Reviewed by Charlie Hall
It is a good time to be a historian of the Second World War. Amid the upsurge of public interest generated by the 75th and 80th anniversaries of that conflict, scholars have seemingly endless opportunities to engage with the period. Even just within Britain, and just within the last few years, there has been the launch of entirely new Second World War and Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum, a range of dedicated conferences and events (most notably ‘From the Personal to the Global: Lived Experiences of the Second World War’ at the University of Edinburgh), and a whole host of new publications.
Among these new releases is The Peoples’ War: The Second World War in Sociopolitical Perspective, an edited collection, assembled by three leading scholars in the field and comprising fifteen chapters with a wide-ranging and genuinely international remit. In the introduction, the editors make a modest claim – the goal of their book, they write, is not to offer a comprehensive reimagining of the Second World War, but rather to stimulate new directions for research. They certainly achieve this latter objective, but it strikes me that this work does rather more than that too. It encourages the reader to think differently about many different facets of the conflict, from the well-known to the more obscure; it challenges a whole host of preconceptions and gaps in the record; and it shows how much life there still is in a field which has long been a staple of both academic research and so-called ‘popular’ history.
While it is not possible to discuss all of the chapters in depth here, the standard across the board is exceptionally high. In almost all cases, the work here represents cutting-edge research that sheds new light on a myriad of topics. To highlight just a few standout sections: Katherine Howells’ application of social history techniques to the relationship between visual media and cultural memory does an expert job of unpacking the baggage associated with artefacts like the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters. Edward J.K. Gitre’s chapter on the American armed forces’ investigations into the psychology of their recruits makes us reconsider the experience and mentality of the average soldier and what that can tell us about mass mobilisation in a democratic age. Christina J.M. Goulter deftly takes the reader through the complexities of Greece’s wartime experience, presenting a fascinating account of internecine strife without getting bogged down in the plethora of unfamiliar acronyms.
Of course, a good edited collection has to be more than the sum of its parts. Efforts have certainly been made here to bind the chapters together and give them a thematic unity, with authors often making passing reference to other chapters (though these do feel a bit tangential in places). The concept of a ‘peoples’ war’ is certainly a broad one, but in places here its elasticity is stretched to its limit, as it strives to cover everything from American university policy, to Japanese propaganda in occupied China, to German anti-partisan warfare. This is not a criticism, however, merely a note that readers should expect a very wide scope in this collection.
There are laudable efforts here to open up aspects of the war which will be less familiar to the general reader, such as the aforementioned chapter on occupied China or another on Italian actions in the Balkans, and the final chapter actively encourages a (principally Anglophone) readership to consider how the war is seen and remembered elsewhere, through the specific case study of Poland. That said, the book does still focus principally on Europe and the USA, with only two of the chapters covering Asia, and none on Africa, the Middle East, or Central and South America. There are four chapters on Italy alone, which does somewhat skew the balance. The book does not suffer as a result – there is plenty of substance and diversity in the areas that it does cover – but it reminds us how much more there is still to say about otherwise understudied theatres of the war.
On the whole, then, this is an excellent collection which should be a very welcome addition to even the most overloaded bookshelves of Second World War history. Some of the chapters provide new perspectives on well-established themes (‘Blitz spirit’, for instance), others bring less familiar topics into the wider global narrative, and all offer very compelling evidence for the rude health and encouraging future prospects of the field. As Jadwiga Biskupska’s closing chapter reminds us, the stories we tell about the Second World War still have real power and meaning, so it is vital that historians continue to revisit, update and, where necessary, complicate them. This book is a substantial contribution to that endeavour.
The Peoples’ War? The Second World War in Sociopolitical Perspective, edited by Alexander Wilson, Richard Hammond, and Jonathan Fennell (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022; 400pp.; £26.99)
Charlie Hall is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Kent. His first book, British Exploitation of German Science and Technology, 1943-1949, was published by Routledge in 2019.