PM on January 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'd love to find a history of WWII from the Russian viewpoint. After all, the "Eastern Front" is where the war was really fought.

I was recently speaking to my grandfather about his experience in the war. He told me about how his unit landed on the Mediterranean coast of France prior to Normandy. He said he put his hands up and declared "People of France, in the name of the United States I liberate you!". I thought he was telling a joke until he followed it with "Those bastards at Normandy didn't do a damn thing, I freed those frogs.".

I feel like Americas obsession with WWII is the same way. We are looking at our efforts in Italy and France and ignoring the incredible efforts of the Soviet people. I think most people would be astonished to hear that Berlin was captured not by American forces but by Soviet (granted, I think most Americans would be astonished to learn that Berlin was the capital of the Third Reich, not some floating fortress in the shape of a wolf's head).

That said, I have read the first two books recommended by Languagehat and they are fantastic.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:22 PM on January 7, 2012


I find it interesting the first single-volume history wasn't published until 1987 (not counting that outlier in 1948).

That's not true - Basil Liddle Hart wrote a fine one in 1970; I'm sure there's more.

The Gerhard Weinberg volume is a frequent go-to volume for academics who need to cite some generalist WWII stuff in their otherwise specialist volumes, and I can readily see why - it's a phenomenal work (though yeah, the maps suck).

The others I'm not so clear on, other than a recent review of Inferno by Robert Citino that critiqued it and another new single-volume history of the war (Storm of War) for relying entirely on English-language sources.
posted by Palindromedary at 2:30 PM on January 7, 2012


I'd love to find a history of WWII from the Russian viewpoint.

It's not a history book, but track down the 1985 film Come and See.
posted by rory at 2:30 PM on January 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


People reading this thread my be interested in Keegan's The Battle For History: Re-fighting World War II. He writes about the historiography of the war and recommends books on different theaters and subject areas of the war.

And nthing Weinberg's World at Arms, it really gives a sense of the global scale and he talks about the theaters you don't hear about so much: China-Burma-India, etc.
posted by marxchivist at 2:50 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd love to find a history of WWII from the Russian viewpoint. After all, the "Eastern Front" is where the war was really fought. 90% of the German casualties and some huge percentage of the overall casualties world wide were there. As the original article quotes, "The Soviet Union," Mr. Hastings reports, "suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent . . . the United States and Britain 2 per cent each. Only 3.66 per cent of U.S. Marines died, 2.5 per cent of the Army, 1.5 per cent of the Navy."

The percentage of casualties wrt population is also important. Think Poland, Yugoslavia or Greece. The economic effects of the war, the length of military occupation and the political landscape created by the war are other pertinent factors.
posted by ersatz at 2:58 PM on January 7, 2012


These books in the FPP, as well as the ones suggested in the discussion here, sound fascinating. I think I can see where my reading list for the rest of the winter is coming from...
posted by Forktine at 4:46 PM on January 7, 2012


China - First to fight!. Would be interested to know which of these gives the best account of that context. One memoir from the time by a young US journalist (and later soldier) I very much enjoyed was Two Kinds of Time by Graham Peck.
posted by Abiezer at 5:31 PM on January 7, 2012


Obviously the ultimate sacrifice demands attention, but the war wasn't won by Russia 65% with United States and Britain 2 per cent each, that's a distorted view.

You're right, 65% is way too low and 2% is way too high. The Soviet Union lost 23,400,000 people in World War II (13.88% of its 1939 population). The US lost 418,500 people and the UK lost 450,900 people.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:34 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heroes to Remember

as if not already known!
posted by Senator at 5:43 PM on January 7, 2012


Listen to the "Ghosts of the Osfront" series on Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. It covers the conflict between the Germans and the Soviet Union.

I highly recommend it.
posted by thisisdrew at 6:20 PM on January 7, 2012


Listen to the "Ghosts of the Osfront" series on Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast.

I second that, it's terrific. Persevere with his Shatnerian delivery; it really grows on you!
posted by smoke at 7:41 PM on January 7, 2012


That's not true - Basil Liddle Hart wrote a fine one in 1970; I'm sure there's more.

You are right. Interesting. I wonder why Robert Leckie's 1987 book is called Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War II: The First Complete One-Volume History. The answer probably can be found in the 1987 reviews of Leckie's book, reviewers at the time must have commented on his claim the "first complete one-volume history".
posted by stbalbach at 8:13 PM on January 7, 2012


Antony Beevor's brilliant Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943

I've heard Beevor's book contains unquestioned Soviet mythology and there are better researched books on Stalingrad. One recommendation was Michael Jones Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed, an Amazon reviewer writes:
While most would look to Beevor's "Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege" as a guide to the battle, I would tell them to not waste their time. Jones, constantly, proves how Beevor has misinterpreted the history of the battle in one way or another or rather propagated already established myths. Beevor likes to claim he works in the archives, perhaps he does, in fact I'm sure he does, but how does Jones find so much more than Beevor? How is Jones able to correct his mistakes? Does Beevor have an underlying agenda? Or is he just a sloppy pseudo-historian? I cannot tell give you an answer to these questions, but I can tell you that Craig's Enemy At the Gates written decades before Beevor's work includes everything that Beevor's work does and then some, a better book and a better starting point for those interested in the battle of Stalingrad. But, if you do read Craig's work, read this book right after as it is a must for those interested in the Stalingrad battle.
posted by stbalbach at 8:20 PM on January 7, 2012


