WW2 Reviews

|   28 January 2017

Reviews of ‘The Holocaust: A New History’

‘The amount of ground it covers in 500 pages is remarkable — from the antisemitism of popular German literature of the 19th century to Hitler’s suicide and the surrender of his regime. It’s excellently written and skilfully interweaves narrative history, sound interpretation and the recollections (through interviews, listed in the notes as “previously unpublished testimony”) of survivors… Rees provides an exemplary account of how the greatest crime in modern history came about.’

Oliver Kamm, the Times.

‘As a former head of BBC TV history programmes, Rees has produced some of the most thoughtful documentaries about Nazi Germany, and he tells this story through a mix of closeups and wide shots of the historical landscape. The latter provides crucial context, connecting anti-Jewish policy to the changing fortunes of the war and the dynamics of Nazi rule. Rees also explains how the perpetrators learned from earlier attacks on other “community aliens”, such as the disabled – the first victims of mass gassings in the Third Reich, who were murdered in “euthanasia” centres equipped with fake showers… Rees is a gifted educator, who can tell a complex story with compassion and clarity, without sacrificing all nuances… a fine book.’

Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, the Guardian

‘Into a general history of the Holocaust that draws also upon recent scholarship and contemporary documentation, Rees has woven the most searing first-person accounts… Rees has included these testimonies within a flowing narrative history…  producing the disturbing phenomenon of an extremely readable book about the Holocaust.’

David Sexton, the Evening Standard

‘Like [Primo] Levi, Rees understands the Holocaust as representing ‘a singular horror in the history of the human race’, and he is particularly well placed to guide us through the multitude of difficulties it presents. One of world’s foremost historical documentary film-makers, he has spent a lifetime thinking about the Nazi era, crafting balanced, rigorous and reflective films that have won plaudits and prizes…  He is also a seriously good storyteller — and this is his masterwork….  Laurence Rees has written a remarkable book.’

Philippe Sands, the Spectator

‘You might have thought that we know everything there is to know about the Holocaust but this book proves there is much more… Laurence Rees, an acclaimed historian and former head of BBC history, has spent a quarter of a century meeting the survivors and the perpetrators, and in the endnotes of this ground-breaking book the words ‘previously unpublished testimony’ are cited no fewer than 169 times.’

Andrew Roberts, the Daily Mail

‘this absorbing, heart-breaking book… a powerful, inevitably harrowing revelation of the 20th century’s greatest crime.’

Nick Rennison, the Sunday Times

‘Laurence Rees’s brilliant new history… Rees has distilled 25 years of research into this compelling study, the finest single volume account of the Holocaust…’

Saul David, the Daily Telegraph

WW2 Reviews

|   21 May 2015

Ardennes 1944

Antony Beevor’s new book ‘Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble’ is published today. The appearance of a new book by the master of military history is always special, and this new work does not disappoint.

The book displays all of the skills as a historian that have justifiably made Beevor famous. He combines a meticulous attention to detail with an ability to explain the immensity of the campaign and its context within this most horrific of wars. In particular, his description and assessment of the character of the British commander, Bernard Montgomery, is quite brilliant. How Montgomery managed to achieve such fame – despite his many personal inadequacies – is truly extraordinary.

‘Ardennes 1944’ is an important read. Anyone seriously interested in the history of the  Second World War should buy it now.

WW2 Reviews

|   4 June 2012

Beevor’s brilliant new book

Antony Beevor is not just one of the finest historians of the last fifty years, he is one of the finest writers. His book on Stalingrad transformed historical narrative writing when it was published in the late 1990s and this latest volume – his overview of the Second World War – is a masterly summary of the conflict.


WW2 Reviews

|   3 October 2011

All Hell Let Loose

Max Hastings’ new book ‘All Hell Let Loose’ is a one volume history of the Second World War. It is also, for a variety of reasons, a tremendous achievement.

Anyone seriously interested in WW2 is already familiar with Hastings’ work. From ‘Bomber Command’ to ‘Overlord: D Day and the Battle for Normandy’, from ‘Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945’ to ‘Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45′, Hastings has chronicled the conflict with his particular gift for understanding both military strategy and personal experience.

But ‘All Hell Let Loose’ is his best book on the war to date – and given his previous track record that really is saying something. It’s an important work in part because of the simplicity of the central question at the core – ‘what was it like to be in this war?’ And in exploring this vital issue Hastings delivers all of the insight into the military experience you might expect from a master of this history.

I was particularly struck, for example, not only by the power of the testimony he has found from both the Eastern Front and the Western Allies’ march on Berlin, but also by the anecdotes from the less well covered theaters of the conflict. Recounting the humane treatment the German Afrika Korps often meted out to their captives, for instance, Hastings quotes the revealing testimony of an Australian, Private Butler. He recovered two wounded comrades from the Germans and these Aussies told him that, ‘The Germans had shot them and then went out at great personal risk, brought them in and dressed their wounds, gave them hot coffee and then sent for their medical assistance. Thank God there is chivalry.’

But perhaps my favourite insight from the many warriors quoted in the book comes from Spitfire pilot Geoff Wellum, who recalls thinking this as he closed for a kill during the Battle of Britain: ‘My target, concentrate, the target. Looking at him through the sight, getting larger much too quickly, concentrate, hold him steady, that’s it, hold it… be still my heart, be still. Sight on, still on, steady… fire NOW!’

However, even more impressive, and showing a compassionate side that not every military historian possesses, is the way Hastings tells the story of the war through the words of those who suffered. He reveals, for example, how Derek Lambert, a nine year old evacuee, ‘sobbed in awful desolation’ having been taken from his home. And how a nineteen year old Jewish refugee in Norway, Ruth Maier, thought of ‘the Germans more as a natural disaster than as a people…’. In one particularly poignant piece he quotes Gustave Folcher watching columns of refugees as he passed them by during the Battle for France: ‘The children look at us one by one as we overtake them, holding in their hands the little dog, the little cat or the cage of canaries they didn’t want to be separated from.’

Alongside this moving and eclectic mosaic of testimony, Hastings tells the wider story of the war with all of the penetration and brilliance that his many fans expect. Indeed, the necessity to be concise in this single volume history of the war – to try and explain the entire conflict in one readable book – has brought out some of Hastings best ever historical writing and analysis. Always sympathetic, always understanding, yet never sentimental, Hastings has written a monumental work.

In his conclusion he eschews glib and simple judgment, saying rather that the Second World War ‘was the greatest and most terrible event in human history. Within the vast compass of the struggle, some individuals scaled summits of courage and nobility, while others plumbed depths of evil, in a fashion that compels the awe of posterity.’ And whilst he feels that, ‘It is impossible to dignify the struggle as an unalloyed contest between good and evil’ he ends this wonderful book with this important reminder:  ‘All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.’

WW2 Reviews

|   2 September 2011

Ian Kershaw and ‘The End’

A quite astonishing book

Many years ago, when I was on a BBC film directors course, the instructor came in to the cutting room to view the short historical documentary I had just made. He watched it once and then listed at least half a dozen things that were wrong with it – quite something given that the film was only five minutes long. I was depressed, my head hung low, when he patted me on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry, Laurence, just remember this – criticism is easy, creation is hard.’

I thought of those words reading Ian Kershaw’s latest book ‘The End’, about the last year or so of Hitler’s Germany. Because I believe that you can divide historians and the books they write into two sorts – there are those that are essentially critics and those that are essentially creators. And, perhaps needless to say, there are many more critics out there than creators. It is much easier to criticize other works of history, or to explain why a particular historical or philosophical theory has flaws, than to create a new way of understanding the past. (more…)