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Lessons For Europe From 'The Second World War'

For most people, the start of World War II means German soldiers marching into Poland. Historian Antony Beevor begins and ends his new book, The Second World War with something different: the story of a German soldier who was actually Korean, was captured in Normandy, and wound up living in Illinois.

In 1938, 18-year-old Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted by the Japanese — who then controlled Korea — and was sent to fight in Manchuria. "He was taken prisoner, put in a labor camp, then forced into the Red Army, captured again by the Germans, and then forced into the German Army, when he was finally captured by American paratroopers," Beevor tells NPR's Scott Simon. Yang's story "emphasized the global nature of the war," he adds. "And it underlined how the average individual had no control over their own fate."

Combat was grueling on the ground and in the air. Gunners in particular often suffered frostbite when their plug-in flight suit heaters failed — and there was almost no way to relieve yourself while in flight. "Then there was the problem of anoxia, of actually passing out through lack of oxygen, because quite often the oxygen pumping wasn't working properly," Beevor says. "It certainly caused sort of mental problems in some of them because of oxygen to the brain. It was a terrible life for all of them."

Even more than 70 years after the start of the war, Beevor says there are still discoveries to be made. "It's partly the huge amount of material, that you can always find new stuff. And also that there are always going to be some things which have been covered up," he says.

Beevor says the one covered-up detail that shocked him the most was the degree of cannibalism practiced by Japanese forces, "which actually was an organized strategy toward the end of the war." He says that after the war, Australian and American authorities began to realize what had gone on. "It was so horrific, and of course they were appalled at the idea, the psychological effect that this would have on the families of those who died in Japanese imprisonment, that the whole thing was kept quiet." But, Beevor adds, he's encouraged that young Japanese historians are beginning to dig into these hidden histories, "which is something one could not have imagined, say, 10 or 15 years ago."

Are there parallels between Europe in the years leading up to the war and crisis-ridden Europe today? Beevor sees some, but he advises caution: "The Second World War has become the dominant reference point for every single crisis and conflict today." But, he says, the European Union and its single currency were devised as a direct response to the nationalistic conflicts that sparked the war.

"I'm afraid we're seeing a terrible paradox at the moment," Beevor says. To control the euro's slide and the economies of the nations in crisis, the EU will have to centralize power. "And that's going to be seen as ... at best, elective dictatorship," he continues. "Now, this is going to reawaken the very monster of nationalism, which the whole European Union was hoping to put to sleep."

Beevor says there are specific things the EU must watch for. "This is the real parallel with the Second World War, if you ever start seeing the dehumanization of ethnic groups or of foreign minorities or whatever it might be," he says.

And he points to one more parallel: In 1938 as in 2012, the European population is ill-informed about the danger of their situation. "The difference, of course, is that the threat of war tends to be a unifying factor, and the threat of economic collapse could not be more divisive," Beevor says.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Antony Beevor begins and ends his history of World War II with the story of a German soldier who was Korean, but captured in Normandy, and wound up living in Illinois. This one detail suggests a lot about the unmatched scope and complexity of the conflict that killed 60 million people and still defines much of the way in which we see history today, more than 70 years after than war began.

To write a new readable one-volume history of that war is an audacious attempt for a historian. Antony Beevor, who's the author of previous best-sellers on the battle of Stalingrad, Normandy and the last days of Berlin has attempted just that in his new book, "The Second World War." Mr. Beevor's book is winning attention for several new details that he's uncovered and developed, too.

Antony Beevor, who is also professor of history at the University of London, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANTONY BEEVOR: Great to be with you.

SIMON: First, I don't want to lose the story of this soldier. How did Mr. Yang wind up in the German army?

BEEVOR: Well, it's an extraordinary story and for me, it said two things at the same time. One was it emphasized the global nature of the war, and the other, it underlined how the average individual had no control over their own fate. So Yang, at the age of 18, was grabbed by the Japanese. Korea was a Japanese colony at that stage, forced into the Japanese army and then at the battle of Khalkhin Gol he was taken prisoner, put in a labor camp, then forced into the Red Army, captured again by the Germans, and then forced into the German Army, when he was finally captured by American paratroopers.