I am on the last chapter of Max Hastings' "Inferno." While not without its flaws (and execrable proofreading that creates contextual errors), it is a brilliant overview of the great WWII--a work where the writer's voice is ever-present in the narrative. A particular strength is a wide selection of anecdotes taken from letters from the era. These contemporary voices underscore the accuracy of Hastings' conclusions. It is social history and not the ticket for anyone who wants detailed recitations of orders of battle and the minutiae of maneuvers.
posted by rdone at 9:50 PM on January 7, 2012


stbalbach: [summarizing WWII as a giant battle between Germany and Russia] is a populist revisionist view but it's based mostly on casualty statistics as an arbiter of what constitutes involvement in the war which is misleading. Obviously the ultimate sacrifice demands attention, but the war wasn't won by Russia 65% with United States and Britain 2 per cent each, that's a distorted view. It ignores many other factors.

While this might be true, I think the revisionist view is the correct historiographical direction. Winston Churchill executed one of the great PR coups in history when he published his 6-volume history of the war, placing the UK at the centre of a global conflagration. Progression from this point has had to push uphill through the Cold War and the opening of the East German and Russian archives before a full appraisal of the centrality of the Eastern Front to the wider conflict could be made. Public opinion in the UK and US still lags well behind in perceiving or recognising its importance.

At some distant future time, WWII in Europe will be viewed as a war between Germany and Russia, with peripheral incursions into Western Europe and Africa. At the moment we remain too close to the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, Rommel & Monty in the desert etc., to see them as peripheral.

I concede I am suggesting replacing one generalisation with another, but I think it more historically accurate to view the war in Europe as a war between Germany and Russia from Day One than anything else.

Nthing Weinberg. Also suggest Michael Burleigh's Moral Combat: A History of World War II.
posted by bright cold day at 6:19 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd love to find a history of WWII from the Russian viewpoint.

Try Ivan's War, by Catherine Merridale, which looks at the way the ordinary Russian soldiers and civilians experienced the war.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:47 AM on January 8, 2012


And I see that languagehat has also recommended this, so for an encore, there's Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East the History Channel recently broadcasted.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:53 AM on January 8, 2012


stbalbach, I think it's Enemy at the Gates that's full of unquestioned Soviet mythologizing (Specifically, I'm thinking of the apocryphal tale of the Soviet sniper hero). Beevor's is the more scholarly work.

If you're looking for a more Soviet-centric single-volume history of WWII I can recommend the recent Absolute War by Bellamy, or The Storm of War by Roberts.
posted by word_virus at 7:55 AM on January 8, 2012


At some distant future time, WWII in Europe will be viewed as a war between Germany and Russia, with peripheral incursions into Western Europe and Africa. At the moment we remain too close to the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, Rommel & Monty in the desert etc., to see them as peripheral.

At some distant future time, I hope that a history of the war in Europe will take a chronological approach that sees the significant and horrific events leading up to the Reich's invasion of Russia as exactly what they were -- significant and horrific chapters in what amounted to a epic and sprawling human holocaust that managed to swallow pretty much the entire continent, and beyond.
posted by philip-random at 10:07 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


bright cold day, I sort of used to think that also, but the more I study the war the less I agree with it, and it's not because of reading Churchill. Many factors were involved in winning the war, it's much too simplistic to see it as a primarily German/Soviet conflict. The war was a war of economies, who could produce the material needed the fastest. The Soviets took the brunt of the German military but the Allies in the west damaged the Germany economy and propped up the Soviet economy (lend lease). Not to mention all the stuff like destroying German heavy water to set back atomic research, control of the Atlantic ocean and neutralized German U-Boat campaign, strategic bombing of German factories and cities, and holding up a third or more of German forces waiting for a landing in France. Why did Germany put so much emphasis on U-Boats? Because it knew American material would decide the war in the end. Ask yourself this: if Germany had won the Battle of Britain and UK surrendered in 1941 and US never entered the war, do you still think Germany would have lost to the USSR? A Germany with unrestricted access to the resources of western Europe, North Africa and the middle east; a path to attack Russia through the Caucuses and Iran; no German troops tied up in North Africa or Italy. It would have been a very different outcome for the USSR. The western allies were a major part in the downfall the 3R.
posted by stbalbach at 1:12 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


bright cold day, one other important thing the allies was the Ultra decrypts that allowed them to monitor Axis communications, it was decisive, without it entire campaigns would have turned out differently. There were also Allied technology innovations like radar and airplane technology tanks etc .. I'll probably keep coming up with more so will stop now.
posted by stbalbach at 1:30 PM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Think Poland, Yugoslavia or Greece. The economic effects of the war, the length of military occupation and the political landscape created by the war are other pertinent factors.

