The Second World War NPR coverage of The Second World War by Antony Beevor. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo The Second World War

The Second World War

by Antony Beevor

Hardcover, 863 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $35 |


Buy Featured Book

The Second World War
Antony Beevor

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

The British historian and author presents a single volume history of the world's largest conflict, from Manchuria in 1939 to the Soviet invasion of northern China six years later, describing the human drama of soldiers, civilians and political leaders.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about The Second World War

STF/AFP/Getty Images

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Read an Excerpt: The Second World War


In June 1944, a young soldier surrendered to American paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Normandy. At first his captors thought that he was Japanese, but he was in fact Korean. His name was Yang Kyoungjong.

In 1938, at the age of eighteen, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their Kwantung Army in Manchuria. A year later, he was captured by the Red Army after the Battle of Khalkhin Gol and sent to a labour camp. The Soviet military authorities, at a moment of crisis in 1942, drafted him along with thousands of other prisoners into their forces. Then, early in 1943 he was taken prisoner by the German army at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine. In 1944, now in German uniform, he was sent to France to serve with an Ostbataillon supposedly boosting the strength of the Atlantic Wall at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula inland from Utah Beach. After time in a prison camp in Britain, he went to the United States where he said nothing of his past. He settled there and finally died in Illinois in 1992.

In a war which killed over sixty million people and had stretched around the globe, this reluctant veteran of the Japanese, Soviet and German armies had been comparatively fortunate. Yet Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.

Europe did not stumble into war on 1 September 1939. Some historians talk of a 'thirty years' war' from 1914 to 1945, with the First World War as 'the original catastrophe'. Others maintain that the 'long war', which began with the Bolshevik coup d'etat of 1917, continued as a 'European Civil War' until 1945, or even lasted until the fall of Communism in 1989.

History, however, is never tidy. Sir Michael Howard argues persuasively that Hitler's onslaught in the west against France and Britain in 1940 was in many ways an extension of the First World War. Gerhard Weinberg also insists that the war which began with the invasion of Poland in 1939 was the start of Hitler's drive for Lebensraum (living space) in the east, his key objective. This is indeed true, yet the revolutions and civil wars between 1917 and 1939 are bound to complicate the pattern. For example, the left has always believed passionately that the Spanish Civil War marked the beginning of the Second World War, while the right claims that it represented the opening round of a Third World War between Communism and 'western civilization.' At the same time, western historians have usually overlooked the Sino Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, and the way that it merged into the world war. Some Asian historians, on the other hand, argue that the Second World War began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Arguments on the subject can go round and round, but the Second World War was clearly an amalgamation of conflicts. Most consisted of nation against nation, yet the international civil war between left and right permeated and even dominated many of them. It is therefore important to look back at some of the circumstances which led to this, the cruellest and most destructive conflict which the world has ever known.

The terrible effects of the First World War had left France and Britain, the principal European victors, exhausted and determined at any price not to repeat the experience. Americans, after their vital contribution to the defeat of Imperial Germany, wanted to wash their hands of what they saw as a corrupt and vicious Old World. Central Europe, fragmented by new frontiers drawn at Versailles, faced the humiliation and penury of defeat. Their pride shattered, officers of the Kaiserlich und Koeniglich Austro-Hungarian army experienced a reversal of the Cinderella story, with their fairytale uniforms replaced by the threadbare clothes of the unemployed. The bitterness of most German officers and soldiers at their defeat was intensified by the fact that until July 1918 their armies had been unbeaten, and that made the sudden collapse at home appear all the more inexplicable and sinister. In their view, the mutinies and revolts within Germany during the autumn of 1918 which precipitated the abdication of the Kaiser had been caused entirely by Jewish Bolsheviks. Left
wing agitators had indeed played a part and the most prominent German revolutionary leaders in 1918-19 had been Jewish, but the main causes behind the unrest had been war-weariness and hunger. The German right's pernicious conspiracy theory — the stab in the back legend — was part of its inherent compulsion to confuse cause and effect.

The hyper-inflation of 1923-4 undermined both the certainties and the rectitude of the Germanic bourgeoisie. The bitterness of national and personal shame produced an incoherent anger. German nationalists dreamed of the day when the humiliation of the Versailles Diktat could be reversed. Life improved in Germany during the second half of the 1920s, mainly due to massive American loans. But the world depression, which began after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, hit Germany even harder once Britain and other countries left the gold standard in September 1931. Fear of another round of hyper-inflation persuaded Chancellor Bruening's government to maintain the Reichsmark's link to the price of gold, making it over-valued. American loans had ceased, and protectionism cut off German export markets. This led to mass unemployment, which dramatically increased the opportunity for demagogues promising radical solutions.

