Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

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Reviews, recommendations, books to avoid. What have you been reading?

Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » November 15th, 2011, 10:48 pm

I'm now a chapter and a half into the WW2 volume, and the Nazis have started the way they mean to go on, invading Poland, creating ghettos, and committing atrocities against civilians, especially Jews. We and France have declared war, but haven't done much fighting yet. Admiral Canaris, head of the secret intelligence service of the German armed forces, was so appalled at what he witnessed that he courageously protested to Hitler in person. At this stage, Hitler just ignored him, but in April 1945 he was hanged as one of the plotters against Hitler's life.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » November 17th, 2011, 8:12 am

One of the old-timers interviewed in an episode of the Great War series talked about the joy of surviving the war and returning home to a hero's welcome, believing that the 'job had been done' and it had been the 'war to end all wars'. He then talked of his profound disillusionment when war was declared on Germany again in 1939 and his own son, now just turned twenty, was called up to fight. Many attributed this in principle to the harsh terms imposed on Germany under the Treaty of Versailles, some of them at the time the treaty first came into operation. Lloyd George, who had been Prime Minister during the latter stages of the war and one of the signatories of the treaty (his objections were a minority view), was one of these voices and he presciently predicted that another war with Germany would take place as a result within twenty years, a prediction remarkably seconded in the famous cartoon at the time of the treaty by Australian cartoonist, Will Dyson (see the link below.) Whatever the causes, many people lamented the 'lost peace' on September 3rd, 1939.

http://www.johndclare.net/images/cannonfodder.jpg
(The phrase above the weeping child's head reads '1940 class'. The Tiger is the nickname of Clemenceau, French PM, who is followed by the austere American president Woodrow Wilson, the Italian PM Orlando and bringing up the rear, Lloyd George himself.)

Here is the famous painting of the signing of the treaty on 28th June, 1919 (exactly five years after Sarajevo) in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. I've visited the place and the sense of history was palpable.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/c ... ailles.jpg
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » November 17th, 2011, 12:42 pm

British intelligence was apparently running rings around the Nazis from the start. Shortly before the war began, we had arrested all but a handful of the German agents in Britain, but managed to keep the Nazis from knowing - presumably (Gilbert doesn't say) by sending them regular reports, supposedly from the spies. I would imagine that most of those reports would have been accurate but of little value: if we'd fed the Nazis nothing but false information, they'd soon have cottoned on. Not only that, but we also cracked the 'Enigma' code without the Germans finding out, and the head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), Admiral Canaris, was, as previously mentioned, secretly working against the regime. We also had the very successful 'double-cross' system of double-agents: Britons whom the Germans thought were working for them, but who in fact were double agents. One such asked the Germans for some money to recruit more agents, and the name of a contact in Britain. The contact name they gave him was one of the few German agents who hadn't already been arrested, so he promptly was!
Given all that, it's almost surprising that it took six years to defeat them.

I was also surprised to discover that there was an earlier bomb plot against Hitler, in 1939, which failed because Hitler left the meeting earlier than scheduled.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » December 22nd, 2011, 8:58 am

Just out of interest, have you put Gilbert's WWII on the back burner for the moment?
"We have more knowledge than those who came before us not because of our greater intelligence and understanding, but because we are dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants who preceded us."
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » December 22nd, 2011, 1:13 pm

Not intentionally, but I haven't opened it recently - that blasted Pratchett bloke is too tempting. However, I'll carry on with it soon, and report on anything interesting.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » January 1st, 2012, 9:41 am

After a break, I'm getting on with it again. I'm now up to December 1941 (any day now, I'm likely to be reading of events on their 70th anniversary), and Pearl Harbour has just happened. I didn't realise until now that it was just one of several surprise attacks on American overseas territories by Japan on the same day, the others being on Guam, Wake, and Midway Islands.
The tide has just turned in the German invasion of the U.S.S.R., and the Soviets are advancing against them. The previous accounts of the German advance are interesting, but rather grim and depressing reading, as the list of Nazi atrocities gets ever longer. The full apparatus of the Holocaust - the death camps, gas chambers and crematoria - is not yet in place, but they've already murdered over half a million Jews, Gypsies, civilians, partisans and Soviet prisoners of war. I've just been reading of the notorious gas vans used at Chelmno, where Jews were put into vans with the exhaust diverted into the van, and driven to woods, by which time they would be dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, where they were buried in mass graves.

