The Magazine

Fighting Chance

World War II was a close-run thing.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By AARON MACLEAN
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Harry Butcher, an aide to General Eisenhower throughout his time as supreme commander in Europe, and gossipy diarist par excellence, reports the following remarks made by the mild-mannered Kansan on July 10, 1944:

Ike repeated his views that the German General Staff regards this war and the preceding one as merely campaigns in their dogged determination first to dominate Europe and eventually the world. He would exterminate all of the General Staff. .  .  . Ike guessed about 3,500 [men made up the General Staff]. He added he would include for liquidation leaders of the Nazi Party from mayors on up and all members of the Gestapo.

These words were directed to Lord Halifax, the British ambassador to Washington, over lunch in Portsmouth. (Deporting the General Staff to an appropriate St. Helena was mooted as well.) Note the date: July 1944 is well before evidence of Nazi atrocities had become common knowledge in the West. Though Eisenhower certainly had some advance knowledge of all that, what is remarkable here is the grim, unsentimental preference of a man not known for his weakness for hyperbole to wipe out the class of men he held responsible for the conflict. It appears Ike did not get the memo about World War II being the “Good War.”

Neither, it should be pointed out, did the millions of fighting men and women struggling in various theaters around the world, including those theaters, such as North Africa and Europe, which came to be popularly imagined in the decades following the war as somehow hosting a more gentlemanly sort of fight. To believe a lot of postwar cinema, for example, if in a given region not every prisoner of the Axis was systematically murdered, then things couldn’t have been all bad. This sentiment would have been preposterous at the time to infantrymen witnessing units suffering 90 percent casualties in hellish killing grounds like El Alamein or Monte Cassino, and it has done them no credit to pretend that their world was more noble than, in fact, it was. The best of the war correspondents and memoirists—A. J. Liebling and Paul Fussell spring to mind—were certainly under no illusions and portrayed a confusing, brutal, and utterly unfair clash of violent wills, with no shortage of folly and human failure on all sides. They portrayed, in other words, a war.

Historians, especially of a popular sort, have not always been so reliable. And even when historians avoid the Churchillian temptation to portray the West’s victory as one generally decent and basically inevitable march of a great generation to triumph, they often err in the other direction, minimizing the contribution of the Western democracies to the Axis defeat and proposing a variety of dubious moral equivalencies. It is well and good to realistically depict the suffering of Japanese civilians in the firebombing of Tokyo; but morally equating the Allied decision to conduct strategic air raids with the Reich’s policy to render Europe Judenrein leaves one open to charges of putting history-writing second to an ideological opposition to the United States and the
United Kingdom.

So we can be grateful for Andrew Roberts’s new one-volume history of this period. His broader historiographical project, considering the contribution of his earlier book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, appears to involve the favorable restatement of an Anglo-American view of the 20th century, long under energetic assault in certain quarters. As a result, the reader begins his history of 1939-45 on high alert for bouts of GoodWaritis, and it is a pleasure to report that Roberts manages the delicate task of avoiding this pitfall and living up to the standard described by John Keegan that good writing about the Second World War needs to be done “vigorously but rigorously, with emotional passion but intellectual dispassion.”

There are some flaws. Roberts’s editors have failed to give this work an apparatus worthy of the engaging and necessarily fast-paced narrative. Thus, readers without detailed knowledge of Russian geography will be somewhat hard pressed to picture what is meant on page 528 when the Red Army is described as having “reached a line from Narva to Pskov to Polotsk.” Beyond the alarming lack of vowels—which in fairness neither author nor editor can help—even more concerning is that the map treating this subject is 500 pages away, with no cross-referencing provided at all, and with no troop movements or dispositions depicted on the map. 

Roberts provides detailed numerical evidence to support the concise and usually persuasive judgments he renders on the various controversies of the war. But only rarely do these data make their way into any sort of useful graphic representation. Perhaps the editors felt that The Storm of War—straddling, as it does, the line between popular and scholarly history—would be less appealing to the common reader with such extras. If so, they were wrong.

Roberts has a gift for the swift verdict. One imagines him as a sort of provincial circuit judge, dispatching one confusing controversy after the next, all in time for supper. With that said, he does not always persuade: There is, perhaps, the faintest hint of sentimentality in his conviction that the U.S. Army developed to the point where it was operationally superior to the German military by late 1944. He repeatedly suggests this despite the conviction of many of the men who fought in that army that the Wehrmacht was, at the tactical and operational level, superior until the very end. It is not for nothing that the principles of Blitzkrieg live on today as the doctrine of “maneuver warfare,” which dominates American military thinking. The capture of Baghdad in 2003 owed much to the German General Staff. And while both Eisenhower’s broad-front approach to winning in Europe and the Navy’s island-hopping campaign in the Pacific may have been ultimately successful, they were far from being rapidly decisive, and generated a shocking bill in lives and equipment which the Allies could afford to pay and the Axis, strategically, could not.

What is most distressing is how close-run a thing victory actually was. Roberts is particularly strong here and describes how, if a few strategic decisions had gone the other way—if Roosevelt had not backed Churchill with a Germany First strategy, or if Hitler had prioritized U-Boat production from the start, to choose from a long list of possible examples—the war could easily have been lost. He is also fluent in describing the great human carnage in the Pacific, and especially in Russia, making good use of recent research by Mark Mazower and others describing how Nazi ideology drove Hitler and his subordinates to consistently make strategic mistakes in pursuit of their mad commitment to subdue the Untermenschen of the Steppe.

He is also strong with primary sources, using the secret recordings of captured non-SS commanders held at Trent Park to show just how implicated the regular German Army was in the worst crimes of the Nazi regime. And if humanity should be limited to only 30 pages written on the Holocaust, I would keep Roberts’s outraged, yet intellectually clear-eyed, chapter on the subject.

Aaron MacLean is a writer in Annapolis.