History

12th January 2001 at 00:00
THE WORLD WARS.The War in the Trenches. By Ole Steen Hansen. ARMISTICE 1918. By Reg Grant. LEADERS OF WORLD WAR II. By Stewart Ross. GERMANY AND JAPAN ATTACK. By Sean Sheehan. GREAT BATTLES OF WORLD WAR II. By Ole Steen Hansen. WORLD WAR II: the allied victory. By Sean Sheehan. Hodder. Wayland. pound;11.99 each.

It is important that the two world wars of the past 100 years do not slide into historical indifference. The examples of evil, cruelty and courage that they produced have not yet been fully grasped; and as those who remember them as participants grow old and die, young people need to be given truthful and stimulating accounts of events that continue to shape the world.

This new series is admirable from many points of view. The books can be read separately, as they include enough information to give individual accounts a place within a much larger narrative. They are well written and avoid patronising simplicity as much as unnecessary elaboration. They use a wide range of archival illustrations, many of which are unfamiliar, to reinforce or counterpoint the text.

The two books on the first conflict are fine and poignant evocations of a world of rats, lice, moustached officers and dutiful infantry, patrols, no-man's-land and, above all, a seeming inability on anyone's part to put a stop to it all. They also give valuable insights into the technology of killing and defence; the ways in which human ingenuity was put to inhumane purposes.

This moving presentation also achieves the difficult task of fitting the personal suffering into its political frame. The cast of characters from Wilfred Owen and Hitler (whose last weeks of war were so dreadfully different), via Rosa Luxemburg, Mustafa Kemal and J M Keynes to the Unknown Soldier, gives a powerful sense of the universality of the war's reach.

As empires tumble and famine and revolution succeed them, readers are given helpful pointers towards the future. The significance of the "war guilt" clause inthe peace treaty is indicated, steering the world from the chaotic scenes of 1918 to the renewed horror of 1939. These two books, one written by a Dane and one by an Englishman, make a fine job of showing how European quarrels could destroy the lives of millions.

Those relating to the Second World War are also good: thoughtful, lucid, broad-minded and compassionate. Some of the pictures are well worth mentioning. Images of the smiling young Rommel, of the mature US president, Roosevelt, oozing charm and confidence (in colour), of a cartoon Stalin fighting himself with hammer and sickle, of fighters taking off from a Japanese aircraft carrier, are both unstaled by familiarity and fascinating in their enigmatic expository power.

The writing goes well beyond simplistic moralising. It looks at the rivalries among the Allied generals. It covers such complex issues as the dual loyalties of many Indians (to the Empire and to their own national aspirations), and at racism within the American forces.

The books' scope is broad enough to include major battles of interest to British readers such as Alamein and D-Day, but also to indicate the significance of huge arenas of death such as Midway and Kursk, about which we are accustomed to being told much less.

There is an appropriate overlap between the four titles. They place different emphases on the same people or incidents in a manner which adds illumination and historical perspective. Causes and effects are woven into a subtle pattern, while impossible mysteries such as the ultimate origins and nature of Hitler's wickedness are left alone.

Teenage readers who take in all four, who check words such as "genocide" or "kamikaze" in the useful glossary, who examine the serviceable maps and think about the marginal poems and diary extracts, will emerge with a sense of waste and tragic exhilaration. They will have taken their minds and feelings on an unforgettable and necessary journey.

Tom Deveson


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