This World War II atlas combines insightful and lucid prose with a brilliant collection of maps and photos

World War II continues to loom large in popular media today three-quarters of a century after the conflict ended. Films, books, television, and an abundance of material online help bring the most destructive war in human history into sharp relief. But much of what we see and read fails to give us a true picture of this sprawling conflict. Some accounts focus on the individual experiences of one or a handful of people, leaving the Big Picture unseen. Others attempt to encompass the war as a whole, obscuring the human reality in abstract text. But National Geographic adds a new dimension to our understanding of the war: Neil Kagan and Stephen Hyslop’s Atlas of World War II.

THE EVENT THAT SHAPED THE WORLD WE KNOW TODAY

This remarkable atlas combines contemporaneous and new maps with sometimes startling photographs and lucid prose to convey an accurate picture of the grand sweep of the war. Photos dramatize the human drama. Maps portray a general’s-eye view of the action. And terse narrative carries the story forward. Combined, they offer an indispensable tool for anyone who seeks to understand the single event of the twentieth century that has done the most to shape the world we know today.

ATLAS OF WORLD WAR II: HISTORY’S GREATEST CONFLICT REVEALED THROUGH RARE WARTIME MAPS AND NEW CARTOGRAPHY BY NEIL KAGAN AND STEPHEN G. HYSLOP (2018) 255 PAGES ★★★★★

Maps like this one from the National Geographic are common in overall accounts of World War II. (It shows the full extent of Nazi domination in Europe as Allied troops flooded into its territories beginning in 1944.) The historical atlas reviewed here offers an abundance of both rare historical maps from the period and new ones that depict the major events of the conflict, giving an accurate picture of the action that altered large-scale maps like this. Image: National Geographic

A BOOK ORGANIZED FROM AN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE

The coauthors present their story in five well-chosen sections:

  • Prelude to War — 1941 (Blitzkrieg)
  • Prelude to War — 1943 (War in the Pacific)
  • 1942–1944 (Breaking Hitler’s Grip)
  • 1944–1945 (Victory Over Germany)
  • 1943–1945 (Defeating Japan)

Doubtless, German, Russian, Japanese, or even British historians might well organize similar books in a very different way. After all, World War II began in China in 1937, and a major share of the most intense fighting took place on the Eastern Front before US troops entered the European theater late in 1942. Kagan and Hyslop’s approach is unashamedly American. Our Russian, British, French, and Polish allies receive their due, but it’s American forces that dominate in these pages.

A BEAUTIFULLY CONSTRUCTED, LARGE-FORMAT BOOK

The Atlas of World War II is available only in a hardcover edition. Although I only rarely read any book other than on my Kindle, I made an exception for this one. It was well worthwhile. This is a large-format title, measuring 10.5 by 13–7/8 inches. It’s printed on durable glossy stock that brings out the detail of the maps and photos. The coauthors had long careers designing and producing illustrated books for Time-Life and won numerous awards for their work. It shows here.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

NEIL KAGAN

Neil Kagan. Image: Audible.com

The book’s flyleaf reveals that Neil Kagan is an editor and “heads Kagan & Associates, Inc., a firm specializing in designing and producing innovative illustrated books. Formerly publisher/managing editor and director of new product development for Time-Life Books, he created numerous book series, including the award-winning Voices of the Civil War, Our American Century, and What Life Was Like. Recently, he edited Great Photographs of World War II, Smithsonian Civil War, and for National Geographic, the best-selling Concise History of the World, Eyewitness to the Civil War, Atlas of the Civil War, The Untold Civil War, Eyewitness to World War II, and The Secret History of World War II.”

STEPHEN G. HYSLOP

The bio blurb on Amazon for Stephen G. Hyslop reads in part that he “writes about American history, the American West, and American and international conflicts, including the Mexican War, the Civil War, and World War II. His books are vivid documentary narratives, drawing on numerous accounts from those who made history and witnessed it to portray events as they unfolded. Formerly a staff writer and text editor at Time-Life Books, he has collaborated as author with picture editors and designers to produce several illustrated books, including eyewitness histories and historical atlases published by National Geographic. Hyslop’s articles have appeared in American History, Kansas History, California History, World War II, and the History Channel Magazine.”

FOR MORE READING

Previously, I reviewed another, much less successful World War II atlas, The Historical Atlas of World War II by Alexander Swanston and Malcolm Swanston (World War II in full-color maps and photos). The maps are new, not contemporaneous, and often confusing. And the text is poorly written.

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