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The Truth About World War II

Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies
Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov (center left) and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (center right), Berlin, May 1945

Ever since it began, World War II has been seen as “the good war,” to borrow the title of Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize–winning oral history.1 In sharp contrast to World War I, remembered mainly for its terrible conditions in the trenches of the Western Front, its tragic waste of a whole generation of young men, and its disastrous consequences in Europe, leading to the rise of fascism and communism and the triumph of Hitler, World War II is remembered as the defeat of dictatorship by democracy, racism by tolerance, nationalism by internationalism, extremism by moderation, evil by good. It is a memory that is buried deep in the political consciousness and identity of the modern world and in particular Britain and America, where it has sustained a positive self-image ever since 1945 and underpinned the two countries’ global ambitions and roles.

Yet in recent years this positive memory has come increasingly into question. From a pacifist point of view, the war has been portrayed as a pointless struggle, not fought on moral grounds but provoked by the Allies to serve their own material interests.2 From a conservative, Euroskeptic perspective, some British historians have argued that the United Kingdom should have stayed out of both world wars, since (in their view) Germany was not a threat to world peace, and the ultimate outcome of the wars was the destruction of the British Empire, the subjugation of Eastern Europe by Stalin for nearly half a century, and the incorporation of Britain into a united Europe dominated by the Germans.3 In the US, conservative condemnation of the war has been even harsher, with the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 singled out as a war crime without parallel, Winston Churchill castigated as a warmonger, and the US blamed for sparking the conflict in the East by ejecting the Japanese from the international community in the 1920s.4

It is probably fair to say that these views have not had much impact on public memory in Britain and America; nor have they been widely accepted by scholars. Popular fascination with World War II in particular continues to be led by an enthusiasm for experiencing vicariously the heroic struggle of the democracies and their armed forces against the barbarism of the Nazi forces and the sadism of the Japanese military. Yet even here, narratives of the war have more and more revealed its political ambiguities and moral complexities.

Few authors have contributed more to this process of rethinking than the British military historian Antony Beevor. Himself a former professional soldier, he has written a series of best-selling books on major battles of World War II, including Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege (1998), winner of the Wolfson History Prize, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (2002), and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009). Brilliantly written, these books won critical acclaim as well as a popular following through their combination of clear narrative and analysis of military strategy and tactics, deft character sketches of the main personalities on both sides, and riveting and moving stories and quotations from the ordinary soldiers and civilians involved in the conflict.

The same virtues are evident in his new, comprehensive history of World War II, which, he says, he undertook in “an attempt to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in very different theatres of war.” Many previous histories of the war, indeed, portray the European and Pacific theaters almost as two separate wars—the book Total War, long the best overall account (despite being written very much from a British perspective), actually treated them in two different parts written by two different authors.5 It is one of the main virtues of Antony Beevor’s book that it draws out the many interconnections and interdependencies of the two theaters and shows that this really was a single war, not two separate ones.

The book opens with a description of the Battle of the Khalkhin Gol River, which began in May 1939 with a minor border clash between Red Army and Mongolian forces on the one side, and Japanese and Manchurian forces on the other. Unlike previous clashes, this one escalated as the local Japanese commander ordered an air strike against Soviet bases behind the front line, and Stalin called in the cavalry commander Georgy Zhukov to deal with the situation. Zhukov prepared his mission with all the tactics that later made him famous: assembling massive reinforcements under cover of darkness and concealing them during the day, while deceiving the enemy with misleading and badly encoded messages into believing he was digging in when he was actually preparing to go on the offensive.

On August 20, 1939, his tanks powered forward behind the Japanese lines in a huge encircling movement, inflicting 61,000 casualties on the enemy and resolving the border issue in favor of the Soviet Union. Another of Zhukov’s characteristics came to the fore in the conflict too: his disregard for casualties among his own troops, nearly 8,000 of whom were killed and more than 15,000 wounded. An attempt by his superior officer to stop the carnage was brusquely dismissed as “indecisiveness.”

Beevor brings out well the larger significance of this minor clash. Surprised and dismayed by the defeat, the Japanese military was forced to abandon its plan to strike first against the Soviet Union and give way to the naval faction, who wanted instead to “strike south” in the Pacific. The decision had far-reaching consequences; bolstered by a Soviet-Japanese nonaggression pact signed in April 1941, it would give Stalin a free hand to counter the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the months following the launching of Hitler’s “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941.

