In 1961, the British historian AJP Taylor published a book titled The Origins of the Second World War, removing the blame for the event that had, until then, been placed squarely on the shoulders of Adolf Hitler. He blamed other world leaders equally, listing a series of what he referred to as mistakes that primed the escalation of war.
Antony Beevor takes off where Taylor stopped. What makes his telling of this tale more compelling is the careful peeling back of layers surrounding each of the many bit players. He abstains from comment, choosing to present the facts as he sees them instead.
This isn’t to say there are no problems. The sheer volume of material leads to some events getting the short shrift (the actual beginning of the first war, for instance) while, at other places, it seems as if the only thing he is doing is relentlessly cataloguing a series of clashes. The jumps from country to country are also difficult to keep track of, at times, and some readers may question the need to devote more space to the Holocaust than, say, the 20 million who died in China or the sustained bombing of Great Britain and Northern Ireland between September 1940 and May 1941 — in what was referred to, rather succinctly, as the Blitz.
What this book does reveal, eventually, is a couple of cliches. History does repeat itself. We don’t seem to learn from past mistakes. It’s a tale that deserves to be told often.