The Second World War

By Joanna Bourke

What is happening at today’s university presses? Several months ago the world scientific community was outraged at the publication of a book titled The Skeptical Environmentalist by one Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg’s point, which went unchallenged by most reviewers, was that there is really nothing wrong with the environment. It was not a well-made case. A statistician, Lomborg apparently pulled most of his evidence from newspaper articles he’d been reading on the subject. When he was finally drawn and quartered by the experts there was plenty of anger left over directed at the irresponsibility of his distinguished publisher, Cambridge University Press. How did they let this happen?

I found myself asking the same question when reading Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory. A product of Oxford University Press, it wound up being one of the few books I’ve ever actually thrown into the garbage. How it could have been considered for publication by anyone, much less a university press, was a mystery to me.

Which brings us to The Second World War: A People’s History, published by Oxford University Press.

To begin with, I’m not sure what Joanna Bourke’s rationale was in undertaking this project. Presumably the subtitle is meant to indicate some kind of special focus on the experience of civilians, allowing “individual participants to tell us about their experiences” in their own words, but this is an approach that has been gone over many times before in far greater depth. While proclaiming itself “A People’s History,” the volume appears to be nothing more than a collection of lecture notes Bourke has thrown together on some of the books she has recently read on the subject (80% of the sources cited in the endnotes are works published in the 1990s or later – “being current” is what counts as research in today’s universities).

Covering so much ground in so few pages is bound to raise issues of priority. Since Bourke’s starting point is the impact of the Second World War on civilian populations, it is perhaps not surprising that the chapter on the Holocaust is the longest in the book (over three times the length given to the “Battle of the Atlantic”). Yet even though it may not be surprising, it is clearly a radical emphasis. Readers expecting a military history, or even a balanced overview of the human suffering caused by the war, may consider themselves forewarned.

The writing is typical of today’s bad academic prose trying to make itself popular. Common words are frequently placed in quotation marks, apparently to signify some superior awareness or position of the author’s that the reader is left to infer. Take, for example, the following observation:

Also, of course, the enemy differed depending on which ‘side’ you were on – and that could change quite rapidly.

Why is the word “side” placed in quotation marks? Does Bourke mean to imply that there were, in fact, no sides to be taken in the war? Surely the point she goes on to make, that the “nature [sic] of the enemy” could “change quite rapidly,” hardly needs any special emphasis.

And again: Here is Bourke’s defending her decision to write such a book. “It is legitimate to ask why we even need another history – and a very short one at that – of the Second World War,” she begins. An excellent point. One reason, she suggests, is that

We are at risk of ‘forgetting.’

The common reader may think this a perfectly comprehensible point. We write history books because otherwise we might forget. We are at risk of forgetting. But why are we at risk of “forgetting”? And so it goes. We start to get the sense the author is trying to communicate with us in code. What on earth does it mean to say that we are “all potentially ‘evil’”? If Bourke has any idea what she’s talking about I’d say it’s past time she let us all in on the secret.

Nor is this all. Another over- and misused style point is her habit of following up simple statements with explanations and clarifications beginning with “In other words . . . ” Unfortunately it is only very rarely that the follow-up puts the original thought in other words. Usually it says something quite different in meaning. Would a proofreader have been too much to ask?

Then there is the substance of what Bourke has to say. For the most part her observations are so general as to be commonplace. In other places, however, we find truly surprising conclusions tossed off as glib asides. At one point we are told that American racist attitudes toward the Japanese “almost lost them the war.” How so? Was it really that close a thing? Even more shocking is the revelation that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor because they “seemed to have nothing to lose” – a statement so patently absurd, indeed incomprehensible, that it is flatly contradicted two pages later, where it is said that “a lot was at stake” in the attack.

Isn’t a history book published by a distinguished university press supposed to be more carefully developed than this? The contradictions and maddening use of language continue. Of the Holocaust, Bourke writes: “the idea that the murder of the Jews was some kind of ‘bureaucratic’, ‘anonymous’, ‘mechanical’, or ‘industrial’ affair [again with the quotation marks!] is no longer tenable.” Why? Because the “face-to-face nature of many instances of mass murder is undisputed.” Well, fine, but that doesn’t make the industrialized, bureaucratic organization of death any less of a fact. Bourke herself recognizes this when, on the next page, she gives the “‘bureaucratization’” of the murder process as one in a list of factors enabling genocide.

It is a point she refuses to drop, despite her obvious confusion. “Evil was not ‘banal’,” she later concludes, “quite the contrary: it infused every subtle nuance of the society from which it was born.” You have to read a sentence like that and ask yourself if Bourke has any idea what the word “banal” means.

But then, in her defence she didn’t actually say “banal.” She said “‘banal’.”

Which may or may not make a difference to anyone reading this terrible “book.”

Review first published online February 11, 2002.