World War II

Not many people create an archive. For almost thirty years, Phillip Maisel led the testimonies project at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC). Maisel’s memoir is his story of surviving the Holocaust and becoming ‘the keeper of miracles’.

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When I was a graduate student in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, Russian friends used to talk a lot about World War II. Their stories were of hardship and suffering stoically borne by the population and finally vindicated by victory in 1945. This was not dissimilar from what was published in the Soviet press on the subject, but without the press’s obligatory references to the wise leadership of the party. Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer tell basically the same story as my Soviet friends. Invoking the image of a ‘levée en masse spirit’ in the wartime Soviet Union, they admit that ‘strict discipline and repression certainly played a role’ in the state’s ‘unprecedented feats of mass mobilization’, but they put their interpretative emphasis elsewhere: ‘without the support of the vast majority of people and workers in particular, the great achievements on the home front would not have been possible’.

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The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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In its long war in Afghanistan, Australia lost forty-one soldiers. These deaths were felt keenly, and usually the prime minister, other senior politicians, and army chiefs attended the funerals. In addition, more than 260 soldiers were wounded. Service in Afghanistan was trying and demanding. Yet, while Special Forces units were constantly rotated through numerous deployments, at any particular time fewer than 2,000 Australian soldiers were serving in Afghanistan. ... (read more)

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel, translated by Stephanie Smee

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When German forces invaded France on 10 May 1940, the French signed an armistice that facilitated limited French sovereignty in the south, the section of the country not yet overrun by German troops. On 10 July 1940 the French Parliament elected a new, collaborationist regime under former general Philippe Pétain ...

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In his introduction to this book, Richard Toye makes the startling but, as far as I know, accurate claim that this is the first book to offer a comprehensive analysis of Churchill’s wartime speeches. For a series of orations that now occupy many pages of any dictionary of quotations, The Roar of the Lion fills a surprising gap. Unfortunately, it does not fi ...

Garry Disher’s World War II novel Past the Headlands (2001) was inspired in part by his discovery of the diary of an army surgeon in Sumatra, who wrote of how his best friend was trying to arrange passage on a ship or plane that could take them back to Australia before the advancing Japanese army arrived. But one morning the surgeon woke to find that his friend had departed during the night. Mateship in a time of adversity, that most vaunted of masculine Australian virtues, had turned out to be a sham. The elusiveness of real friendship and love, and the difficulty of discerning what is true and what is false in human conduct, are recurring themes in Disher’s writing, and he visits them again in his latest book, Bitter Wash Road.

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Michael Fullilove, head of the Lowy Institute, has written about President Roosevelt and the men who helped him to guide the US so reluctantly into World War II. Dennis Altman reviews this model of academic research.

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Too often histories of World War II either have ‘total’ in their title or make great play with total war as a concept. Essentially this is meaningless, because all that is meant by total war is big war. Antony Beevor mercifully does not call World War II ‘total’ or make any reference to total war.

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