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A front-row seat to the planning of the assassination, the president’s last moments, and the shattering aftermath.
Holland, author of several successful works on specific aspects of World War II, here sets himself a more formidable task. This first of three projected volumes focusing on the war in Europe proposes to integrate three perspectives. The first is the human dimension, the human drama. Holland has extensively mined published sources and archives for the experiences and reactions of the men and women who were there, from presidents to mothers to riflemen. Yet he acknowledges that these perspectives are incomplete. From discussing the qualities of a warplane to describing the evacuation at Dunkirk, nuance and context are inevitably limited. That brings Holland to his second perspective: a commitment to presenting the war’s Big Picture in a literal sense. The geography of World War II in the West ranged from the Atlantic Ocean to the North African desert to the Ardennes Forest. Its scope was three-dimensional: a synergy of air, land, and sea operations. The distinctions between home front and fighting fronts blurred, then faded into a general nightmare. The challenge here is controlling the perspective: keeping it from dissolving into a series of poorly connected vignettes. Holland’s solution is his third perspective. He asserts—correctly—that the foci of general histories of the war have been polar: on the high end, addressing the decisions of generals and politicians and on the sharp end emphasizing the experiences of combat. Holland integrates his work by focusing on the war’s operational level. He defines this, with a stimulating breadth, as the level of war where things happen, where tools and theories are tested, where mistakes are rectified—or not. It is at the operational level where nuances emerge, and where clichés go to die. The Rise of Germany begins by seguing from Hitler’s decision to invade Poland to the French and British diplomatic responses, to the sick sense of déjà vu among German generals and English cricketers alike at the second call to arms in a quarter-century, and the temporary anticlimax of the Phony War. The work’s conclusion, on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, juxtaposes Germany’s growing unease at a conflict where battlefield victories were giving way to an economics-based struggle with no end in sight, with an American industrial mobilization as formidable as it was reluctant and the accompanying partnership short of war with a Britain that had held the ring heroically. In between, Holland conveys the physical and the emotional realities of old Europe’s final death grapple with a page-turning intensity and a perceptive insight that make this a standout in the increasingly crowded field of general works on the Second World War.