The crisis of capitalism had accelerated the crisis of liberal democracy, which was rendered ineffective in many European countries by the fragmentary effect of voting by proportional representation. Most of the parliamentary systems which had sprung up following the collapse of three continental empires in 1918 were swept away, unable to cope with civil strife. And ethnic minorities, which had existed in comparative peace under the old imperial regimes, were now threatened by doctrines of national purity.

Recent memories of the Russian Revolution and the violent destruction of other civil wars in Hungary, Finland, the Baltic states and indeed Germany itself, greatly increased the process of political polarization. The cycle of fear and hatred risked turning inflammatory rhetoric into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as events in Spain soon showed. Manichaean alternatives are bound to break up a democratic centrism based on compromise. In this new collectivist age, violent solutions appeared supremely heroic to intellectuals of both left and right, as well as to embittered ex-soldiers from the First World War. In the face of financial disaster, the authoritarian state suddenly seemed to be the natural modern order throughout most of Europe, and an answer to the chaos of factional strife.

In September 1930, the National Socialist Party's share of the vote jumped from 2.5 per cent to 18.3. The conservative right in Germany, which had little respect for democracy, effectively destroyed the Weimar Republic, and thus opened the door for Hitler. Gravely underestimating Hitler's ruthlessness, they thought that they could use him as a populist puppet to defend their idea of Germany. But he knew exactly what he wanted, while they did not. On 30 January 1933, Hitler became chancellor and moved rapidly to eliminate all potential opposition.

The tragedy for Germany's subsequent victims was that a critical mass of the population, desperate for order and respect, was eager to follow the most reckless criminal in history. Hitler managed to appeal to their worst instincts: resentment, intolerance, arrogance and, most dangerous of all, a sense of racial superiority. Any remaining belief in a Rechtsstaat, a nation based on respect for the rule of law, crumpled in the face of Hitler's insistence that the judicial system must be the servant of the new order. Public institutions — the courts, the universities, the general staff and the press — kowtowed to the new regime. Opponents found themselves helplessly isolated and insulted as traitors to the new definition of the Fatherland, not only by the regime itself, but also by all those who supported it. The Gestapo, unlike Stalin's own secret police, the NKVD, was surprisingly idle. Most of its arrests were purely in response to denunciations of people by their fellow Germans.

The officer corps, which had prided itself on an apolitical tradition, also allowed itself to be wooed by the promise of increased forces and massive rearmament, even though it despised such a vulgar, ill-dressed suitor. Opportunism went hand in hand with cowardice in the face of authority. The nineteenth-century chancellor Otto von Bismarck himself once remarked that moral courage was a rare virtue in Germany, but it deserted a German completely the moment he put on a uniform. The Nazis, not surprisingly, wanted to get almost everyone into uniform, not least the children.

Hitler's greatest talent lay in spotting and exploiting the weakness of his opponents. The left in Germany, bitterly divided between the German Communist Party and the Social Democrats, had presented no real threat. Hitler easily out-manoeuvred the conservatives who thought, with naive arrogance, that they could control him. As soon as he had consolidated his power at home with sweeping decrees and mass imprisonment, he turned his attention to breaking the Treaty of Versailles. Conscription was re introduced in 1935, the British agreed to an increase in the German navy and the Luftwaffe was openly constituted. Britain and France made no serious protest at the accelerated programme of rearmament.

In March 1936, German troops reoccupied the Rhineland in the first overt breach of the Versailles and Locarno treaties. This slap in the face to the French, who had occupied the region over a decade earlier, ensured widespread adulation of the Fuehrer in Germany, even among many who had not voted for him. Their support and the supine Anglo-French reaction gave Hitler the nerve to continue on his course. Single-handed, he had restored German pride, while rearmament, far more than his vaunted public works programme, halted the rise in unemployment. The brutality of the Nazis and the loss of freedom seemed to most Germans a small price to pay.

Hitler's forceful seduction of the German people began to strip the country of human values, step by step. Nowhere was the effect more evident than in the persecution of the Jews, which progressed in fits and starts. Yet contrary to general belief, this was often driven more from within the Nazi Party than from above. Hitler's apocalyptic rants against Jews did not necessarily mean that he had already decided on a 'Final Solution' of physical annihilation. He was content to allow SA (Sturmabteilung) stormtroopers to attack Jews and their businesses and steal their possessions to satisfy an incoherent mixture of greed, envy and imagined resentment. At that stage Nazi policy aimed at stripping Jews of civil rights and everything they owned, and then through humiliation and harassment to force them to leave Germany. 'The Jews must get out of Germany, yes out of the whole of Europe,' Hitler told his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels on 30 November 1937. 'That will take some time yet, but will and must happen.'

