Quarantine and self-isolation around the world mean that people have time to do a lot more reading over the coming months. To give our readers some ideas MercatorNet is featuring short book reviews from contributors and readers.
You might also be interested in two great reading lists from MercatorNet:
I am going through a reading phase at the moment in which I am devouring a lot of weighty tomes on World War II. I have read everything by James Holland. I am not sure why I am finding such enjoyment, and indeed comfort, in reading about this catastrophe. Perhaps it is the relatively straightforward moral calculus (relatively only!!) of the conflict; perhaps it is the sheer scale; perhaps it is because it is not so long ago (my grandfather would have served in it had he not lost an eye at school).
And yet it is such an utterly bizarre experience for us who grew up in the West at the end of the 20th century. We are used to such comfort, wealth and peace that we cannot imagine a world in which hardship, poverty and widespread violence are common.
In the midst of this reading phase I have come across an excellent book by Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941.
As the title suggests, it focusses on Great Britain’s role in the war and is a welcome antidote to more American-centric histories. But that is not what makes this book so interesting; instead it is its scope and vision. As can also be gleaned from the title, it doesn’t start with Germany’s invasion of Poland or Britain’s (and New Zealand’s, Canada’s, Australia’s, South Africa’s and India’s) declaration of war in 1939, but with the coronation of King George VI in May 1937.
This allows Todman to set the measures taken by the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments into proper context. For example, it shows that Chamberlain’s diplomatic efforts were much more nuanced than is popularly portrayed. (This part of the book also shows how truly radical it was that Churchill became Prime Minister: he certainly wasn’t a PM-in-waiting in the late 1930s!)
Aside from its chronological sweep, the book is also excellent in showing how the war affected all of society: the political parties; the trade unions; the political societies; the economy; the Empire etc etc. It is not a military history, let alone a land-centric one (and is thus an excellent tonic to the more one-dimensional classics like Rick Atkinson’s liberation trilogy or Chester Wilmot’s seminal work) but shows how Britain predominantly fought with her fleet, her modern air force, her merchant navy, her access to resources and her vast economic reach. The army was important, but was not the only important factor in a global, industrialised war. Todman places the army in its proper context.
Britain’s War also successfully weaves in accounts of everyday Britons and their reactions to the war. As the Wuhan flu began to be felt in New Zealand, I was reading about the start of the war and the restrictions that the British government put in place. Bars, nightclubs, restaurants and cinemas were closed. Most people stayed at home because of the pervasive blackout. Food began to be rationed. Anxiety about loved ones was prevalent.
Despite the past being a foreign country, for some reason I can now easily imagine what Britons at the start of the war were going through…
Marcus Roberts writes from Auckland, New Zealand. He is the co-editor of Demography is Destiny.