Major histories of World War II, such as Total War: The Story of World War II (1973), by Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, and La Seconde guerre mondiale (1968; The Second World War, 1975), by Henri Michel, tend to follow a pattern. They begin by tracing the origins of the war back through the 1930’s and often to the end of World War I. They then divide the war into manageable segments, such as the basic ones of the European and Pacific theaters, and they periodize their material according to major battles and other “turning points.” The authors enter the narrative to explain or analyze the course of events for the reader. Given the grand scale of events of the greatest war in history, such studies examine only the big picture, discussing major events and decision makers. Though their focus remains invariably the fighting fronts, they also include some explanation of the process of the mobilization of civilian society in their effort to provide a reasonably complete picture of total war.
Martin Gilbert’s 1989 addition to such major works, The Second World War: A Complete History, defies all these conventions in its adherence to what seems the most conventional of all approaches to any subject, a purely narrative history of events from 1939 to 1945. The book begins with the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and although it includes two short final chapters examining selected postwar topics, it essentially ends with the Japanese surrender in August, 1945.
After marshaling and selecting the facts in his chronological narrative, Gilbert seldom intervenes explicitly for purposes of analysis or interpretation. In a rare example, he labels the German declaration of war on the United States “the greatest error” and “single most decisive act” of World War II. Otherwise, the book is singularly devoid of the scholarly judgments that one takes for granted in most works of this genre. Gilbert eschews the presentation of analysis for the pure narrative, leaving readers to draw the significance and implications of events for themselves—no easy task with such a large and complex subject as World War II.
Chapters lack summaries to indicate the import of the welter of factual material in them. Gilbert skips across Europe and the Pacific within paragraphs to establish events in chronological order, sometimes, it seems, on a nearly daily basis, and then does not provide an orderly overview of events. Perhaps he wishes the reader to understand that history does not necessarily proceed in an orderly fashion and that the historian’s attempt to place events in some rational order may falsify the natural disorder of things. To further complicate the picture, he intersperses the grand and majestic with the small and individual. Major battles on the eastern front, for example, may be juxtaposed with the struggle for survival of a single British prisoner of war in a Japanese camp simply because they occurred simultaneously, with no attempt made to distinguish between the significance of the two events.
While the appearance of many heretofore unnoticed characters helps to personalize the history of the war, the manner in which they appear, combined with Gilbert’s failure to differentiate among events in terms of their significance, is sometimes disconcerting. Usually, when authors personalize the histories of major events by including the recollections of the common people, such memories are used to illustrate some larger point and make it relevant to the general reader. Gilbert, however, allows these individual experiences to stand alone, not as illustrations but as points equal to a general discussion, for example, of a great battle.
Both the narrative approach to history and an approach that stresses the importance of the individual in...
(The entire section is 1567 words.)