Saturday, February 28, 2009

Davies' World War II in Europe

I’ve begun reading Norman Davies, No Simple Victory, World War II in Europe, 1939-1945. I was under the impression that Michael Kuznetsov mentioned Davies with approval as someone who was even handed in regard to the Soviet Union, but upon finding comments that I believe Michael would take issue with I looked for Michael’s reference to Davies and couldn’t find it; so perhaps it was someone else who mentioned him.

But Davies does intend to be even handed. He participated in the Oxford Companion to the Second World War and discovered how fragmented the historians of this war were: “. . . I was duly appointed as advisory editor for Eastern and Central Europe. What I soon realized, however, was that Soviet Studies formed a completely separate compartment of knowledge in the minds both of the editors and of the contributing scholars who dominated the field. I was able to obtain the services of a first-rate German specialist, Professor Heinz-Dietrich Lowe, who wrote the main entry on the USSR. But it remained very difficult to integrate Soviet affairs into the main-line categories. For example, the editors were happy enough to accept an entry on the GULag during the war, but not to place it within the main heading of ‘Concentration Camps’. By the same token, an entry on the Katyn Massacres was accepted, but not under the heading of ‘War Crimes’ . . .”

Davies seems to have steeped himself in the earlier historians of the past and seems especially interested in those historians whose speculations turned out to be correct: “On this occasion . . . I would like to express my special sense of indebtedness to a select band of historians who in the last decade or so have succeeded in taming the Soviet enigma. Western views on the events of 1939-45 took shape in the early post-war years, when information about the largest combatant power, the Soviet Union, was sparse and frequently speculative. Throughout the decades of the Cold war, when bones of political contention proliferated, the admirable work of pioneers like Robert Conquest was often mired in partisan quarrels and combats. As a result, public opinion usually kept its distance, and historians of the war were often unwilling to reconsider their interpretations. Only since the collapse of the USSR has it become possible to put an end to the confusion. Today there is no longer any doubt that Stalin’s regime was a mass-murdering monster and that the prominence of its role in the defeat of the Third Reich demands far-reaching adjustments to the conventional picture. Much of the new certainty can be ascribed to the work of historians who have recently supplied the hard evidence. And many passages in the present volume have been inspired by the pressing need to incorporate their findings with the better-established knowledge on other subjects. . . .”

As an example of Davies’ even-handedness, he writes on pages 12-13, “For example, the Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Stalingrad were both Allied victories which contributed to the ‘turning of the tide’ in the dark days of 1942-3. Yet the two battles cannot be fully equated. One of them knocked out six Axis divisions in a peripheral theatre of action: the other knocked out twenty Axis divisions in the central sector of the principal front. By the same token, moral judgments cannot be based on the illusion that mass murder by the enemy was proof of despicable evil, whilst mass murder by one’s own side was merely an unfortunate blemish.”

Davies traces the slow transition historians, perhaps largely British historians, have made from ignorance to knowledge: “As a historian . . . I watched as the more familiar aspects of the war in Western Europe were steadily overtaken by an ever-rising tide of information about the vast horrors on the Eastern Front. When I was a student at Oxford, Alan Bullock had published Hitler: a Study in Tyranny not long before, and my tutor, A. J. P. Taylor, was still busily engaged in writing The Origins of the Second world war. The Faculty of History offered no undergraduate courses on 1939-45, believing it to be too recent for serious study. And the Holocaust had hardly been heard of. In the 1960s news of the ’20 million Soviet war dead’ filtered through as did realization, largely inspired by Khrushchev and Solzhenitsyn, that the Soviet GULag had constituted a mass crime on a scale previously unimagined. In the 1960s one learned of the unique character of the Holocaust, and began to wonder how it fitted into the wider context. In the 1980s historians like Bullock dared to examine Hitler and Stalin in parallel. And in the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union finally silenced the GULag-deniers, showing that Robert Conquest and other critics of the USSR had been much closer to the truth than many had wished to concede. It says much about long-standing inhibitions that Antony Beevor’s brilliant books Stalingrad (1998) and Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (2002), that finally revealed the full savagery of the Eastern Front for Western readers, had few earlier counterparts or rivals.”


We can see from the above that Davies will be striving after truth as he attempts to incorporate the Eastern Front on an equal footing with the Western. But interestingly, he has made himself privy to writings on the opening of Soviet records, some of them, that lay to rest (according to him) some of the disputes over whether the evils attributed to Stalinism really occurred. Were the GULags really criminal in the same sort of way that Hitler’s concentration camps were? Davies says yes. And was the Katyn massacre the fault of the Soviets rather than the Nazis? Again, Davies says yes. Presumably he has examined documentation that in his view places these matters beyond question.

As someone who merely reads a lot, a “common reader,” I don’t intend to duplicate Davies research. I will be seeking after accuracy, objectivity and the truth, by doing my best to seek out the best authorities. Davies, from the few reviews I’ve read seems to be a reputable authority. He isn’t a Leftist with a pro-soviet revisionist ax to grind. Neither is he a partisan in the sense of only being interested in British and American successes in WWII.

Could Davies be mistaken? Yes, of course. Any historian can make mistakes. All we can do is hone our understanding by reading several histories of World War II by historians whose peers give high marks. I have read several histories; so much of this book will already be familiar to me, but I have never, for example, read the Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Stalingrad contrasted as Davies contrasts them. This isn’t a monumental piece of information, but it seems to bode well for the rest of the book.

1 comment:

Ludwik Kowalski said...

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