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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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.