Hitler's programme to make Germany the dominant power in Europe had been made quite clear in Mein Kampf, a combination of autobiography and political manifesto first published in 1925. First he would unite Germany and Austria, then he would bring Germans outside the borders of the Reich back under its control. 'People of the same blood should be in the same Reich', he declared. Only when this had been achieved would the German people have the 'moral right' to 'acquire foreign territory. The plough is then the sword; and the tears of war will produce the daily bread for the generations to come.'

His policy of aggression was stated clearly on the very first page. Yet even though every German couple had to purchase a copy on marriage, few seem to have taken his bellicose predictions seriously. They preferred to believe his more recent and oft-repeated assertions that he did not desire war. And Hitler's daring coups in the face of British and French weakness confirmed them in their hopes that he could achieve all he wanted without a major conflict. They did not see that the overheated German economy and Hitler's determination to make use of the country's head start in armaments made the invasion of neighbouring countries a virtual certainty.

Hitler was not interested merely in reoccupying the territory lost by Germany after the Versailles Treaty. He despised such a half-hearted step. He seethed with impatience, convinced that he would not live long enough to achieve his dream of Germanic supremacy. He wanted the whole of central Europe and all of Russia up to the Volga for German Lebensraum to secure Germany's self-sufficiency and status as a great power. His dream of subjugated eastern territories had been greatly encouraged by the brief German occupation in 1918 of the Baltic states, part of Belorussia, Ukraine and southern Russia as far as Rostov on the Don. This followed the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany's own Diktat to the nascent Soviet regime. The 'bread-basket' of Ukraine especially attracted German interest, after the near starvation caused largely by the British blockade during the First World War. Hitler was determined to avoid the demoralization suffered by Germans in 1918, which had led to revolution and collapse. This time others would be made to starve. But one of the main purposes of his Lebensraum plan was to seize oil production in the east. Some 85 per cent of the Reich's oil supplies, even in peacetime, had to be imported, and that would be Germany's Achilles heel in war.

Eastern colonies appeared the best means to establish self-sufficiency, yet Hitler's ambition was far greater than that of other nationalists. In line with his social-Darwinist belief that the life of nations was a struggle for racial mastery, he wanted to reduce the Slav population dramatically in numbers through deliberate starvation and to enslave the survivors as a helot class.

His decision to intervene in the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1936 was not as opportunistic as has often been portrayed. He was convinced that a Bolshevik Spain, combined with a left-wing government in France, presented a strategic threat to Germany from the west, at a time when he faced Stalin's Soviet Union in the east. Once again he was able to exploit the democracies' abhorrence of war. The British feared that the conflict in Spain might provoke another European conflict, while the new Popular Front government in France was afraid to act alone. This allowed Germany's flagrant military support of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Nationalists to ensure their ultimate victory while Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe experimented with new aircraft and tactics. The Spanish Civil War also brought Hitler and Benito Mussolini closer together, with the Italian Fascist government sending a corps of 'volunteers' to fight alongside the Nationalists. But Mussolini, for all his bombast and ambitions in the Mediterranean, was nervous about Hitler's determination to overturn the status quo. The Italian people were not ready, either militarily or psychologically, for a European war.

Eager to obtain another ally in the coming war with the Soviet Union, Hitler established the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan in November 1936. Japan had begun its colonial expansion in the Far East during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Profiting from the decay of the Chinese imperial regime, Japan established a presence in Manchuria, seized Formosa (Taiwan) and occupied Korea. Its defeat of Tsarist Russia in the war of 1904-5 made it the major military power in the region. Anti-western feeling grew in Japan with the effects of the Wall Street Crash and the worldwide depression. And an increasingly nationalistic officer class viewed Manchuria and China in a similar way to the Nazis' designs on the Soviet Union: as a landmass and a population to be subjugated to feed the home islands of Japan.

The Sino-Japanese conflict has long been like a missing section in the jigsaw of the Second World War. Having begun well before the outbreak of fighting in Europe, the conflict in China has often been treated as a completely separate affair, even though it saw the largest deployment of Japanese ground forces in the Far East, as well as the involvement of both the Americans and the Soviet Union.

