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 1943–1944, 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.”
Still the Soviet Union was both the largest single combatant power and the most controversial in its political moves. Soviet forces absorbed perhaps twenty times the combined British and American losses in all theaters, while inflicting 75 percent of all German casualties. Yet there are fewer reliable source materials to digest about their activities, especially in civilian matters; and there are huge quantities of disinformation and propagandistic comment to filter out. “A deliberate attempt has been made to allot to the terrible fighting on the Eastern Front the attention it deserves in the framework of the war as a whole,” Weinberg explains, “and if the resulting account is still not as lengthy and detailed as [it] merits, it is still very much more extensive than in other Western surveys.”
Weinberg’s claim here is absolutely fair. He is even prepared to tackle some of the murkier subjects of Eastern European histories, either through Western reports or through cautious speculation. He has no time for the theory that Stalin was preparing for an offensive against the Reich in 1941. On the other hand, like many Allied politicians of the day who were perfectly happy not to ask too many questions so long as the Red Army was killing large numbers of Germans, he is all too willing to consign the largest theater of the war to a Soviet sphere of influence. It is a sphere from which, like his wartime contemporaries, he keeps a prudent distance. Military matters apart, he is not willing to inquire into the complexities of Eastern Europe, and to give them the airing which he knows they require. His position only emphasizes the fact that the wartime and postwar history of many of the principal regions involved in World War II remained concealed until the collapse of the Communist Bloc between 1989 and 1991. When Weinberg’s study was conceived, they had not yet become of concern to most Western historians.
His discussion of “The Home Front,” moreover, whether in Eastern Europe or other parts of the world, is undoubtedly the most superficial in the book. Germany receives twelve pages, Italy five, Britain, the US, and Japan three each, the Soviet Union and China two each—the same as Africa and the Middle East. In a book of this scale, to relegate the entire social, economic, and cultural history of the countries involved to such brief summaries is unacceptable. It would have been better to cut them completely.
These summaries do nothing, in any case, to mitigate Weinberg’s one-sided perception of occupied Europe. For him, Fascists are the only occupiers. The Soviet Union, since it was fighting the Fascists, is automatically counted among the liberators. It has apparently not crossed Weinberg’s mind that the Soviets could have been liberators and oppressors at the same time. He does not realize that for most of the people living where most of the fighting in Europe took place, the Red Army was just as unwelcome as the Wehrmacht. The Soviet security agencies acted with a contempt for human life similar to that of the Nazi SS.
According to the estimate of Robert Conquest, whose pioneering researches on these matters are now widely vindicated, Stalin continued to destroy up to one million of his own people per year throughout the war years. Overall, his victims far outnumbered those of the Nazis. Weinberg does not mention them. He rightly includes a number of summary passages on the Jewish Holocaust. But the Soviet Gulag does not even feature in the index. At the end of the book, we learn that approximately 15 million Chinese civilians died during the war. In two pages on the home front in China he cannot begin to indicate the Japanese atrocities, civil war, and other horrors that this statistic conceals.
Weinberg’s facile afterthought, “Collaboration and Resistance,” overlooks the conditions prevailing under totalitarian terror. Among the collaborators, he makes no distinction between those, like Vidkun Quisling in Norway or Léon Degrelle’s Rexist Movement in Belgium, who shared the occupiers’ political strategy, those who served for personal gain, and those, like the Jewish police forces of the Nazi-built ghettos, who were forced to collaborate through brute coercion. There is no hint that to work for the murderers and torturers of the NKVD might also be regarded as a despicable act of collaboration. Weinberg apparently does not understand that some honorable and patriotic resistance movements, as in Poland or Ukraine or Serbia, were determined to oppose both Hitler and Stalin and hence were doomed to be crushed between the two. Conventional Western use of terms such as “collaboration” or “resistance” simply cannot describe the realities. And on this matter, Weinberg is entirely conventional.
“Russia” itself is a conventional term that hides many complex realities. Indeed, before the collapse of communism, many people in the West assumed that “Russia” and “the Soviet Union” were interchangeable—doing exactly what the Stalinists would have wished. Yet they were colluding in a bad habit that confounds any proper understanding of the Eastern front. Weinberg adds to the usual confusion. On one page, he talks of “the invasion of the USSR.” On the next page, he refers to “the attack on Russia.” To be precise, the Wehrmacht in June 1941 attacked the Soviet Union, in the first instance invading what international law still held to be the Soviet-occupied territory of Poland and Romania. At no point in the war did the Germans penetrate much beyond the fringes of Russia. Nor did they occupy any substantial region of Russia for a protracted period. They were forced to retreat from the gates of Moscow in December 1941. They surrounded Leningrad from its Finnish and Estonian approaches, but did not take the city. They were routed at Stalingrad on the Volga, and their armies occupied the empty expanses of southern Russia for only a brief interval in 1942 and 1943. After that, they retreated all along the line. A great many Russians suffered horribly from the German invasion; but the overwhelming brunt of the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944, as of the devastating Soviet reoccupation, was borne not by Russia but by the Baltic States, by Belarus, by Poland, and above all by Ukraine. Until historians sort out these basic geographical facts, they cannot begin to grasp such questions as the Nazis’ fatal blunders on the nationality question, or war casualties.
On East European geography, Weinberg is as vague as most Allied diplomats of the era. Like them, for instance, he falls for the brilliant Soviet trick of confusing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Line of 1939 with “the Curzon Line of 1919.” Such details look less important in North Carolina than they did to a hundred million Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Lithuanians for whom the positioning of the Soviet frontier was literally a matter of life and death.