SIMON: You have an especially vivid section that I want to get you to talk about because it reminds us how grueling air combat can be, even for those crews that survived.

BEEVOR: It was appalling in a way and particularly for sort of the waist gunners. It was freezing old and sometimes they had the electrical plug-in warmers in their overalls. But often these didn't work and I mean, many of them suffered from frostbite as a result. You know, you can hardly relieve yourself very well, particularly when you're zipped up in that particular way.

Then there was the problem of anoxia, of actually passing out through lack of oxygen, because quite often the oxygen pumping wasn't working properly. It certainly caused sort of mental problems in some of them because of lack of oxygen to the brain. It was a terrible life for all of them.

SIMON: How is it that 70 years after war, there's always something new to be discovered?

BEEVOR: It's partly the huge amount of material, that you can always find new stuff. And also, that there are always going to be some things which have been covered up. I mean, I suppose the thing which shocked me the most and which it has been covered up for such a long time was the degree of Japanese cannibalism, which actually was an organized strategy towards the end of the war.

And the reason why this was suppressed was actually a very logical one. When the Australian war crimes commission and the American authorities at the end of the war started to realize that this had actually been an organized strategy by Japanese officers and that local civilians and allied prisoners had actually been used as human cattle and had been kept alive and then just killed one by one to provide meat, it was so horrific, and of course they were appalled at the idea, the psychological effect that this would have on the families of those died in Japanese imprisonment that the whole thing was kept quiet.

But I think one of the encouraging things is that sort of young Japanese historians now are starting to dig into these sort of areas, which is something which one could not have imagined say 10, 15 years ago.

SIMON: Mr. Beevor, let me tempt you into talking carefully about present day events, because maybe we should remind ourselves the EU was formed and the euro was adopted out of concern that, after all, two world wars had developed in the 20th century in Europe, nations had to devise a stake in each other's prosperity and success. Do you see anything in current events?

BEEVOR: Well, I'm afraid, yes, there are a number. One's got to be very, very careful about the parallels, because the Second World War has become the dominant reference point for every single crisis and conflict today. But what you were saying about the EU is absolutely right. I mean, the motivation behind European unification was the idea that through unification you could prevent nationalism boiling over and all the rest of it.

Well, I'm afraid we're seeing a terrible paradox at the moment, because with the collapse of the euro, the European Commission is going to have to centralize power in a very dramatic way so as to be able to control the economies of the debtor nations. And that's going to be seen almost as a form of sort of centralized dictatorship. I mean, at best elective dictatorship, but in fact a complete democratic deficit. Now, this is going to reawaken the very monster of nationalism, which the whole European Union was hoping to put to sleep.

SIMON: Any instruction you would dare to give at this point?

BEEVOR: I certainly wouldn't dare to give any instruction. I think I would certainly point out the warning bells that we should look for, particularly as soon as you start seeing a dehumanization - and this is the real parallel with the Second World War - if you ever start seeing the dehumanization of ethnic groups or of foreign minorities or whatever it might be.

There's one similarity, which is that in 1938 and today, the governments have not informed the populations of Western Europe, not has the press informed the populations of Western Europe, quite how severe the danger is.

The difference, of course, is that the threat of war tends to be a unifying factor. But the threat of economic collapse could not be more divisive. And I think this is one of the reasons why politicians in Europe simply are terrified of telling the truth, because that will only worsen the disaster.

SIMON: And to put it bluntly, do the Germans find their moral authority, if you please, undercut because of the image that the German nation still carries from World War Two.

BEEVOR: The Germans themselves don't feel that that moral authority is undercut at all. It's the other countries which feel that it should be undercut, if you see what I mean. I mean, the way that the Greek press has been portraying Angela Merkel with the Hitler mustache and SS uniform, they're the ones who've been coming up with these sort of parallels to the Fourth Reich and all the rest of it.

The Germans - I think one of the worrying things is that most of the German population has not yet realized that their economy has been taken hostage. And I think that when they do discover the degree of obligation and debt involved in the debtor nations in the south, there might then be considerable anger in Germany.

SIMON: Antony Beevor. His new book, "The Second World War." Thank so much.

BEEVOR: Thank you very much indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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