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The Misunderstood War

A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II

by Gerhard L. Weinberg
Cambridge University Press,, 1,178 pp., $34.95

Nineteen ninety-four, the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings, has spawned a festival of what A.J.P. Taylor once called “the Nuremberg Consensus.” Taylor was pointing to the fact that the history of World War II had largely been written by the victors, and that the moral and political assumptions of the victorious Allies had been largely left unchallenged. And he was right. Fifty years after the main fighting stopped, most British and Americans still imagine the war as defined by the aims of the Grand Alliance. Hitler is seen as the sole aggressor in Europe, as the Japanese were in the Pacific; Germany, and Germany’s associates as “the enemy.” The unconditional defeat of fascism was the prime objective. The solidarity of the Allied powers, expressed in the comradeship of “The Big Three,” held paramount importance. The Allies were waging a heroic struggle for the Good. Freedom and democracy were identified with “anti-fascism.” When it came to judging the crimes of war, and the crimes against humanity, the victors did not hesitate to fill the dock with enemy leaders, and with enemy leaders alone.

Few history books have strayed from the set pattern. What one might call the Allied scheme of history dominates conventional wisdom. It was built on the black-and-white dialectic of wartime, and perpetuates the simplistic morality where all who opposed evil were ipso facto virtuous. The most prominent dissenters have been the wild German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, who wanted us to believe that Churchill was a murderer, individuals who have not hidden their sympathies for fascism, and critics of particular actions, such as the Allied bombing offensive which destroyed Dresden and Hamburg or the forced repatriation of the Cossack Brigade. Though plenty of evidence exists to suggest a different interpretation of what happened between 1939 and 1945, it is kept in separate compartments and is not allowed to disturb the overall design. One has to conclude that winning a major war is not conducive to understanding it.

Documentation poses a major challenge. Academic historians are trained to form judgments from a full survey of documentary sources, and to substantiate their facts and opinions accordingly. Their methods are only effective, however, when all the necessary documents are accessible. When important archives remain closed, or are subject to selective controls, serious distortions can arise. The skills of documentary research have to be supplemented by imagination and detective instincts.

In the case of World War II, access to documents has been very uneven. The governments of the Western powers made captured enemy archives available at an early date; and they have released the greater part of their own papers. Yet the documentation of the largest single combatant power was never opened to independent research. Fifty years after the war, several key collections in Moscow, including the super-secret Osobii Arkhif or Special Archive, are only now being discovered and catalogued. As a result, the overall coverage is incomplete. Some aspects have been studied in the minutest detail; others, especially from those parts of Europe where the conflicts were most intense, remain hidden. If historians are not careful, deficient documentation reinforces deficient interpretations. Those who fear to discuss undocumented topics run the risk of implying that such topics are not important. One can be left by default with the implication that the well-known and well-documented actions of the Western powers, both in the conflict against Nazi Germany and that against Imperial Japan, were decisive. It is all too common to present the D-Day landings, for example, as “the operation which won the War.” It could be argued that the Soviet army had already broken the back of the Wehrmacht at the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and in the offensives of 1943–1994, before the Western allies even landed.

Nor is it so simple to determine the war’s basic chronology. People often assume that the war began when their own country became involved, and ended when its involvement ceased. Soviet historians were notorious for their accounts of “The Great Patriotic War, 1941–1945,” as if the USSR had been neutral before Operation Barbarossa, and there had been no Soviet-German pact signed in August 1939. But there are many British books which persist in putting “the outbreak of war” at September 3, 1939. If one were Polish (or German), one could be forgiven for insisting on September 1, the day the German army crossed the Polish border. For Lithuania, the war began when Hitler seized Klaipeda (Memel) in March 1939. For Albanians (and Italians), it began when Mussolini attacked Albania in April. For the Chinese (and the Japanese), it had begun either in 1931 when Japanese forces invaded Manchuria or in 1937 when they moved into central China.

Even the end of the war cannot be easily pinpointed. British and American historians naturally emphasize the significance of V-E Day in May 1945 and of V-J Day in August 1945. But for Greeks, Chinese, or Ukrainians who saw no end to wartime in their country until 1947, 1949, or 1951, Allied celebrations must have looked rather premature. In the case of Vietnam, whose ordeal started in 1941, peacetime did not come until 1975. In the last resort, all conventional dates can be shown to be arbitrary.

Nonetheless, it is surely beyond doubt that World War II was, at least so far as numbers of people killed and the parts of the globe affected are concerned, “the greatest recent event in world history,” as the book jacket describes it, and that historians should approach it as a global conflict. But one is entitled to press historians further on the concepts and proportions of the conflict.