In September 1931, the Japanese military created the Mukden Incident, in which they blew up a railway to justify their seizure of the whole of Manchuria. They hoped to turn the region into a major food-producing region as their own domestic agriculture had declined disastrously. They called it Manchukuo and set up a puppet regime, with the deposed emperor Henry Pu Yi as figurehead. The civilian government in Tokyo, although despised by officers, felt obliged to support the army. And the League of Nations in Geneva refused Chinese calls for sanctions against Japan. Japanese colonists, mainly peasants, poured in to seize land for themselves with the government's encouragement. It wanted 'one million households' established as colonial farmers over the next twenty years. Japan's actions left it isolated diplomatically, but the country exulted in its triumph. This marked the start of a fateful progression, both in foreign expansion and in military influence over the government in Tokyo.

A more hawkish administration took over and the Kwantung Army in Manchuria extended its control almost to the gates of Peking. Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government in Nanking was forced to withdraw its forces. Chiang claimed to be the heir of Sun Yat-sen, who had wanted to introduce a western-style democracy, but he was really a generalissimo of warlords.

The Japanese military began to eye their Soviet neighbour to the north and cast glances south into the Pacific. Their targets were the Far Eastern colonies of Britain, France and the Netherlands, with the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies. The uneasy stand-off in China was then suddenly broken on 7 July 1937 by a Japanese provocation at the Marco Polo Bridge outside the former capital of Peking. The Imperial Army in Tokyo assured Emperor Hirohito that China could be defeated in a few months. Reinforcements were sent across to the mainland and a horrific campaign ensued, fired partly by a Chinese massacre of Japanese civilians. The Imperial Army was unleashed. But the Sino-Japanese War did not end in a rapid triumph as the generals in Tokyo had predicted. The appalling violence of the attacker stimulated a bitter resistance. Hitler failed to recognise the lesson for his own onslaught against the Soviet Union four years later.

Some westerners began to see the Sino-Japanese War as a counterpart to the Spanish Civil War. Robert Capa, Ernest Hemingway, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, the film
maker Joris Ivens and many journalists all visited and expressed their sympathy and support for the Chinese in general. Left-wingers, a few of whom visited the Chinese Communist headquarters in Yenan, supported Mao Tsetung, even though Stalin backed Chiang Kaishek and his party, the Kuomintang. But neither the British nor the American government was prepared to take any practical steps.


Neville Chamberlain's government, like most of the British population, was still prepared to live with a rearmed and revived Germany. Many conservatives saw the Nazis as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Chamberlain, a former lord mayor of Birmingham of old-fashioned rectitude, made the great mistake of expecting other statesmen to share similar values and a horror of war. He had been a highly skilled minister and a very effective chancellor of the Exchequer, but he knew nothing of foreign policy or defence matters. With his wing-collar, Edwardian moustache and rolled umbrella, he proved to be totally out of his depth when confronted by the gleaming ruthlessness of the Nazi regime.

Others, even those of left-wing sympathies, were also reluctant to confront Hitler's regime, for they were still convinced that Germany had been treated most unfairly at the Versailles conference. They also found it hard to object to Hitler's professed desire to bring adjacent German minorities, such as those in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, within the Reich. Above all, the British and French were horrified by the idea of another European war. To allow Nazi Germany to annex Austria in March 1938 appeared a small price to pay for world peace, especially when the majority of Austrians had voted in 1918 for Anschluss, or union, with Germany and twenty years later welcomed the Nazi takeover. Austrian claims at the end of the war to have been Hitler's first victim were completely bogus.

Hitler then decided that he wanted to invade Czechoslovakia in October. This was timed to be well after German farmers had brought in the harvest because Nazi ministers were afraid of a crisis in the national food supply. But to Hitler's exasperation Chamberlain and his French counterpart Edouard Daladier, during the Munich negotiations in September, offered him the Sudetenland in the hope of preserving peace. This deprived Hitler of his war, but allowed him eventually to take over the whole country without a fight. Chamberlain also made a fundamental error in refusing to consult Stalin. This influenced the Soviet dictator's decision the following August to agree to a pact with Nazi Germany. Chamberlain, rather like Franklin D. Roosevelt later with Stalin, believed with misplaced complacency that he alone could convince Hitler that good relations with the western Allies were in his own interest.

Some historians have argued that, if Britain and France had been prepared to fight in the autumn of 1938, events might have turned out very differently. That is certainly possible from a German point of view. The fact remains that neither the British nor the French people were psychologically prepared for war, mainly because they had been misinformed by politicians, diplomats and the press. Anyone who had tried to warn of Hitler's plans, such as Winston Churchill, was simply regarded as a warmonger.

