When Europe Failed

Berliner Verlag/Archiv/dpa/Corbis
German soldiers shaking hands with French volunteers bound for the front, July 1944

In the United States, World War II is generally remembered as the last “good war,” particularly in comparison to the dashed expectations and disillusionment following World War I and the domestic division and sense of futility accompanying the Vietnam and Iraq wars. World War II as a “good war” did not mean there were no serious moral issues related to how the war was fought, such as the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans or the firebombing and then nuclear annihilation of Japanese cities, which aimed directly at breaking the Japanese will to continue the war through targeting noncombatants.

The idea of a “good war” means that the US was at war with unquestionable aggressors—Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—and thus there was no ambiguity about “justice of war” in this case. Even more, in view of Nazi atrocities and war aims and the ferocity of Japanese occupation in the places it conquered, it mattered desperately that the aggressors not win, and there was no question that the Allies achieved total victory. But in Europe, the experiences, memories, and legacies of World War II were much more complicated and quite different. As István Deák demonstrates in his new book, World War II placed “Europe on trial,” and in his considered judgment “Europe did badly.”

Deák examines the European experience of World War II through three prisms or sets of categorizations. The first concerns the different periods of the war, which he divides into three phases: September 1939–June 1941 (unchecked Nazi expansion); June 1941–February 1943 (from the German attack on the USSR, called Barbarossa, to Stalingrad); and from early 1943 to the postwar period (the slow process and consequences of Nazi retreat and defeat). The most prominent feature of the first phase was, in Deák’s opinion, the failure of many European countries to take any meaningful measures to defend themselves. The resources of the nations of Western and Northern Europe, combined with military mobilization and diplomatic coordination, could have deterred or defeated Hitler. However, most countries made inadequate military preparations for the looming war and failed to make common cause with others in the face of a common Nazi threat. In Deák’s harsh verdict, they preferred “ruin, foreign occupation, and national humiliation.”

The result (and this is Deák’s second prism) was that by June 1941, all the countries of continental Europe could be placed into one of three categories: those defeated and occupied by Germany, those allied with Germany, and those that maintained neutrality through economic relations beneficial to Germany. But Deák is also clear that this categorization by diplomatic status did not necessarily reflect military, political, and economic reality. Some of the occupied countries, like France with its “model” collaboration government, and some of the neutral countries, like Sweden with its indispensable supply of iron ore for…

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