Book Review: World War II (Series)

The World War II Series
Robert T. Elson, Roebrt Wernick, Leonard Mosley, et al.
Time-Life Books
1976-1983

Back in the late 50s, there were a couple of things every home just had to have to show off the status and erudition of the residents. A television set (presumably a nice 27″ console), a big hi-fi stereo, and a set of books.

Normally, the books would be a basic encyclopedia. In the days before the Internet, that’s where you went for quick information on any topic. Or you might have something like the Harvard Classics set of important works in the Western Canon (The Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Great Books” set if you wanted something more current), or even Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. Not that anyone would actually read all of them all the way through; they just looked neat on your bookshelves and let your guests think you were smarter than you really were.

In 1959, Time Inc., who published both Time and Life magazines, decided they should get in on this. They had access to top writers and editors around the world, and a truly humongous photo library. Time Life Books was born.

They’d publish dozens of book series over the next two decades or so, covering topics from folklore and home repair to the Civil War and world history. Quality varied, as should be expected. One of the more highly regarded series covered World War II.

Published over the course of seven years from 1976 to 1983, the thirty-nine volumes covered everything – and I mean everything. There were volumes on lesser-covered theaters like Scandinavia and the Balkans (War in the Outposts has a chapter on the campaign in Madagascar, for cryin’ out loud!), along with topics like The Neutrals and Prisoners of War. Each volume contained about five or six chapters of text (which often were more like independent essays) and a similar number of photo essays.

The series isn’t quite as comprehensive as it could be. There are volumes covering life during the war in the US, Italy, Germany and Japan – but nothing for the Soviet Union or Great Britain. The former can be excused from the lack of information on the Great Patriotic War available to the West at the time, but the latter? Surely there could have been essays on the “fire watch” in London or the relocation of children from the cities to the countryside. Given how many of the writers and editors in the series were British, this is probably inexcusable.

However, you’re not really looking for depth of coverage with a series like this. There are plenty of books on the Italian Campaign – heck, you can surely even find several books on the Battle of Anzio alone! What you have in this series’ volume of that title are essays covering each phase of the campaign – plus photo essays on topics like protecting Italy’s art and another on an artist’s work showing life in occupied Rome. It’s the combination of text and pictures covering the vast breadth of the war that makes the series work.

And the series isn’t just content to cover the years from 1939 to 1945, when there was actual fighting. It starts with Prelude to War, which begins with the fallout from the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI, and concludes with The Aftermath: Asia which ends with a chapter on the rise of Communist movements in Vietnam and the division of Korea.

If you have this set, keep it – and keep it together. If you are missing one of the volumes, find it and get it.

I acquired my set as a legacy from an uncle who was a military buff. He died before he could complete the set, but I was able to purchase the missing volumes. They’re a bit worn from being stored in a cheap bookcase – their size means I have had to stack them in an awkward manner – and from rather frequent reading.

But I’m not going to let even a single volume get away from me.

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