SEVENTY years after it began, is there anything new to be written about World War II, which killed six people every second for the six years it lasted?
Andrew Roberts believes so, with his ambitiously titled Story of War, a new history of the Second World War.
The structure of the book is a simple narrative of selective campaigns, and the central thesis, which is initially convincing, is that Adolf Hitler lost the war rather than the Allies winning it.
Roberts acknowledges that the role played by the Allies in the land battles was dwarfed by the colossal struggle waged on the Eastern front, which bled Germany white – 80% of German battlefield casualties took place on the Eastern front. During the Cold War, the Soviet role was diminished, and this book helps to reinforce, in the Western imagination, the role played by the Soviet Union. Roberts reminds us that St Petersburg alone suffered more deaths than Britain and the United States combined during the Great Patriotic War.
Inevitably, with any such broad canvas the emphasis is selective. The Japanese are not given a leading role and the Italians are relegated to that of Hamlet’s fool. The Chinese contribution to the Second World War, while credited with holding down one million Japanese troops who might otherwise have been used to invade India or the Soviet Union, only receives two pages. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria in August 1945 is dispatched in a few sentences. Such detail is necessarily sacrificed for the narrative, which is kept up at quite a good pace.
Roberts oversimplifies Irish neutrality, portraying it as anti-Englishness, thus ignoring all that has been written in the last 25 years on this topic.
In Roberts’ reading, “Éire was absent from civilisation’s line of battle” and “Éire’s neutrality aroused great resentment in the rest of the British Isles”. For Roberts, “the only explanation for Éire’s neutrality was a lingering hostility to Britain. which blinded the de Valera government to the greater issues that were at stake by 1939”. This ignores the fact that the Ireland had a pro-Allied policy throughout the war and that, after 1942, the Allies wanted Ireland neutral on the basis that they could not arm and supply it. De Valera’s greatest international blunder – offering condolences on the death of Hitler – is mentioned but it is a great disservice to de Valera to define Irish neutrality by this one unfortunate event.
Roberts does allow a Francophobic tone to creep in, such as when he quotes a 2003 article by Max Hastings that states that more Frenchmen fought for the Axis than for the Allies. This is factually incorrect, as previously he acknowledges the 1.5 million French POWs taken as slave labourers in 1940, many of whom had fought valiantly so that the BEF might escape at Dunkirk. Some Vichy French troops resisted the British and American invasion of French North Africa in November, 1942, as they were ordered to do. After the occupation of unoccupied France they rapidly fell behind de Gaulle and the Free French and did some of the tough fighting in Italy. It also ignores the colossal army which France reconstituted during 1943 and the 10 divisions which were used to invade Germany in 1945. On the Nazi side, the French volunteers of the SS Charlemagne Division never numbered more than 15,000.
One of the central threads running through this book is the sense of how Hitler and the Nazis essentially lost the war through Hitler’s mistakes. Many counterfactuals are presented to support this thesis, and Roberts explores some interesting hypotheses. Some of the questions he poses are: Why did Hitler begin his war in 1939, rather than in 1944 when the Navy and Luftwaffe planned to go to war? Why was the British Expeditionary Force allowed to escape at Dunkirk? Why were the Suez Canal and the Middle East not captured in 1941? Why did Hitler invade the USSR in 1941, fight for Stalingrad, fight Kursk on the Soviets’ terms? These are fascinating counterfactuals and they allow one to imagine how Nazism might have triumphed.
On the RAF/USAAF bombing campaign against Germany, Roberts is convincing that it was crucial in that, while it did not significantly curtail German armament production, it did prevent larger increases in German armaments. The bombing campaign also ensured that 75% of the Luftwaffe was in the West rather than on the Eastern Front. Roberts’s belief that the German experience of bombing, which killed 600,000 people, is “part of the reason that Germany is today a model democracy” ignores postwar European history.
Roberts convincingly argues that the racial element of Nazism was a massive contributory factor to their defeat. By 1939, the majority of the German Jewish intelligentsia had fled abroad. Many of them later became vital components in the Manhattan A-Bomb project. Roberts highlights the illogicality of the Holocaust, which destroyed millions of potential workers/soldiers. His chapter on the Holocaust also tackles contentious issues such as the bombing of Auschwitz, and lays out why there is no document signed by Hitler authorising the Holocaust. He is also sympathetic to Pius XII in relation to his stance on the Holocaust.
Roberts notes that other lost opportunities explained by the racial element of Nazism include the deaths of 3.3 million Soviet POWs, captured in the opening phases of Barbarossa, who were allowed to die of neglect rather than being rearmed into an anti-Bolshevik force. He points out that by the time the Nazis came around to the idea of recruiting a Ukrainian/Russian anti-Bolshevik army, Nazism had alienated the Soviet population by the forced expropriation of grain and the reprisals which were carried out behind enemy lines.
However, as Kennedy argues in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the Allies decisively won the war. Even if the German army had been without Hitler the “gambler” after 1942, it is impossible to see how Germany could have triumphed against the industrial, intellectual and military might of the UK, the US and the USSR. Even had the Germans fought beyond May 1945, the Manhattan Project would have ensured their rapid surrender.
This fact not withstanding, this fine history of World War II brings together many different strands of military history, anecdote and personal reminiscences. Roberts’s arguments are sure to reignite heated debate on where blame for the Nazi defeat and plaudits for the Allied victory should lie.
* Dr Niall Keogh is the author of Con Cremin, Ireland’s wartime diplomat, and works for NUI Maynooth in Beijing
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved