Hitler and Hirohito

Japan's Imperial Conspiracy

by David Bergamini
Pocket Books, 1,440 pp., $2.25 (paper)

China and Japan at War, 1937-1945: The Politics of Collaboration

by John Hunter Boyle
Stanford, 430 pp., $16.50

The United States and East Asia

by Richard W. Van Alstyne
Norton, 180 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Britain and the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1939

by Bradford A. Lee
Stanford, 319 pp., $10.00

The United States and Europe

by Max Silberschmidt
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 216 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Hirohito; drawing by David Levine

One of the worst pieces of news reaching me recently through the publishers’ grapevine—worst, that is to say, in the small closed world of books and history, for there is plenty of other hair-raising news in the world around us—is that 1973 is to be “Hitler’s year.” When, one sometimes despairingly asks oneself, are historians going to grow up? If we are going to celebrate the anniversary of 1933, more repetitious books on the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler are the last thing we need. Not that the time has come to close the ledger on the 1930s. Far from it. As, one by one, the familiar problems of the Thirties—including (to go no further than this morning’s newspaper) “competitive devaluation,” “exchange rates warfare,” and a “world depression”1—loom up across our horizon, it is obvious that we need to know more, not less, about the decade that led up to World War II. But it is important that we should get our priorities right.

The reason for saying this is not, as Walter Laqueur chooses to believe, because I am “bored with Hitler.”2 He would be a peculiar historian, indeed, who found Hitler’s personality anything but fascinating. But precisely this fascination with a single person is what we need to guard against, if we wish to keep any sort of perspective on the 1930s. Fundamentally, the trouble about the obsession with Hitler is that it closes our minds to the broader dynamic of the historical process and makes it impossible, as Akira Iriye has put it, “to view the international crisis of the 1930s as it should be viewed, internationally.”3

This happens in two ways. First, the implication of this emphasis, however much it may be hedged around with qualifications, is that the crisis was brought about in all essential respects by Hitler, and that but for him all might have been well. Secondly, by concentrating all our attention on Nazi Germany, it suggests that the crisis—again in all essential respects—was a European crisis. For Walter Laqueur, who was born in Wroclaw and still writes as though Silesia were the axis of world history, this may seem natural enough. It simply happens not to be true.

Laqueur is not, of course, the only European historian whose vision is bounded by the end of his European nose. Beginning with A.J.P. Taylor’s much discussed book,4 the literature on the origins of the Second World War is dominated by European preoccupations and the ins and outs of European diplomacy. And the latest history of the war not only makes no attempt to treat it as an intelligible whole but specifically lays down that the war in Europe and the war in Asia and the Pacific are two separate stories, better “told in sequence…than in parallel.”5

One of the immediate practical results, so far as the literature is concerned, is that,…

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