Roger Moorhouse was first a researcher, then a collaborator, and finally a co-author with Norman Davies, one of the first English-language historians of Poland under Soviet rule. He dedicates this book to his mentor, and what a tribute it is! Poland 1939 is the finest campaign history I have ever read, rivaled only by J. P. Harris's Vietnam's High Ground. (Both authors are Englishmen, as indeed is Mr Davies. Is that a trend?) On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler sent 1.5 million men crashing into Poland from the north, west, and south, and after seeing how well that was going, Joseph Stalin closed the noose by sending 500,000 Red Army troops across Poland's eastern frontier. The Poles had one of the better armies in Europe, but they were overwhelmed by the onslaught and betrayed by their allies.
Britain and France honored their treaties sufficiently to declare war on Germany -- though not on Russia! -- but sent no aid and did nothing more than posture on the west. Mr Moorhouse is particularly good on puncturing the myths that Nazi and Communist propagandists used to befuddle the West, and that still inform Americans' understanding of Poland's destruction.
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War is an academic study, so it's not what you could call a bedtime read, but it is more accessible than most of what comes out of universities today. Indeed, Jeremy Yellen never once caused me to doze off. The book's title is a phrase I've heard all my life, spoken with derision during the Second World War, and afterward as a catch-phrase without much meaning attached to it. That's a mistake, because it was the proximate cause of the Pacific War, especially the word Greater, which was a Xi Jinping-like claim to dominance over all of Asia, out to Mongolia, eastern Siberia, India, and Australia and New Zealand, as well as China, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific Islands -- but not, interestingly enough, Midway Island and Hawaii. Mr Yellen makes the interesting argument that Japan wanted to control French Indochina, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies not only for their own sake, but also to keep Germany out of the Pacific. By September 1940, when Japan joined Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact, France and the Netherlands were occupied by German troops and it looked very likely that Britain would soon follow them, giving Hitler a very good claim on the colonies formerly run by those three colonial powers. If Tokyo allied itself with Berlin, it could head off such claims until it conquered them for itself.
Mr Yellen spends a lot of time discussing the "independence" that Tokyo granted to Rangoon and Manila in 1943, even though he admits it was a sham. He does make the interesting point that these sham governments allowed Burma and the Phillipines to develop the institutions and train the officials they would need when the war ended. This was especially true of the new Burmese army. Even as it was run by the Japanese, using the harsh discipline meted out to Japanese recruits, it had the effect of creating a force of Burmese patriots who, in 1945, appealed for British support for an uprising against the Japanese.
Erik Larson specializes in odd bits of history: the Galveston Hurricane, a serial killer at the 1898 Chicago Exposition, the sinking of the Lusitania, life in the US embassy in Berlin in 1939.... The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz is to my knowledge his first venture into world-changing events that unfolded over time and under the dominance of world-historical figures. "He certainly goes down easy," says Sally, who long ago absconded with my Kindle Paperwhite, and who therefore gets to read the books I buy or borrow through the Amazon store. It's true: like the somewhat more eminent David McCullough, Mr Larson isn't a historian but a crafter of popular entertainment based on real events. His strengths and weaknesses are both on display in this, his most recent book. And the method he chooses -- a deep dive into contemporary writings rather than trusting to more recent publications -- likewise has defects in addition to virtues. So the handsome and formidable German fighter designed by Willy Messerschmitt while working at Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was designated the Bf 109, but the British and Americans mistakenly called it the Me 109. Mr Larson steps into the trap, and he's similarly weak on the subject of aircraft weapons and controls. (Have he and his fact-checker never heard of Wikipedia?)
On the plus side, he accomplishes the feat of actually finding something new to say about the events of 1939-1941! Tops for me is the love interest of Jock Colville, one of Churchill's private secetaries. His primary duty, it seems, was to listen to the great man's ruminatins until two o'clock in the morning, but in the meantime he's besotted with a pretty Oxford student, whom he sadly expunged from his diaries when he published them in 1968. Almost as delightful are the courtships of Churchill's youngest child, Mary, and of his son's wife, Pamela, who during an air raid falls into bed with the much older Averell Harriman, in London to smooth the flow of Lend-Lease aid. (After many such affairs, and two divorces, she will marry Harriman in 1971.)
Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Posted August 2020. Websites © 1997-2020 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved. This site sets no cookies, but the Mailchimp sign-up service does, and so does Amazon if you click through to their store.