Weinberg discusses the nationality issues in Yugoslavia, but he betrays no awareness of the nationalities in the USSR. The Nazis, who were obsessed by racial distinctions, mistakenly lumped the majority of East Europeans into a category called “Slavs” (which is not a racial category). Their mistake cost them the chance of breaking up the Soviet Union by political means, as the Kaiser’s army had broken up the czarist empire only twenty-five years before. The various non-Russian peoples who might have been willing to turn against Soviet rule were brutally treated as inferior by the Nazis. Soviet propaganda always maintained the fiction that the nationality “problem” did not exist in the USSR. Weinberg leaves the same impression. Though admitting that the Soviet government was “disliked”—a poor choice of verb—his blanket statement about “increasing numbers of Soviet citizens” preferring to be ruled by “their own” completely misses the point. The differing degrees of loyalty of the Soviet nationalities was one reason why Soviet troops displayed the highest rate of desertion and collaboration as well as the highest degree of heroism. Several episodes of large-scale repression which took place behind the front line are hardly mentioned in Weinberg’s account, such as Stalin’s wholesale deportation of the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tartars, or the huge campaign of “ethnic cleansing” unleashed against the Polish population by elements of the Ukrainian nationalist underground.
On war casualties, Weinberg correctly reports that recent research has increased the estimate of Soviet war dead to 25 million. (He does not repeat the old gaffe about “twenty million Russian dead.”) On the other hand, apart from citing “one third of the total” for Soviet military casualties, he does not attempt to make sense of the figures. Readers can deduce that about 16 million Soviet noncombatants perished, but cannot consider the proportion who were killed by Stalin’s own actions. Readers can learn that about 3.25 million Soviet soldiers died in Nazi custody and that up to a million people died in the terrible siege of Leningrad. But nowhere is it made clear that the largest number of civilian casualties in Europe were inflicted on the Ukrainians, millions of whom were killed both by the Nazis and by the Soviets. Thanks to persistent wartime prejudices, many British and Americans still harbor the illusion that most Ukrainians spent the war either as auxiliaries in the concentration camps or in the Waffen-SS Galizien. Weinberg does nothing to disabuse them. There is no word to indicate that the Waffen-SS recruited three times as many Dutchmen as Ukrainians.
Weinberg also avoids making fundamental distinctions about war crimes. For the most part he confirms the conventional impression that war crimes could only be committed by enemy agencies. It is true that he makes two passing references to the approximately 15,000 Allied officer-prisoners massacred at Katyn and elsewhere; and he is sufficiently up-to-date to state unequivocally that these atrocities were committed on Stalin’s express orders. Like the lawyers who drafted the British War Crimes Act of 1991, however, he is not sufficiently up-to-date to categorize that sort of atrocity as a war crime.
The Soviet Union held a central position in the strategic geopolitics of World War II. It was the only country whose territory directly linked the two principal theaters of action in Europe and in Asia. Stalin’s policy toward the Japanese was of crucial importance both in 1939, and in 1945. The long stand-off between the USSR and the Japanese from 1939 to 1945 was a key element in keeping the European war separate from the war in the Pacific. Here Weinberg’s account succeeds only in part. He rightly links the so-called “Nomanhan Incident” of 1939, which involved intense fighting between Soviets and Japanese on the Mongolian-Manchurian border, to the timing of Stalin’s intervention in Poland, and to Japan’s overall strategic calculations. But he fails to give a clear account of the Soviet annexation in 1945 of the Kurile Islands, or of the Soviet seizure of other Japanese islands (conveniently renamed by Moscow), that had never previously formed part of the main Kurile chain. Fifty years later, Japan’s lost “Northern Territories” remain one of the last unsettled disputes of the war, and a major obstacle to Russia’s return to international normality. Weinberg’s readers learn nothing about the rights and wrongs of this dispute.
Weinberg, in fact, is not really concerned with anything much beyond policy-making and the management of military operations. Although he relates his central theme to all sorts of relevant factors, he never strays far from his chosen perspective. He could hardly have put himself at a greater distance from the sound of the gunfire, from the stench of the corpses, from the exhausting and fearful experience of civilians. He emerges as the archetypal armchair expert, ensconced in an ivory tower filled with the debris of bygone Operations rooms. He does not pursue the consequences of the policies which he so carefully analyzes. World War II has rightly been described as The People’s War. Yet Weinberg sidesteps the People. In this regard, the book is mislabeled. A more accurate title would have been “The World at Arms between 1939 and 1945: A Worldwide Panorama of Military Operations and Policy-Making.”
Yet reservations must also be raised about Mr. Weinberg’s general approach, which is strangely dated. It provides a thorough, if somewhat timid, summary of Western scholarship in recent decades. But it is firmly chained to the “Allied scheme,” which has dominated discussion of the war since 1945. Mr. Weinberg’s general view of war was conceived during the 1970s. Its basic outlines were set too soon to accommodate the perspectives that inevitably flow from the recent liberation of Eastern Europe—the region which, as Weinberg himself realizes, bore the greatest burden of the war.
Celebrations of the Allied victory in Normandy will do little to shake the entrenched Western consensus. One can only hope that by the time the world celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of peace in 1995, or the fiftieth anniversary of the Nuremberg Tribunal between 1996 and 1997, there will be room for a more reflective and imaginative approach.
June 9, 1994
David Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1994. ↩
Paul Fussell, The Washington Post, February 20, 1994. ↩
Norman Stone, The Times of London, February 11, 1994. ↩
Eoghan Curry, The Irish Press, February 25, 1994. ↩
Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph, February 27, 1994. ↩
Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment. ↩