I find them endlessly fascinating, the two despots who were responsible directly or indirectly for the death of 60 million soldiers and civilians from 1937 to 1953. Laurence Rees has given them a joint salute in Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War. (I am adding the prewar famine and purges in the Soviet Union, and the postwar suffering in Eastern Europe and the Gulag, while subtracting those for which the Japanese warlords were responsible.) Mr Rees is a British film producer and historian, and while the book is largely drawn from the archives, he spins the raw material into a story spellbinding enough for the recreational reader. Both men were arguably mad, both were bloodthirsty, and both were comfortable with genocide. Where they differed was the outcome: Hitler was more successful with genocide, while Stalin was more successful at winning wars -- and the peace as well. For me, Mr Rees is nowhere more interesting than when he describes how Stalin outwitted not only the ageing Franklin Roosevelt but also the supposedly more cold-blooded Winston Churchill. (And of course Stalin's triumph over the fate of Eastern Europe neatly paralleled Hitler's victory over the French and British leaders at Munich in 1939.)
Then there's the author's assessment of the literal and figurative rape of Eastern Europe in 1944-1945. "No one can ever know exactly how many women were raped by the Soviet conquerers," he writes. "It's possible, however, that nearly two million women and girls in Germany alone endured this horror.... The situation was so bad that women in Berlin did not ask each other whether they had been raped, but simply inquired 'how many'?.... [A Soviet general] had no sympathy: 'When you see this German beauty sitting and weeping ... why did she not cry when she was receiving parcels from the Eastern Front?' [Similar were] the sentiments of the Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, who wrote: 'Soldiers of the Red Army. German women are yours!'" The same of course was true of the Polish, Ukrainian, and even Russian women in the path of the victors. (Italics added.) Hitler and Stalin will be sold in the US in February. You can pre-order it now, and the British paperback is available from Amazon vendors including the reliable Book Depository.
Michael Walsh's Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost is a spellbinding study of male courage in the face of likely or certain death, from the "Three Hundred" Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC to "Pavlov's House" during the murderous slugfest in Stalingrad in 1943. He follows that with an epilog about his father, a Marine lieutenant at "Frozen Chosin" in November 1950. It's read a great read, though some are less illuminating than others -- especially the Last Stands in which no one survives, as with the Jewish defenders of Masada in 74-75 BC, and the Swiss Guards who defended Pope Clement VII in 1527. (Well, the Pope survived, but he left no information about the men who died getting him safe to Castel Sant' Angelo.) >Mr Walsh goofs when he writes of the hazards of the Korean war, when a Mama-san might reach under her skirt and spray the Americans with an AK-47. The shooting stopped along the 38th parallel in 1953, three years before China adoptd an AK-47 variant, and five years before North Korea adopted it. Mr Walsh also commits the customary but annoying mistake of using Wehrmacht to mean the German army, which actually was (and still is), the Heer, which like the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe was just one branch of the Wehrmacht.
Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73: Steel Tiger, Barrel Roll, and the secret air wars in Vietnam and Laos isn't an easy read, at least not for anyone unaccustomed to eating military code names for breakfast. Here's the start of a typical photo caption: "An AC-119K firing a minigun. A 20kW xenon searchlight is visible in the rear opening, with the AN/APQ-133 beacon tracking radar fairing ahead of the door." Still, writer Peter Davies and illustrator Adam Tooby have crafted a valuable history of the transportation web that, more than anything else, enabled North Vietnam to bring the blessings of Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin to its southern neighbor and eventually, with differing success, to Laos and Cambodia as well. It was an astonishing accomplishment, and it set the model for overcoming American forces for the next half-century, including in Afghanistan today. I was amused to see Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake in the bibliography, Ms Fitzgerald being among those who assured us during the Vietnam War that the "National Liberation Front" was a wholly local resistance movement with no connection to Hanoi. But in Mr Davies's account we read that "Infiltration movements were initiated [in North Vietnam] in June 1959 and by 1963 over 40,000 insurgents and their weapons had traveled south." The courage of American pilots pitting warplanes designed for the Second World War against North Vietnamese peasants driving Russian trucks and firing Russian anti-aircraft guns never ceases to humble me. (One of my college classmates went missing over Laos, flying a Douglas Skyraider on a "Sandy" rescue mission.) The photographs alone are an education, and Mr Tooby contributes some impressive paintings of warplanes in action over the trail, which by 1975 had become a network of asphalt highway thousands of miles in length. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford
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