I’ve always liked the online essays of classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson. His work combines deep historical knowledge and jargon-free expression to make big, discomforting points about current affairs. I had never read any of his books, however.
I hadn’t until yesterday, when I started reading his latest, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won. Hanson grabbed me from the introduction and hasn’t let go. I can pay it a high accolade: It kept me awake on the train commute home to the suburbs, when I’m usually dozing off. I’m only 30 pages in on a 500-page book, but I know what I’ll have my nose in for the next week whenever possible.
Every page has striking passages that draw from Hanson’s knowledge of classical culture and world history. I want to quote something from every paragraph, he’s that compelling with his original take on World War II. Rather than a chronological approach, Hanson discusses the war in seven timeless, elemental themes: ideas, air, water, earth, fire, people, ends. His long, well-balanced sentences are a challenge to summarize or excerpt. One typical example:
Yet the pathetic socialist pamphleteer and failed novelist Benito Mussolini, and the thuggish seminary dropout, bank robber, and would-be essayist Joseph Stalin–traditional failures all–proved nonetheless in nihilistic times to be astute political operatives far more gifted than most of their gentleman counterparts in the European democracies of the 1930s.
Lessons applicable to current civil challenges constantly struck me. In his total grasp of the subject material, Hanson reminds me of both Charles Dickens and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The originality and argument of his thesis compares well to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010. While I’ve only started Hanson’s book, I suspect one difference is that Hanson will come to an elegant and succinct conclusion, in contrast to Snyder, who struggled to close with a Big Message, as if his book needed something beyond its statement of horrors. That being said, Snyder’s use of statistics was so eye-opening that I wrote about his book soon after it appeared, at the Times of Israel.
Bottom line: Color me impressed and informed by Hanson. I’ll say more once I finish the book.