Which reminds me, anyone interested in the impact of the war on Greece should read Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44 by Mark Mazower, a superb and horrifying book.

> I've heard Beevor's book contains unquestioned Soviet mythology and there are better researched books on Stalingrad. ... Jones, constantly, proves how Beevor has misinterpreted the history of the battle in one way or another

I'm sorry, but that's just crap. The fact that Jones says Beevor misinterpreted the history of the battle does not make it a fact; it's just one author disagreeing with another. And I agree with word_virus that it's Enemy at the Gates that's full of unquestioned Soviet mythologizing (though it's a great read). I've discussed Beevor with people who know more about Stalingrad than I ever will, and heard nothing but praise.
posted by languagehat at 1:38 PM on January 8, 2012


stbalbach, thanks for the studied reply, but I think we're talking about different things. Your points discuss the relative contributions of the Allies to the war effort, whereas I'm talking about how those contributions are reflected in the historical record and how nations tell their own stories about WWII (and I said they were a generalisation).

I don't disagree with your points about the Allied economic and intelligence contributions, and how these were key in the ultimate war effort. But do I think Russia would have defeated Germany on its own, in the conditions you describe? FWIW, yes. I find Richard Overy's book Why The Allies Won instructive on this point. Overy highlights the failure of the German High Command to understand the economic basis for war. But the Russians understood it plenty well, producing dozens of cheap and cheerful T-34s from factories behind the Urals for every perfectly engineered Tiger. And as a strategist, Hitler didn't really have a clue. Again, this is wrapped up in a great big counter-factual IMHO, but my guess is that a UK surrender and no German declaration of war on the US in 1941 would have ended with a Russian victory over Germany somewhere in the late 1940s.

But to me this is a question about how history is told, and at the moment we tell the story of the war in Europe arse-backwards (which is to say, chronologically).
posted by bright cold day at 3:40 PM on January 8, 2012


Beevor's Stalingrad really changed the way I think about the whole war. Before I read it I thought that the European & Pacific theaters were about it...but after reading the book I understood the sheer brute scale of what went on between Russia and the Germans. What a book.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:29 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hope that a history of the war in Europe will take a chronological approach that sees the significant and horrific events leading up to the Reich's invasion of Russia

Check out Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:41 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


bright cold day, most historians today say Hitler's greatest mistake was to open a two front war, he could not win both east and west, that he should have settled the UK question before taking on Russia. This theory is in most history books. Any historian who takes on your view will have to explain why this theory is not so, or at least seriously question it.
posted by stbalbach at 8:41 PM on January 8, 2012


... most historians today say [insert cut-out-and-keep-guide to Hitler's Greatest Mistakes]
Wouldn't disagree with any of this. Not sure what it's got to do with what I wrote, either. My example was a counterfactual where these points specifically don't apply.
Any historian who takes on your view will have to explain why this theory is not so, or at least seriously question it.
That's why one is called "counterfactual" history and the other, just "history". And again, I'm not arguing against it.
posted by bright cold day at 3:50 AM on January 9, 2012


David Glantz has written extensively from the Soviet perspective:

When Titans Clashed: How The Red Army Stopped Hitler is a single volume overview. He goes into more detail with Stumbling Colossus (the Red Army immediately before WWII), and then Colossus Reborn: The Red Army from 1941 - 1943.

There is also the very dry but very good Wages of Destruction by Tooze, which discusses WWII from the standpoint of the German economy.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:25 AM on January 9, 2012


Not sure what it's got to do with what I wrote, either.

You said:

At some distant future time, WWII in Europe will be viewed as a war between Germany and Russia, with peripheral incursions into Western Europe and Africa.

If Western Europe was "peripheral", and WWII was really about just Germany and Russia, than the 2-front mistake theory comes into question. Otherwise, if it really was a mistake, then clearly the western front was more than just peripheral.
posted by stbalbach at 9:38 AM on January 9, 2012


I have a weird relationship with the Leckie book, in that I fist discovered him through a children's history of WWII that he wrote and I really liked (also, writing that, "children's history of WWII" strikes me now as a really weird concept). So when I stumbled across Delivered from Evil in a bookstore in high school, I was really excited to find a bigger, more in-depth book from That History Guy. But I was a little troubled by the fact that stuff that was presented as true in the children's version (like, Colin Kelly crashing his bomber into a Japanese ship and sinking it) was held up as a myth in the adult book. I don't know, I felt like I'd been lied to or something.
posted by COBRA! at 9:39 AM on January 9, 2012


When discussing who won WW2, it's important to remember that for most of Eastern Europe there weren't really any "winners," only losers. In Poland, for example, the Soviets are just as much the bad guys as the Germans.
posted by orrnyereg at 10:13 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, and the historian to read for that is Timothy Snyder, specifically his Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. You can get a brief introduction to his ideas here.
posted by languagehat at 11:32 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If Western Europe was "peripheral", and WWII was really about just Germany and Russia ...
Hey, where'd that "just" come from?! :-)

Seriously, we're just talking past each other here. Apologies for not being clearer. Thanks for the FPP.
posted by bright cold day at 3:28 PM on January 9, 2012


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