Historians and memoirists mark the VEDay anniversary with an armada of books
War stories that speak volumes
Historians and memoirists mark the VEDay anniversary with an armada of books
More has been written about the Second World War than about any other conflict in history. And every year the mountain of books and articles grows, as historians wage their battles of interpretation, and aging veterans launch yet another armada of memoirs. Between these two groups—eyewitnesses and professional writers—the relationship has always been dependent but uneasy.
More than one historian has trembled to receive a letter in spidery handwriting from some veteran of D-Day or the London Blitz, announcing that his latest book has some crucial detail wrong. But it works the other way, too. Old soldiers reading new books have been known to discover, years after the fact, that their personal struggles with mud, boredom and the enemy had an entirely different strategic purpose than they had imagined.
This seething interplay of words has only intensified as the 50th-anniversary observances of VE-Day hit their stride—and a fresh wave of books hits the shelves. One of them, The Battle for History (Vintage, 128 pages, $11.95) by noted British military historian John Keegan, offers a highly opinionated sur-
vey of previous books on the war—and a warning note that holds good for all the new publications, too. The passions aroused by the war, Keegan writes, “still run too high, the wounds it inflicted still cut too deep, for any one historian to strike an objective balance.” Indeed, for Keegan, “The history of the Second World War has not yet been written.” He adds, almost wistfully: “Perhaps in the next century it will be.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Keegan’s own book reveals that he, too, is prey to those passions he so laments in other historians. While he offers a balanced assessment of some authors (including David Irving, the British biographer of Hitler and leading Holocaust revisionist), he writes with an almost juvenile petulance about the great English historian A. J. P. Taylor. And he clumsily attempts to smear the Canadian writer James Bacque, whose controversial 1989 best-seller, Other Losses, claimed that deliberate French and American policy starved to death a million German war prisoners after 1945. Like most of Bacque’s critics, Keegan bases his argument more on indignation than fact, and fails to refute either Bacque’s statisti-
cal evidence or his interviews with dozens of former German POWs. Another writer who, like Bacque, may discover he has ruffled the feathers of the historical establishment is British forensic expert Hugh Thomas. His new book, Doppelgängers (Fourth Estate, 305 pages, $34.99), is a revolutionary and absolutely rivetting study of events in the Berlin bunker where Hitler and his closest advisers sheltered in the spring of 1945, as the victorious Russian army advanced through the city. The accepted scenario— based largely on a book written by British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper—has always been that Hitler shot himself while his mistress, Eva Braun, took cyanide. But Thomas explodes that tidy picture with his exhaustive examination of the evidence—much of which
has become available only since the recent opening of archives in the former Soviet Union.
Doppelgängers may have a beneficial political effect because it destroys a vision of Hitler’s final days dear to neoNazis. They have always seen the Führer as staging a dignified and courageous last stand. But Thomas portrays a Hitler incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease and drug overdoses, shuffling around the bunker, “a urine-sodden, soup-stained caricature.” Meanwhile, the surrounding atmosphere was one of deepening hysteria as Hitler’s followers waited impatiently for him to kill himself—so they could make their escape. Doppelgängers is a mystery story with an extraordinary conclusion: that out of sheer rage and frustration Hitler’s companions murdered him and planted false evidence of his suicide.
A broader view of the war’s final stages is offered by British historian Martin Gilbert in his encyclopedic Hie Day the War Ended (HarperCollins, 473 pages, $38.95). Known for his superb biography of Churchill, Gilbert has created a large mosaic of brief scenes, set mainly in Europe on May 7, 1945. To read through them is a bit like channel surfing—it produces the same initial exhilaration at the sheer variety of material, and the same eventual irritation that comes from never penetrating below the surface. Yet many images stick
in the mind. Gilbert quotes a British war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, who recalls travelling through the conquered Germany and seeing, in the homes of people who claimed never to have supported Hitler, “the bare patch on the wall where the picture of the Führer used to hang.” And a Canadian, David Riegler, told Gilbert about the cheering crowd that marched down Toronto’s Yonge Street on VE-Day: being Torontonians, they stopped at all the red lights.
The most important new Canadian book about the war is Maple Leaf Against the Axis (Stoddart, 316 pages, $29.95) by Calgary-based historian David J. Bercuson. This is the best one-volume history of Canada’s military effort now available, a book that takes full advantage of the finest work to date by Canadian and other historians. Bercuson has fashioned a compelling epic that follows the Canadian armed forces from their weak prewar state (in 1939 the army had only 23 Bren guns) to the seasoned fighting machine that helped to break the Nazis in 1945. But although Bercuson’s tale is ultimately one of triumph, he makes incisive assessments of failures and controversies along the way. Writing of the disastrous Canadian raid on Dieppe in 1942, he deals with the old argument that the battle was a learning experience for the Allies. Bercuson’s tart comment: “Whatever was learned at Dieppe ought to have been known anyway.”
