Book Review: The Experience of WW2


The Experience of World War II, edited by John Campbell, is so unlike most other books on the topic as to be an important asset in any library. One dare say that should the reader ask the name of just one title to understand that world conflict and its aftermath, this would be the title given.

It is a bold claim for such a slim volume, but is supported by the content, that gives unusual prominence to the fighting services themselves, rather than just the fighting, and the home front – meaning here the impact of the war on the people at home, rather than the chattering in political circles. World War Two, for example, created the idea of the teenager, and the world has never been the same since.

The book`s preface is instructive; pointing out the war started as two distinct conflicts [and arguably only became one in 1941 through Hitler`s foolish and unnecessary declaration of war on the United States.] Campbell here refers to Japan`s ambitions in the East and Hitler`s ambitions in the West.

Japanese martial ardour provoked war first, in 1937. Campbell argues the war, when it came, was fought globally, only Antarctica, Latin America and southern Africa escaping its direct ravages “but even they could not escape from the disruption which convulsed the whole rest of the globe.”

He continues: It was a war in which the entire populations of all the affected countries were involved to an unprecedented degree, whether as combatants in the fighting services, as workers deployed in war-related industries, as civilians suffering invasion, occupation and aerial bombardment, or as the victims of persecution and mass extermination. It was the first truly ‘total` war in which the morale of whole peoples was put to the test.”

And: “The aim of this book is to encompass in one volume all these different aspects of the worldwide struggle, from its origins to its consequences, trying to hold in simultaneous perspective both Asian and European theatres and giving equal weight to both the military course of the war and its social and economic impact on the nations and individuals caught up in it.” In this he splendidly succeeds.

The addition of photographs, many not routinely published, and several in colour, brings home forcefully the impact of war, particularly for a generation that tends to view the 1940s in black and white (colour film being expensive, rare and problematic to process.

This is further augmented by fact files on key personalities and supporting quotes in the margins. For once attention is also paid to the role of the arts and propaganda in war, the experience of POWs and the difference in the domestic experience of the war in the US, UK, USSR, Japan, Germany and occupied lands, stretching from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies.

“All over the conquered territories Japanese rule was brutally exploitative. However elaborate the pretence of independence or self-government, the military used coercion to meet its ends and responded violently to any form of resistance,” we are told in a chapter entitled “Occupation and Resistance,” part of a larger section on “frontline civilians”. The sme can be said for the Germans, whose victories “were accompanied by conspicuous truimphalism” such as a daily military parade on the Champs Elysees in Paris.            

Propaganda dressed as entertainment gave pleasure to both sides, and some of the movies in this category, such as “Casablanca” have proved remarkably enduring.

Speaking about propaganda, the book adds that Goebbels was not the “czar” we now remember him as. “Goebbels, regarded by many, including himself, as the greatest propagandist of all time, was, up to a point, more respectful of the truth than most of his fellow Nazis. During the war, Germany`s enemies believed Goebbels to be a ‘Propaganda Czar`, omnipotent over the German media, a Mephistophelean genius, hideously assured in his brilliant lying.

The truth was less remarkable. As in other spheres, control of news and opinion in the Reich was rather clumsily divided. Dr Otto Dietrich, head of the Nazi Party Press Department, ranked exactly equal to Goebbels, and did not get on well with him. Nor did Goebbels control the Division for Wehrmacht Propaganda, which presented the most important news of all, that from the battlefronts. Hitler himself frequently meddled with this…” Another myth of German efficiency shattered…            

The Experience of World War II

John Campbell (Editor)