Graeme Wood

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The Pointillist Presentation of History

The New York Sun

Review of 1945: The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas.

“I personally do not know a single Frenchman who can remember the day the war officially ended in Europe,” writes Gregor Dallas. Coming from a resident of the country, this claim sounds odd. What excuse could exist for forgetting May 8, 1945? Paris, after all, marked it in style, with crowded streets, a triumphant address by Charles de Gaulle, and an aerial trick in which an American B-25 Mitchell bomber buzzed the Eiffel Tower and then – in an especially memorable touch – flew under it. Even the French are not so difficult to impress that they could forget a stunt like that.

But in the context of May 1945, collective Gallic amnesia may make sense. By then, the eventual destruction of the Third Reich had not been in doubt for at least five months. Hitler’s Ardennes offensive had by January proven itself a desperate flop, and the Luftwaffe lay in permanent ruin. Since eventual victory was secure, the mayhem that still stalked liberated Europe felt particularly senseless and prolonged. To make matters gloomier, no one knew the Soviet juggernaut’s ultimate designs on Europe, and confrontation loomed like a thunderhead. V-E Day must have tasted intensely bittersweet, an arbitrary moment that looked ahead to a future just as menacing as the past.

Mr. Dallas’s “1945: The War That Never Ended” (Yale University Press, 739 pages, $40) attempts to explain how the confrontation with Hitler led to that moment of uncertainty – a moment he contends lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Mr. Dallas has produced a rambling, chatty, and expansive reading of the end of the war. His strong opinions, expressed promiscuously on a plethora of subjects, lack the careful argumentation that would satisfy serious scholars, but they will delight and aggravate most readers.

The title should not be taken literally: Hardly any of the book takes place in 1945, and it restricts itself to the European theater. For Mr. Dallas, the true drama was the victorious powers’ race to position themselves against each other after the obliteration of Nazi Germany. Only in 1944, he notes, did the surviving powers realize they were fighting for different things. The moribund Roosevelt’s (insufficient) wariness of Stalin is well-known. Mr. Dallas, a British writer, is nuanced enough to point out that the wariness was not only mutual but universal, and extended to Churchill and the British imperium as well as to the more inscrutable Allies to the east.

The narrative skips merrily across time, space, and subjects, beginning in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945 and visiting nearly all Europe and, retrospectively, all stages of the war. The result is a mild case of chronological whiplash. Military history, strategy, and generalship receive relatively little coverage, and political personalities – who clearly fascinate Mr. Dallas – attract extended analysis. The lives of ordinary Germans and Russians are examined, and there are set pieces on figures like George Orwell and Czeslaw Milosz. (Mr. Dallas shows a curious tendency to both over- and underestimate his audience. He includes schoolboy details about the plot of “Animal Farm,” Maynard Keynes’s status as “one of the greatest economists of all times,” Churchill’s mixed pedigree, and Roosevelt’s paralysis. Yet his discussion of the fate of Poland and the city of Warsaw is uncommonly rich and nuanced – not at all aimed at a general audience.)

What’s ultimately surprising is the lack of a larger “interpretation” of the end of the war, an argument about how events should have taken place. Instead, Mr. Dallas offers a whole host of ideas, some erratic but most broadly orthodox. His book is not a brief for any particular scholarly position but a scattering of retellings and opinions. His only broad theme is the unwillingness of the Western leaders, both during the war’s waning hours and after, to predict and then vigorously oppose Stalin’s domination of Eastern Europe. The ensuing misery in Poland and the gulags is the sense in which the war “never ended,” and instead reverberated for 50 years, like a cymbal crash the West failed to muffle decisively when the chance existed.

Though Mr. Dallas was trained as an academic, he makes no attempt at the sustained primary source work that is the scholar’s stock in trade. At the same time, he resists the laxer conventions of the popular writer. The book tells no battlefield tales worth remembering; there is nothing ripe for Spielberg treatment or a PBS series. It even declines to stick to a linear narrative. To read the chapters in reverse would not gravely impede one’s understanding of the book.

Compare Mr. Dallas’s hodgepodge to Antony Beevor’s “The Fall of Berlin, 1945” (2003) and Max Hastings’s “Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945” (2004), two recent popular histories of the end of the war. In these writers’ telling, the Allied armies creep in tandem toward the pulverized necropolis of Berlin. As popular history, they are triumphs of primary-source aggregation, archive-diving, and clear writing about complex events. One finds rich detail, but also a level of restraint that permits, for example, Mr. Beevor to describe the horrors of German civilians at the mercy of the Red Army, but then to hold back from extrapolating about the effect of that experience on the next 50 years. On any particular micro-issue Messrs. Beevor and Hastings opine with certainty, and yet there is no distinct sense of, say, Mr. Beevor’s grand vision of the war, or of how Mr. Hastings sees the war fitting into the world-historical processes that preceded and followed it.

“1945,” in contrast, exists for the sole purpose of extrapolating beyond the grisly tedium of the events of the war itself. In place of the sustained narratives, Mr. Dallas gives a pointillist presentation of history, with discrete snatches of fact deployed in imprecise succession to create a sweeping impression. In that sense Mr. Dallas is not practicing popular history so much as popular geopolitical science, informed by the events Messrs. Beevor and Hastings ably recorded.

Popular history of the war does not often stray into this territory, partly because informed commentary on big-picture issues presupposes detailed knowledge of small-picture issues. Nevertheless, there is a value in making gestures toward the grand conclusions that academic historians might avoid out of modesty, and that masters of narrative such as Messrs. Beevor and Hastings shun out of habit. Mr. Dallas’s individual interpretations range from the incontestable to the eccentric. Taken together, they add up to an impressive drunkard’s walk toward the historical truth.

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