Another Canadian war historian,
York University’s J. L. Granatstein, is well represented in the bookstores this spring with two new books and one reprint. Granatstein has co-authored Victory 1945: Canadians from War to Peace (HarperCollins, 256 pages, $35) with his favorite writing partner, McGill’s Desmond Morton. Like two popular histories of the Second World War that they have already published, Victory 1945 is accessible without being simplistic, and richly illustrated with photographs not widely seen before. It touches briefly on Canadian troops in Europe but focuses mainly on the profound social changes the war brought to Canada. Granatstein is also co-editor, with the University of Western Ontario’s Peter Neary, of The Good Fight (Copp Clark, 466 pages, $26.95). This war-era anthology is a queer mixture of rather dull historical essays and a livelier selection of fiction, poetry
and memoirs. As well, Granatstein’s muchpraised 1993 book, The Generals (Stoddart, 370 pages, $19.95), has been reissued in paperback. It is a searching assessment of Canada’s high command that sometimes leaves the impression that Canadian troops were victorious despite their leaders.
Oral histories and memoirs may lack the
From Victory 1945: Canadian soldiers, bound for overseas, start the journey on crowded trains
bird’s-eye view of the professional historian, but they can make up for it with a much more vivid sense of what the waiting and fighting were really like. Corvettes Canada (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 310 pages, $19.95) by Legion Magazine editor Mac Johnston recaptures life on those overcrowded and usually very cold little fighting ships whose main job was to escort the Atlantic convoys. There is probably more detail here than all but the most dedicated corvette buff would want, but there are also some extraordinary survival stories about men whose ships were shot out from under them by U-boats.
The reissued Voices of a War Remembered (Doubleday), compiled by CBC radio announcer Bill McNeil and originally released in 1991, is everything an oral history should be. It contains the testimony of Canadians from all walks of life, and it lets them speak at length without interference from the editor. This allows the tales to achieve their full emotional effect. One of the more memorable comes from Jean Luder of Deep River, Ont., who recalls welcoming home a soldier-father she had never met. Unfortunately, another oral history, Days of Victoiy (Macmillan, 304 pages, $29.95), by the father-and-son writing team of Alex and Ted Barris, has its impact badly fragmented by edi-
torializing and narrative bridges. Even so, there are some fascinating nuggets buried here, including one Dieppe veteran’s memory of German small-arms fire so dense it stippled the water “just like rain.” Among new war biographies, one of the best is Both My Legs (Viking, 235 pages, $25.99) by Hamilton, Ont., journalist Wade Hemsworth. The book recalls the life of his grandYther, Howard (Babe) Lovell, who ost his legs fighting with the Canadian army in Italy. Simply but powerfully told, it is the story of how Lovell’s Scottish fiancée, Mary McPhie, tracked down her wounded lover and refused to let his disability destroy their future. Among personal memoirs is the excellent, if awkwardly titled, Past Tense, Charlie’s Story (General Store, 208 pages, $14.95) by former RCAF gunner Charlie Hobbs.
Shot down over France, he ended up dealing with skimpy rations and interviews with gestapo agents—who, just like their later counterparts in Hollywood movies, were humorless, sadistic and given to wearing leather coats and black fedoras.
Another veteran, poet and former diplomat and academic Douglas LePan, has written a ambitious book-length poem, Macalister, or Dying in the Dark (Quarry Press, 100 pages, $14.95). It commemorates the short life of John Macalister, a brilliant contemporary of LePan’s during their student days at the University of Toronto. Gifted in languages, Macalister joined the British secret service and was parachuted into France as an agent. Caught almost immediately, he was tortured and murdered at Buchenwald.
LePan has created a unique form for his poem—multiple voices speaking in long, prosy lines capable of carrying a lot of information, and rising, when necessary, to the intense pitch of elegy. Too often, perhaps, the tone slips over to the melodramatic, and the diction veers between journalistic commonness and a vague romanticism. But because the poem is about a real person, it often soars beyond its own shortcomings to move the reader with its portrait of Macalister’s sacrifice. Like so many books recalling the war, Macalister is touched by the galvanizing spirit of a time—perhaps the last time—when large numbers of people found it within themselves to act heroically.
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