Gerhard Weinberg’s study, A World at Arms, has already received much praise—for its plain style and lack of jargon, its systematic analysis and its compendious information, the result of sixteen years of research in British, German, and US archives. His approach has been likened to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside radio chat of February 23, 1942, when the President explained “This war is a new kind of war. It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air lane.”1 In a review which describes the book as “extraordinary” and “a monumental intellectual performance,” Weinberg was also praised for having explored a broad range of neglected subjects—the intelligence war and weapons development, for example, and the Nazi euthanasia campaign, which gave Germany “a solid core of experts in bureaucratic mass murder” well in advance of the Final Solution.2 While disagreeing with Weinberg’s acceptance of the standard interpretation of 1939 as an act of planned aggression, Norman Stone, the professor of modern history at Oxford, says that Weinberg is highly reliable, that he understands Stalin, that he has written a book that complements the best existing studies of World War II.3 An Irish reviewer praises Weinberg’s candor in recounting Churchill’s contingency plan for using poison gas in Ireland.4 Another British expert thinks that as “a sheer work of reference,” Weinberg outclasses the standard works to date.5

Most of these generous assessments are well deserved. Weinberg’s strong points have been accurately identified. One finds excellent accounts of important episodes of the war throughout the book. The summary of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939–1940, for example, when Stalin gratuitously attacked his neighbor, is commendable. The problems posed for the US by simultaneous involvement in Europe and the Pacific are finely balanced.

As befits the anniversary year of its publication, Weinberg’s account of the Normandy Campaign of 1944 is also convincing. After thoroughly surveying the factors relevant to D-Day—Allied progress in Italy, the logistics of transport, the imbalance of forces, the coordination of East and West, the highly effective deception measures, the geography of the beaches, and German dispositions and expectations—he builds up to the moment of Eisenhower’s lonely decision on June 5 “to grasp the weather window of opportunity” and to gain the vital element of surprise. Weinberg then proceeds to a summary of military operations, explaining the magnitude of the Allied achievement in establishing a beachhead on the heavily defended Channel coast of France, while not concealing the shortcomings. He is less than enthusiastic about Field Marshal Montgomery and insists that the concluding action, at the Falaise Gap, was not an unqualified success.

Conceding “Monty’s” “professionalism” and inspirational talent, Weinberg shows that the testy Field Marshal frequently disrupted the harmony of the Allied commanders. Monty’s laborious preparations for a well-advertised breakout around Caen facilitated the German defense, wasted many days and lives, and almost cost him his job. As at Alamein, overcaution inhibited the full development of the Allies’ initial advantage.

Reading a section like this, one is naturally impressed by the range of information that is brought to bear in a short space. At the same time, one has an uneasy feeling that some important ingredients are missing; and one soon realizes what they are. Here is a war history without warfare. There is no account of close combat, no soldiers, no pain, no elation. In page after page of sanitized prose about Normandy, Weinberg cannot spare a line for the GI hanging on his parachute from the spire of Ste.-Mère-Eglise, or for the young captain of the “Ox and Bucks,”6 who sprang from his night glider, shot his way across Pegasus Bridge in the dark, charged into the café of M. et Mme. Gondrée, and spoke the very first words of Liberation: “It’s all right, chum.” Weinberg’s sins are those of omission. And among them is the human touch.

Weinberg is an established American scholar of German origin. He witnessed the war at first hand in Europe, and later in Asia where he served in the US forces. He has since worked in universities, specializing in the collection, translation, and publication of captured German documents. He apparently had a hand in the famous farce of the so-called Hitler diaries. These experiences have molded his scholarship both for good and for ill and perhaps help to explain the peculiarly cerebral and desiccated tone of his writing. As a person who dissociated himself from German perceptions at an early age, he may have accepted Anglo-American assumptions rather too readily, but he treats Nazi policy and Wehrmacht operations with the prominence that they obviously require in the European conflict. His familiarity with Japan enables him to resist an excessively European focus. The narrative constantly flits back and forth between West and East, skillfully linking the events that were happening simultaneously.

Weinberg is least competent and least confident in dealing with East European matters. To his credit, he is conscious of his deficiencies, and makes some attempt to compensate for them. Not all of them are his fault. Since much of the documentation was either lacking or closed to scholars, no amount of expertise in Russian language or Soviet archives would have given him all the requisite materials for his craft. For example, there is no Soviet equivalent of the “Hossbach memorandum” of November 1937 in which Hitler’s adjutant summarized the Führer’s rambling speech about future military contingencies. Scholars have much to say about Hitler’s prewar military plans. About Stalin’s plans and intentions, they can only guess. In any discussion of the origins of World War II, it is all but impossible to give equal weight to Europe’s two premier military powers. It was when the Red Army joined the Wehrmacht in the attack on Poland in September 1939 that Churchill made his famous statement describing Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

  1. 1

    David Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1994.

  2. 2

    Paul Fussell, The Washington Post, February 20, 1994.

  3. 3

    Norman Stone, The Times of London, February 11, 1994.

  4. 4

    Eoghan Curry, The Irish Press, February 25, 1994.

  5. 5

    Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph, February 27, 1994.

  6. 6

    Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment.

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