Hellish: A German casualty at El Alamein
Professor Norman Stone has achieved the impossible; he has somehow written a comprehensive history of the Second World War in just under 200 pages, summarising the entire conflict while leaving out nothing of importance and bringing his lifetime of study of the subject to bear in a witty, incisive and immensely readable way. Having struggled to write a history of the same war in fewer than 700 pages myself a couple of years ago, I am still being taught lessons by Stone a full three decades after he was my history supervisor at Cambridge.
The Second World War matters to the author in a more visceral way than to most historians of the subject, of whom there has certainly been no dearth in recent years. His father read law at Glasgow University before joining the RAF and taking part in the Battle of Britain, serving in the City of Glasgow 602 squadron. The battle won, as soon as he could be spared he was taken out of the front line for the vitally important task of training pilots, and it was while doing this that he was killed in a plane crash in Wales in February 1942. Stone still has his father's compass. This book is dedicated to his father's brother-officers, who raised the money to pay for his education. "It was," as Norman writes, "a good world".
It was to save that good world that Britain went to war against Adolf Hitler, whose biography Stone wrote in 1980. The joy of this book is that it is written in precisely the conversational style of one of his immensely entertaining university tutorials, complete with the jokes and aperçus. The NSDAP (Nazi) party he translates, for example, as "the National (meaning ‘anti-foreign') Socialist (meaning ‘stealing') German (meaning ‘anti-Semitic') Workers (meaning ‘lower-middle-class') Party".
In the first chapter we learn of the failure of the League of Nations, "that had specially been devised to give President Woodrow Wilson a platform from which to moralise at everybody", of the collapse of the Weimar Republic after the 1932 election—apart from voting to dissolve itself, the Reichstag only managed one other "yea" vote, which was to deprive women civil servants of security of tenure—and of the triumph of appeasement in the West. The author makes the best possible case for reactionary politics, which is that "Churchill was reactionary, and true reactionaries detested Adolf Hitler, the most revolutionary figure in German history".