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The month the world changed

New research brings a valuable insight into the role of people not usually seen or heard in stories of war.

Confronted with such terrible events, “our comprehension, judgment, language even, struggles” (Pavel Neznanov/Unsplash)
Confronted with such terrible events, “our comprehension, judgment, language even, struggles” (Pavel Neznanov/Unsplash)
Published 23 May 2024 

Book review: November 1942, by Peter Englund (Bodley Head, 2024)

Early on in politics, Richard Nixon believed that knowing and understanding America – comprehensively and exhaustively – would enable him to view his country as from a telescope. After a lifetime’s campaigning, Nixon realised that the view on offer was rather that of a kaleidoscope, one crammed with diversity, variety, a maze of colours and shifting patterns.

Peter Englund resolutely tries to use both telescope and kaleidoscope in his account of November 1942, here rightly presented as “the month that marked the turning point of the Second World War”. That month embraced the battles of Stalingrad and el Alamein, fighting through Guadalcanal, invasions of Morocco and Algeria, and the termination of the Vichy regime.

November 1942 is therefore well suited to a conventional approach to military history, focused on great men and grand strategy, replete with maps and arrows, incomplete without stories of heroism and sacrifice. Englund takes the opposite tack. He is determined “to say something about how it was”. That emphasis reflects Englund’s conclusion that, confronted with such terrible events, “our comprehension, judgment, language even, struggles”.

Convinced that “the complexity of events emerges most clearly at the level of the individual”, Englund selects witnesses from the various fields of battle to offer testimony. Other historians might cavil that the chroniclers (39 are highlighted) are not representative, that they self-selected by keeping diaries or writing memoirs, and that the truth – or perhaps even the whole truth – might lie elsewhere.

Cover image of Peter Englund's book November 1942

Pedants might also be annoyed that Englund breaks the month into four sections, corresponding to weeks, instead of following one figure or another from beginning to end. They might be vexed at Englund’s tendency to insert context and elaborate on detail in passing or in footnotes. November 1942 is immersive history, bringing characters and narratives to life with skills sometimes reminiscent of Pat Barker, Tim O’Brien or E.L. Doctorow.

A few of Englund’s witnesses are justly famous: a resistance heroine (Sophie Scholl), an exceptional journalist (Vasily Grossman) and a novelist suffering from tuberculosis (Albert Camus). The known figure who stands out most heroically is Weary Dunlop: “his physical and moral courage are inseparable”.

Those people who have not been seen nor heard from before certainly hold their own. A machine gunner flies in a bomber over Germany, an English pacifist tries to make herself useful, a Russian soldier pursues retreating Germans across the steppe, a Japanese destroyer captain attacks ships off the Solomons, a young woman takes refuge in Shanghai, and so on and on. Englund recounts his history in the present tense, presumably to create the illusion of a more urgent, personal perspective.

Englund’s research is prodigious, his command of detail arresting, his skill at re-creating sounds and smells consistently excellent. In addition, a reader learns of vain attempts to ruin the ending of “Casablanca” or the fact that one billion cinema tickets were sold in Germany during 1942. War is depicted as a tragedy, an enveloping avalanche and sometimes (as with a lost Italian unit given to looting) as a boys’ adventure. Englund can even be laconic: “one man’s death was another man’s boots.”

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