I'd actually been looking for a book that does the a similar thing for WW2 for a while, but settled for this.
I can vouch for Toland. The Rising Sun is a soup-to-nuts chronology of how Japan stumbled into WWII with both arms open despite knowing it was fundamentally unwinnable. And while The Last 100 Days doesn't go into the lead-up, it sure gives you a ground-level view of the fall of the 3rd reich. Those are the only two I've read. There may be better.
If you want a fictionalized account of the decline and fall of Eurasia, I wholeheartedly recommend The Century Trilogy even though I've only gotten through the first two books. It's melodrama but it's good. Think Downton Abbey but steamier and largely historically accurate.
I didn’t love Ken Follett’s “Fall of Giants” while I was reading it. Parts of it were gripping. The depictions of the battles – Tannenberg, the Marne, the Somme – are especially well executed, as is much of the Russian Revolution. And the discussions of strategy were absorbing once I got past the passages of clumsy dialogue. But other parts couldn’t end soon enough. There are multiple sex scenes – for the most part they were as uncomfortable as they were unnecessary. And there are some boring attempts at developing characters who are better thought of as avatars of whole institutions or social movements – the English earl who becomes an officer, the German nobleman who becomes a spy, the Welsh coal miner who takes up arms, the goofy American who becomes a diplomat, the poor Russian who joins the revolution, the other poor Russian who becomes an American gangster, the suffragist. By the end of the book, I was moderately interested in the fates of only maybe two of the dozen or so significant characters.
So I didn’t love the book. But I picked up the second installment of Follett’s Century Trilogy, “The Winter of the World,” the day after I finished the first. As you may have guessed, the second book covers Hitler’s rise in Germany, the Spanish civil war, the British efforts to repel fascism, the famous World War II battles, the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis and the Soviet soldiers, and the development of the atomic bomb. And I’ve found myself thinking about the first book almost daily.
I liked the strategic machinations and loved the war stories, but it’s the first-person perspectives that I haven’t been able to shake. Take, for example, the story of Walter von Ulrich, the son of an influential German official who arrogantly drove the country to war, and Walter’s childhood friend, a Brit named Earl Fitzherbert. Walter was a dove, Earl a hawk, but war is an indiscriminate machine that sucks in the meek and eager alike. They soon found themselves on the battlefield, mingling casually in no man’s land. These kinds of coincidences defy credulity, and I have to remind myself that they did, in fact, actually happen.
Over and over, the characters just happen to find themselves at the intersections of history. They’re in the key battles, the important meeting rooms. It’s improbable, but unimportant. The characters are just our excuse to be there as history unfolds. And a lot of history unfolds – Follett did a remarkable amount of research for the book, which comes in at around 1,000 pages.
Much of what the characters experience was nearly unthinkable. It’s a theme that came up again, even more horrifically, in the second book of the trilogy. I haven’t moved on to the third book yet, but I imagine it’s the outlier – the time when, miraculously, the worst didn’t happen. Still, as I read the headlines of today – about the dissolution of the European project, the brinkmanship in Northeast Asia, the rise of far-right groups and the polarization of America and much of the West – the unthinkability that thematically defines books one and two creeps into my mind and refuses to leave.
With hindsight, it’s easy to say those old wars and the surrounding upheaval in Follett’s books were inevitable. But to most of the men and women of the time, they were unimaginable. “Fall of Giants” allowed me to imagine it, and I almost wish it hadn’t.