I'm now up to January 1942, and have just read of an alarming incident,or rather near-incident. Churchill was returning from Washington by flying boat, and near the end of the journey, the pilot accidentally deviated from his course, coming rather too close to German AA batteries at Brest. Realising his mistake, the pilot turned away to get back on course, but that made British radar operators think that it was an enemy aircraft coming from Brest, and six British fighters were dispatched to shoot it down. "Fortunately, they failed in their mission", as Churchill laconically put it later.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » January 2nd, 2012, 8:14 am

The full apparatus of the Holocaust - the death camps, gas chambers and crematoria - is not yet in place, but they've already murdered over half a million Jews, Gypsies, civilians, partisans and Soviet prisoners of war. I've just been reading of the notorious gas vans used at Chelmno, where Jews were put into vans with the exhaust diverted into the van, and driven to woods, by which time they would be dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, where they were buried in mass graves.

A chilling reminder of the perverted use to which even fairly rudimentary technology can be put, innocuous in its primary function and evil in its secondary, never-intended application. The same misuse of rationality is evident in the calculated distance to the mass graves where the victims would arrive ready for burial. Technology, rationality and planning, all areas in which the Germans have always excelled and which here manifest their dark side when placed at the service of that other perversion of science of which the Nazis were guilty, racist eugenics.

The Churchill incident invokes the "what if?" kind of exercise. If Churchill had died, would it have made a significant difference to the outcome of the war? I think it depends on the point in time of his imagined demise. In this case, I'd say that by January 1942, with the Battle of Britain won and the Germans starting to get bogged down in Russia, it wouldn't have affected the train of events all that much. The military campaigns in North Africa, southern Europe and the eventual Normandy landings would have gone ahead anyway and the conduct of the war was now largely in the hands of the military commanders responsible for the strategic planning. As for Potsdam and Yalta, not even the charismatic presence of Churchill could do much to alter the plans of the de facto superpower leaders, Stalin and Roosevelt
"We have more knowledge than those who came before us not because of our greater intelligence and understanding, but because we are dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants who preceded us."
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » January 4th, 2012, 9:39 am

I'm now up to late '42, about half-way through the war, and also half-way through the book.The chapter I'm about to start is called 'The turn of the tide', and already there's been a sense that things are swinging in our favour: the disaster (for the Germans) of Stalingrad, and the success (for us) of 'Operation Torch', the invasion of French North Africa, and, further East, Monty pushing Rommel steadily back. We've had our own recent disasters, mind you, notably the Dieppe raid.
Reading this book not long after its WW1 companion volume, I do get a strong sense of how different the two wars were: the first with the troops stalled for years on end facing each other in trenches, making gains or losses of a mile or two at huge cost in lives, the second much more mobile, with tanks, armies, navies, and aircraft zooming around all over the place.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » January 5th, 2012, 8:21 am

The greatest slaughter in proportion to the total strength of a particular branch of the British armed forces was in the RAF, with a very high number of pilots downed, especially in the Battle of Britain but also in the heavy bombing campaigns. Someone once called the high casualty rates in the former 'the Somme' of that generation. On the ground and at sea, though, it was, indeed, largely a war of mobility, though the fierce fighting between the German and Russian forces in the later stages of the war did result in very heavy casualties. (Antony Beevor's two fine books, 'Stalingrad' and 'Berlin: The Downfall' highlight this aspect of the campaigns in the East.)
"We have more knowledge than those who came before us not because of our greater intelligence and understanding, but because we are dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants who preceded us."
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » January 6th, 2012, 9:19 am

I'm now up to September '43, and Mussolini has been deposed in a bloodless coup and replaced with Marshal Badoglio, and Italy has switched sides, declaring war on Germany. I'm just about to read of the German invasion of Italy, and their re-installation of Mussolini as a puppet ruler, having sprung him from the mountain hotel where he was being held. This was a disaster for Italian Jews, who had hitherto been protected by Mussolini, who had refused German demands to allow them to be deported to the ghettos and death camps. The Italian fascists, I remember reading elsewhere, may have been monsters in other ways, but they were not intrinsically anti-semitic, and before the war there had been Jews in senior positions within the party. After the war started, they introduced some half-hearted anti-semitic legislation to keep their German allies happy, but never allowed the deportation of Jews. Once the Germans were in real control, all that changed.
The tide had definitely turned against the Axis by late '43, and Germany was in retreat everywhere, but Hitler was still talking of massive victories in the future, and his thousand-year Reich: as Captain Mainwaring might have said, "I think we're getting into the realms of fantasy now".
Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
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