The nightmare ended in jazz and cigarettes

World War Two: A Short History
by Norman Stone
Allen Lane,

Norman Stone is the master of the short history book. His 1980 biography of Hitler filled less than 180 pages in an age when accounts of forgettable cabinet ministers are five times as big. Both his Turkey: A Short History (2011) and his World War One: A Short History are recommended first reading for those specific areas of history.

Stone’s unique selling point in this crowded field is his power as a raconteur. His books are like being in the company of a wonderful, brilliant storyteller. He casually recalls that he once interviewed Albert Speer, who (to Stone’s surprise) did not know that Protestants were far more likely to be Nazi supporters than Catholics, and defended the British bombing of Germany’s cities. “It was somehow a massively sad evening,” Stone writes, “but we did our interview the following day and he was good, though he must have said it all before. Then, full of beans, and admired by all the women there, he marched off to his hotel and died.”

Stone’s terse style also allows concise analysis of the great decisions that sometimes baffle us. Why did Hitler declare war on the United States? Because he had no choice. Why did Britain not guarantee the well-defended democratic Czechoslovakia but declared war on the issue of the defenceless, undemocratic Poland? Because Hitler’s actions drove people mad.

The war, Stone notes, had its origins in the ill-thought-out peace treaties that followed the First War. Stone notes: “As a Frenchman remarked, it was too soft for its harshness.” The Great War had as its root cause the European powers preying on the Ottoman Empire, beginning with Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1912. But as Stone, the great Turkophile professor, points out, of all the countries created by Versailles, “the only one of these states that has worked has been modern Turkey”. This was in contrast to Austria, its name only thought up by the French after German-speaking representatives in the imperial parliament in Vienna had overwhelmingly voted to join Germany in 1918 (with one bishop dissenting on the grounds that it would be too Protestant). “Its independence had been unhappy, a Catholic peasant country with a socialist capital full of civil servants who had once governed an empire,” Stone writes. It was easy taking for the Nazis, especially as the French and the British responded to Hitler’s aggression with supreme idiocy, allowing Hitler to dismantle the Austrian state and Czechoslovakia. The Führer, Stone (a great smoker himself) recalls, kept the Czech president agitated by refusing to allow him a cigarette while ranting at him.

After that came Poland, a country that had none of the last victim’s natural or man-made defences, but in western thinking it was a “great virile nation”, in Neville Chamberlain’s words. Poland had smashed Russia in 1922 and so, the leaden thinkers assumed, it would do so again when faced with foreign aggression.

Soviet Russia, meanwhile, was despised by the West. The USSR had just gone through “the strangest paroxysm ever experienced by any country” with three-quarters of the senior office corps and two-thirds of the central committee of the Communist Party murdered. The western allies had ignored the USSR in its dealings with Germany and, as Stone remarks with characteristic wit: “Stalin, angered at being treated by the British like some sort of Emir of Bukhara, accepted.”

By now the British had been driven mad by Hitler, and accepted a war that would forever weaken it, ruin Germany and, while bleeding Russia of 20 million lives, at least forcing the insanely run Soviet system to get its act together. America was the only real victor, its dominance reflected by its colossal production. In 1944 the US produced 30 times more aircraft than in 1939, with 50,000 bombers made in total.

German production under Speer, as with much of its waging of war, was hugely impressive and innovative, if suicidal. The Luftwaffe’s war ended “aptly at Munich in 1945, when the first jet fighter had to be towed on to the field by oxen, to save fuel”. By this stage tens of millions had died for an ideology and yet, as Stone notes: “What is so extraordinary about it all is that Hitler himself said, in February 1945, that it had been a wasted effort, that it was impossible to work out what race really involved.”

The nightmare ended in the bunker with Hitler’s marriage, performed by a bystander, hauled in from outside, who was able to perform the service because he was a civil servant, “in his case, deputy chief of rubbish collection for Pankow”. And “when it was known that Hitler was dead, the secretaries and adjutants in the Chancellery put on jazz and lit cigarettes – forbidden in Hitler’s presence”.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald19/4/2013


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