‘This book’, writes Keith Lowe, ‘is an attempt to survey the major changes – both destructive and constructive – that took place in the world because of the Second World War.’ It is an ambitious project encompassing many different topics and fields of history: the Cold War; colonial empires; science and technology; the world economy; the demographic impact of war; the rights of women; the commemoration of the Holocaust. Many chapters range thematically across national frontiers, while others focus on specific nations and regions. The Soviet Union, the United States and Israel have chapters devoted to them but Britain, intriguingly, does not. The Bengal famine of 1943–4 is here, as are the civil wars that ravaged Indonesia, Korea and Vietnam, but the absence of both China and Japan leaves a disappointing gap. No matter: this is a book overflowing with insights and ideas and steeped in curious and evocative detail. In each of the twenty-four chapters Lowe tells the story of an individual whose life exemplified the disruptive and deracinating effects of war. His account of the horrific experiences of one Korean comfort woman, Choi Myeong-sun, speaks volumes about the fates of all the rest.
The Second World War was the most barbaric and destructive conflict in history. As Lowe observes, it saw the deaths of four times as many people as the First World War. Paradoxically, the descent of millions of human beings into an abyss of atrocity and hatred served to bring about