The most important goal of the Japanese in pursuing the “strike south” strategy, Beevor argues, was the conquest of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), with their rich supplies of oil and rubber, undertaken in the winter of 1941–1942. The German occupation of Holland and the impossibility of controlling or reinforcing the colony from Europe any longer made it easy for the Japanese to take the islands, especially after Allied naval forces had been brushed aside early in 1942; they stayed in the Dutch East Indies until the general Japanese surrender in 1945. Meanwhile they also pushed into British-controlled Burma and began to threaten India too. As war swept through other British and French colonies, from Madagascar to Morocco, Singapore to Hong Kong, with the European colonial masters humiliated by the Japanese or by other European invaders, it became clear that the era of European global empire was over.

For the Japanese, German victory on the Eastern Front would have enabled Hitler to turn his attention again to Britain, with all the consequences this would have for Britain’s ability to fight the war in the East. In February 1943, an audience of 150 senior Japanese generals and officials sat down to watch a film of the Battle of Stalingrad shot by Soviet cameramen. In stunned silence they contemplated the stark images of German defeat. “Can this possibly be the case?” they asked. Like Hitler, they were outraged that the German commander Friedrich von Paulus had not committed suicide “like a real soldier.” They began to realize their European ally was going to be defeated. Britain would not fall. The omens that this event cast for their own possible victory were not good, and they knew it.

Drawing out these multiple interconnections is one of the great strengths of Beevor’s approach. Time and again he implicitly undermines the old myth of Britain “standing alone” in 1940. It was, after all, still the world’s greatest global empire, with Indian troops fighting in North Africa, New Zealanders defending Crete, and Canadians landing in France on D-Day. Beevor gives full prominence to the large numbers of Polish and Czech airmen who flew fighter planes in the Battle of Britain. At times, to be sure, this could cause difficulties. A Polish pilot shot down over East Anglia got caught by his parachute in an oak tree:

“People with pitchforks and staves ran up,” he recorded. “One of them, armed with a shotgun, was screaming ‘Hände hoch!’ ‘Fuck off,’ I answered in my very best English. The lowering faces immediately brightened up. ‘He’s one of ours!’ they shouted in unison.”

Anecdotes such as this abound, and give the narrative a human face. As one could have expected from his previous books, Beevor describes military action supremely well. Particularly strong are his deft characterizations of the leading figures in the conflict. Few escape his judgments unscathed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt “was undoubtedly a great man, but while deploying charm and a contrived impression of intimacy to great effect, he was essentially rather vain, cold and calculating.” Beevor portrays him as putty in the hands of a cynical manipulator like Stalin, especially at the Yalta conference in February 1945, when he insisted on going without an agreed plan for dealing with the Allies, showed little interest in Europe since the war there was almost over, and during the proceedings looked “old and frail, with his mouth hanging open most of the time, [and] sometimes did not appear to follow what was going on.”

Churchill fares little better. Beevor acknowledges his inspirational rhetoric in bringing the British people behind him, his political skill in outmaneuvering those in his cabinet who wanted to make peace with Germany after the defeat of France, his generally wise choice of subordinates, military and civilian, and his global vision that saw that the war could only be won by means of an alliance with America. But he allowed himself to be excessively influenced by Stalin’s pose of bonhomie when negotiating with the Soviet dictator: “Churchill, for whom emotions were often more real than facts, had failed to see that Stalin was even more successful than Roosevelt when it came to manipulating people.” The unsatisfactory postwar settlement was in part a consequence of this weakness.

Just as serious was Churchill’s habit of shooting off strategic ideas in all directions, most of them unrealistic or even potentially disastrous. If there is a hero in this book, it is Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, who in his war diaries frequently vented his frustration and irritation at the conduct of his mercurial boss. “Trying to contain his incontinent enthusiasms,” writes Beevor, “which bore no relation to Britain’s resources and above all shipping capacity and air cover, left Brooke exhausted.” Brooke’s judgments on other generals and politicians were often caustic, and Beevor perhaps relies too heavily on his self-serving diaries, in which he presented himself as the only sensible and level-headed military thinker around, implying that it was his presence at the top that ultimately ensured the Allied victory.

Beevor has no truck with the argument, put forward by Gerhard L. Weinberg in his standard history of the war, A World at Arms,6 that Hitler was at times prepared to allow his generals freedom to maneuver. Time and again, he shows, Hitler made it clear that tactical withdrawal or retreat was a sign of cowardice. His fanatical unrealism began long before the final phase of the war. “In the position in which you find yourself,” he told his commander in North Africa, General Erwin Rommel, in November 1942 as he was withdrawing in the face of superior British forces,

  1. 1

    Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (Pantheon, 1984). 

  2. 2

    See, for example, Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon and Schuster, 2008). 

  3. 3

    John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (Harcourt Brace, 1992); Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (Penguin, 1998). 

  4. 4

    Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (Crown, 2008). 

  5. 5

    Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, Total War: Causes and Courses of the Second World War (Pantheon, 1972; revised 1989). 

  6. 6

    Cambridge University Press, 1994. 

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