A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.