By Olivier Wieviorka. Translated by M.B. Debevoise
Belknap Press, 2009, 464 pp.
One might think that there would be little new for historians in the big events of World War II, but the books keep on coming. Perhaps this is because of the war's extraordinary scale, the enduring respect for those who fought, or the belief that, despite all the revisionism and the Allies' faults, this was a good war, fought for a just cause. Or maybe it is because the conflict occurred
within living memory yet sufficiently long ago to be assessed dispassionately and with the benefit of better records from more countries. Historical fashions have also changed: there is now an expectation that war will be described not solely from the viewpoint of the politician and the general but from that of the soldier, too.
Beevor, who last cast a fresh eye on the Battle of Stalingrad, in Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943, now does the same with D-day, the Normandy landings of June 1944. He can deplore General Bernard Montgomery's egotism and give due marks to General Dwight Eisenhower's diplomatic skills; he can acknowledge the tenacity of the German troops, keep the chaos of Omaha Beach in perspective, record the routine murder of burdensome prisoners on both sides, and worry about the suffering of French civilians, especially in the name of questionable strategic necessity, as with the bombing of Caen. But where the book really scores is in its eye for the operational detail and in its vivid reconstructions of the experience of battle, as unavoidable courage mixes with arbitrary tragedy.
Beevor's book concludes with the dramatic and successful rush by the French Second Armored Division to be the first to liberate Paris. Wieviorka's account, originally published in French, naturally explores the French dimension: the activism of the Resistance, the civilian casualties, and, most of all, the determination of Charles de Gaulle to speak for France and be heard, however much he irritated his allies. All this is part of a full, somewhat more traditional top-down account of the preparations for the landing and their aftermath.