Only in November were eyes opened to the real nature of Hitler's regime.

Following the assassination of a German embassy official in Paris by a young Polish Jew, Nazi stormtroopers unleashed the German pogrom known as Kristallnacht from all the broken shop windows. With the warclouds over Czechoslovakia that autumn, a 'violent energy' had brewed up within the Nazi Party. The SA stormtroopers burned synagogues, attacked and murdered Jews, and smashed their shop windows, prompting Goering to complain about the cost in foreign exchange of replacing all the plate glass which came from Belgium. Many ordinary Germans were shocked, but the Nazis' policy of isolating the Jews soon succeeded in persuading the vast majority of their fellow citizens to be indifferent to their fate. And all too many were later tempted by the easy pickings of looted possessions, expropriated apartments and the 'Aryanization' of Jewish businesses. The Nazis were exceptionally clever in the way they drew more and more fellow citizens into their circle of crime.

Hitler's seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 — a flagrant contravention of the Munich Agreement – finally proved that his claim of bringing ethnic Germans back into the Reich was little more than a pretext to increase his territory. British outrage forced Chamberlain to offer guarantees to Poland as a warning to Hitler against further expansion.

Hitler complained later that he had been thwarted from having a war in 1938 because 'the British and French accepted all my demands at Munich'. In the spring of 1939 he explained his impatience to the Romanian foreign minister: 'I am now fifty,' he said. 'I would rather have the war now than when I am fifty-five or sixty.'

Hitler thus revealed that he intended to achieve his goal of European domination during a single lifetime, which he expected to be short. With his manic vanity, he could not trust anyone else to carry on his mission. He regarded himself as literally irreplaceable and told his generals that the fate of the Reich depended on him alone. The Nazi Party and his whole chaotic form of governance were never designed to produce stability and continuity. And Hitler's rhetoric of the 'Thousand Year Reich' revealed a significant psychological contradiction, coming as it did from a determined bachelor who took a perverse pride in being a genetic dead-end while harbouring an unhealthy fascination with suicide.

On 30 January 1939, the sixth anniversary of his taking power, Hitler made an important speech to the parliamentary deputies of the Reichstag. In it he included his fatal 'prophecy', one to which he and his followers in the Final Solution would compulsively hark back. He claimed that the Jews had laughed at his predictions that he would lead Germany and 'also bring the Jewish problem to its solution'. He then declaimed: 'I want today to be a prophet again: if international Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of the earth and therefore the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.' This breathtaking confusion of cause and effect lay at the heart of Hitler's obsessive network of lies and self-deception.

Although Hitler had prepared for war and had wanted war with Czechoslovakia, he still could not understand why the British attitude should now switch so suddenly from appeasement to resistance. He still intended to attack France and Britain later, but that was to be at a time of his own choosing. The Nazi plan, following the bitter lesson of the First World War, was designed to compartmentalize conflicts to avoid fighting on more than one front at the same moment.

Hitler's surprise at the British reaction revealed this autodidact's very imperfect grasp of world history. The pattern of Britain's involvement in almost every European crisis since the eighteenth century should have explained the Chamberlain government's new policy. The change had nothing to do with ideology or idealism. Britain was not setting out to make a stand against fascism or anti-semitism, even if the moral aspect later became useful for national propaganda. Its motives lay in a traditional strategy. Germany's hostile occupation of Czechoslovakia clearly revealed Hitler's determination to dominate Europe. That was a threat to the status quo, which even a weakened and unbellicose Britain could never countenance. Hitler also underestimated Chamberlain's anger at having been so comprehensively deceived at Munich. Duff Cooper, who had resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty over the betrayal of the Czechs, wrote that Chamberlain 'had never met anyone in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler ... Nobody in Birmingham had ever broken his promise to the mayor.'

Hitler's intentions were now chillingly clear. And the shock of his pact with Stalin in August 1939 confirmed that Poland would be his next victim. 'State boundaries', he had written in Mein Kampf, 'are made by man and are changed by man.' In retrospect, the cycle of resentment since the Treaty of Versailles may appear to have made the outbreak of another world war inevitable, but nothing in history is predestined. The aftermath of the First World War had certainly created unstable frontiers and tensions across much of Europe. But there can be no doubt that Adolf Hitler was the chief architect of this new and far more terrible conflagration, which spread across the world to consume millions, including eventually himself. And yet, in an intriguing paradox, the first clash of the Second World War — the one in which Yang Kyoungjong was first captured — began in the Far East.