November 1942: The End of the Beginning?

A review of “November 1942: An Intimate History of the Turning Point of WW II“, by Peter Englund, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2023. Trans Peter Graves)

by Jamie Arbuckle, for Peacehawks

This excellent book summarizes the several major events of that epic month, inter alia: the battles of Guadalcanal (in the Solomom Islands in Pacific), Stalingrad, el-Alamein (in North Africa), the North Atlantic. Given those outcomes, by the end of that month it was clear to many at that time that The Axis would not – it could not – prevail.

The author sub-titles his work an intimate history as “… the complexity of events emerges most clearly at the level of the individual”. These individual stories are those of 40 individuals; among them: a Russian private, a British fascist, a French university student, a Royal Air Force tail-gunner, an Italian paratroop major, a German soldier on the Eastern Front, a British tank troop leader, an Australian army medical officer, a Japanese destroyer commander, a Korean comfort woman, a USN dive-bomber pilot, Ernst Jaeger, Vera Britain, Sophie Scholl, Albert Camus.  The highly engaging method is to tell briefly and approximately chronologically, usually in several paragraphs, the personal experiences and perceptions of the characters, framed by the larger events as they occurred.

This structure is reminiscent of the French Annales school of historiography, and the works of Emanuel Leroy Ladurie, who re-created the lives of the peasantry of mediaeval France by enumerating in detail the recorded facts of their lives. In his works he juxtaposed the material and the mental worlds of the common people of those times.

Englund thus gives us the most intimate details of the lives in that month of a cast of characters as racially, geographically and culturally diverse as the events he features in this “turning point.” In so doing. he gives us the larger history through which his cast members lived, as he illuminates and links for us the people and the events, unforgettably.

The pity is that, despite the optimism of the Allies at the end of that month (Churchill called it “the end of the beginning”) the German occupation of most of Europe would only really begin to end more than one-and-a-half years later on 6 June 1944, which would also be the bloodiest day in American military history. And one week after that London would again be under terrifying aerial attacks, this time by the V-1and V-2 rockets.

The end of several things November 1942 certainly was but, as Churchill said, it was nevertheless far from the beginning of the end. VE Day, the victory in Europe, did not come until 8 May 1945. Still ahead were Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the war in the Pacific did not end until 2 September: VJ Day.

WWII did not finally end until nearly three years after November 1942.

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