In The Second World War: An Illustrated History, A. J. P. Taylor provides a controversial account of the world-wide conflict that destroyed the lives of more than seventeen million combatants, and an even greater number of civilians. The war lasted six years, beginning with the German invasion of Poland, and concluding with the Japanese capitulation to American forces. Throughout the book, Taylor argues that ignorance and luck prevailed over tactics and strategy; he curiously suggests that rationality and reason played no useful role in determining troop movements, though they did seem to help leaders such as Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, and Stalin maintain control over the masses. Taylor paints such famous actions as the Battle of Britain, Operation Market Garden, and the battles of North Africa as episodes in which one fool strikes another, and wherein neither side possessed any real understanding of its opponent. He derides the contributions of popular generals, including Rommel, Patton, MacArthur, and Montgomery. He praises, however, the Soviet General Zhukov as "perhaps the greatest general of the war," and the officer most usefully responsible for winning the largest land battles in history. In the closing pages, Taylor defends Soviet action at the close of war, especially in light of Europe's traditional hostility to Russian power. He attempts to dispel the illusion that the conclusion of the war might have led to universal peace; the victors purposed to destroy the regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and in this task the Allies succeeded. "Despite all the killing and destruction that accompanied it, the Second World War was a good war," and left people everywhere "happier, freer and more prosperous than they would have been if Nazi Germany and Japan had won."
The book reads quickly, with many photographs and paintings punctuating a scant 234 pages. Taylor's prose touches on nearly every famous and momentous action of the war, and many besides. The book wants, however, for a detailed bibliography, as well as a list of recommended reading. Despite these shortcomings, Taylor's slim volume craftily builds a case for the wild, uncontrollable character of the Second World War, and the idiosyncratic nature of its unfolding.