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The War That Never Ended’

In response to:

Hot, Cold and Imperial from the July 13, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Allow me to comment on Robert Skidelsky’s well-crafted review of my book 1945: The War That Never Ended [NYR, July 13] and Conn Nugent’s reply [Letters, NYR, September 21].

The book is the third volume of a trilogy which set out to trace the interplay of geography, politics, and military movement at the end of three major European wars—1815, 1918, and 1945. Oddly enough, historians spend much more time explaining the origins of wars than on how they end, though it is the latter that mold the lives of the generations which follow. It has been a challenging task because, in each case, I have had to penetrate mounds of national literature which seek to give legitimacy to the powers emerging from these wars. The work, nevertheless, has had its rewards: I have, I think, shown patterns of movement along with certain stabilities that are still valid in Europe today.

The study is specific to Europe. Adding China and Japan—as some of my detractors, including Skidelsky, have suggested—would have pushed my tasks beyond a lifetime. The United States is a different matter: it is basically a European power or, as Harold Macmillan once put it, “United Europe overseas.” American statesmen have always denied the fact, but their acts over the past hundred years have always confirmed it. As far as my own work is concerned, it has been once more a matter of penetrating the surface abstractions of Woodrow Wilson and FDR in order to get at the concrete facts of their actions. This is a continuing problem faced by America-watchers: as Skidelsky’s comments on Charles Maier’s Among Empires demonstrate, one still has to brush aside the Wilsonian language of American “political science” before one can start tracing the very real physical frontiers of America’s curious empire. “Globalization” is a case in point; within the next few years the heartland and frontiers of this global project are going to become clear.

All the politics of Europe, through over two hundred years of history, were determined by the movement of armies down the funnel of the European peninsula during those last years and months of war. The Eastern Front in the Second World War played the role of the Western Front of the First; and it resembles in many ways the movement of the “United Nations” at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. It may upset Conn Nugent, but the Western Front was very much an addendum to the Eastern Front of the 1940s—and American action assured it would be that way to the very end.

As I pointed out in 1945, there were two critical moments in the Second World War which would have an enormous impact on the postwar world: the early summer of 1943 and the long weekend of August 18–22, 1944. The rapid expansion of the Partisan war across occupied Europe in June 1943 seems a plausible explanation for all those strange disappearances, which national historians have so patently failed to account for: Jean Moulin (June 21), Stefan Grot-Rowecki (June 30), W/ladys/law Sikorski (July 4), and more. Within months of the Soviet success at Kursk most non-Communist resistance movements in Europe had been wiped out. Skidelsky takes me gently to task for overemphasizing the significance of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 (it seems to me that the second, negotiated pact of September was more significant than the initial signature in August—Molotov proved such a gruff negotiator in Berlin because, as George Kennan so well demonstrated, the Soviet Union “was not a normal Power”). In A World at Arms(Cambridge University Press, 1994) Gerhard Weinberg has shown how negotiations in Stockholm between Nazis and Communists broke down over the issue of the Ukraine at around the time of Kursk. The one area where elimination of non-Communist resisters proved difficult was Poland: Stalin stopped his armies along the line of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (which so nicely corresponded to the old “Curzon Line”) and let the Nazis complete the job.

The events of the long weekend of August 18–22, 1944, can in fact be reduced to one day, Saturday, August 19—a day which holds, in my view, more historical significance than D-Day. On that day, the western Polish 1st Armoured Division climbed the hill of “Maczuga” and effectively ended the whole battle of Normandy, De Gaulle landed in France, an insurrection broke out in Paris which would defeat Communist attempts at a takeover, and General Bradley told an astounded Montgomery that American forces were going to separate from the British and, instead of taking the wide hook around Caen, were going to advance directly eastward to Germany and the Ardennes. In Warsaw, SS General Bach-Zelewski’s siege of the Old Town began; and the following Monday Stalin denounced the non-Communist resisters in Warsaw as “power-seeking criminals.” The Second World War turned political in one day.

No protests from Mr. Conn Nugent or others can hide the fact that advances made on both the Eastern and Western Fronts were after August 19 politically inspired, and not military. Militarily, the Nazis were a spent force. A less politically motivated, better militarily thought out deployment of forces could have avoided the disastrous three-month delay caused by the “Bulge” that winter in the Ardennes; Stalin had for the previous six months concentrated all his offensive force into southeastern Europe—not toward Berlin.

It was to be a “war that never ended” because the cold war had already been underway for five years, since indeed the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. Ask a Central or Eastern European.

Permit me to conclude on a personal note. One year ago I participated in a BBC Radio 4 “round-table” discussion which extended from Washington all the way around to Tallinn, in Estonia. Everyone accepted my idea except the American, whose comments verged on rudeness. The American professor, from an Ivy League university, was still in the thrall of his Wilsonian “political science.” Such a philosophy involves a step back from reality. For us defenders of the European West, that step is dangerous.

Gregor Dallas
Muzy (Eure), France

Robert Skidelsky replies:

In my (very favorable) review of Gregor Dallas’s 1945 I complained that Mr. Dallas offered no evidence for his assertion that “Stalin’s representatives tried to renegotiate the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in Stockholm in 1943.” In his letter Mr. Dallas cites Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms in support: “Gerhard Weinberg has shown how negotiations in Stockholm between Nazis and Communists broke down over the issue of the Ukraine at around the time of Kursk.” But it does not seem to me that Weinberg shows that there were any negotiations. He writes: “The tentative contacts between the German and Soviet representatives in 1943, primarily in Sweden, and very largely, it seems, through intermediaries, remain shrouded in mystery and confusion.” No doubt Stalin would have been willing to contemplate a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany under some military contingencies. But the claim that the “tentative contacts” through intermediaries (who was involved? which intermediaries?) amounted to an attempt by Stalin to renegotiate the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 is far too strong.

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