Many Europeans did not feel the full fury of the Second World War until its final year: Italians caught in the bitter partisan battles in the north, French men and women in the path of the allied armies after the Normandy invasion, the citizens of Budapest besieged by the Red Army, the inhabitants of Warsaw whose city was destroyed in a desperate battle against the Nazi occupiers, and, of course, the Germans themselves, who suffered from increasingly intense bombing raids and from the brutality of the advancing Soviet troops. The death throes of Hitler’s regime were long and incredibly painful for his supporters, reluctant allies, embattled enemies, and-as is always the case in war-for the millions of ordinary people unfortunate enough to be pulled into the vortex of violence.

Gregor Dallas’s 1945 complements more than it competes with Max Hastings’s recently published Armageddon, which also covers the final stages of the war. Hastings is one of the world’s finest military historians; no one has a better sense of war’s shape and texture, operations and tactics, strategic designs and human costs. Dallas can also write convincingly about battle, but his major emphasis is on the war’s political purposes and results.

Dallas is especially adept at capturing the interplay of personality and circumstance at the summit of power, where opportunity and necessity uneasily meet. His portraits of the war leaders-Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt, and Truman-are beautifully rendered, with just the right balance of anecdote and analysis. He has a good eye for the telling detail-one of my favorites is the scene of Harold Macmillan swimming naked in the sea while Charles de Gaulle, in full uniform, observed him from a nearby boulder. Dallas also has the ability to pick the right witnesses who impart to his accounts a vivid immediacy: Czeslaw Milosz on the siege of Warsaw, John Colville on Churchill’s conduct of the war, Macmillan on the aftermath of the Italian campaign.

Despite its title, 1945 covers much more than the war’s last year. Almost a third of the book deals with the political and military background to the closing campaigns. Here Dallas pays particular attention to France and Poland. Both countries were defeated early in the war, had governments in exile, troops fighting under allied command, and politically active resistance movements. Yet behind these parallels were much more important differences. German occupation policies in Poland were relentlessly brutal, in France, relatively mild (except, of course, for the policies concerning Jews); the French resistance never engaged more than a small minority; from the start, large numbers of Poles resisted courageously, establishing what amounted to an alternative state. And, of course, the two national stories had very different endings: France was liberated, Paris escaped destruction, a renewed French Republic became a prosperous member of the new Europe; Poland was abandoned by its Western allies, its capital leveled, its future left in the hands of a new gang of dictators. In France, the Second World War ended in 1945 with a sort of victory; in Poland, it lasted another forty-four years.

There are a number of memorable passages in 1945. The author has read widely and wisely. His reflections on the meaning of events are often arresting and provocative. There are, to be sure, moments when he falters. His attempt to grapple with the moral problems of the bombing offensive against German cities is oddly indecisive. I was not persuaded by his emphasis on the close relationship between the Holocaust and Stalinist terror: both were wicked, but they had different causes and different outcomes. Overall, Dallas is clearly more at home with the history of Britain and France than with that of Germany or the Soviet Union.

Finally, 1945 suffers from lack of an overarching argument. As a result, it is more like a quilt than a tapestry, composed of often splendid pieces that do not combine into a finished picture of the war’s character or meaning. However interesting many of these pieces are, they do not make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

The Second World War was, I am convinced, a just war that had to be fought and won. Brave men and women died to make victory possible. And yet one comes away from reading Gregor Dallas’s eloquent book with a profound sense of the war’s futility, wastefulness, and unintended consequences. For Americans, it may have been the last good war, which ended in a remarkable expansion of national power. For almost everybody else, the war brought suffering and devastation; for the losers, defeat was indeed terrible, but for the winners the fruits of victory were usually dry and bitter. War is a necessary evil-sometimes necessary, always evil.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is Professor Emeritus of History at Stanford University.

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