A World at Arms, by Gerhard L. Weinberg
The Greatest Conflict
A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II.
by Gerhard L. Weinberg.
Cambridge. 1,225 pp. $34.95.
At a moment when the writing of history has been reduced to narrow and politically-correct accounts of victims, class struggle, gender issues, and repressive social conventions, all written in excruciatingly dull prose, Gerhard Weinberg of the University of North Carolina has provided us with a book that is huge in scope, generously inclusive in conception, and a pleasure to read. In 920 pages of text and an additional 205 pages of bibliographical essay and footnotes, Weinberg has produced no less than the definitive political and strategic history of World War II.
He comes to the task as the dean of European diplomatic history in the United States and the author of a two-volume study of Nazi foreign policy from 1933 to 1939, as well as another book on the Nazi-Soviet pact. Having been at the business of serious history for nearly 40 years, Weinberg is able to draw here on a deep mastery of the relevant literature and an unqualified grasp of archival sources, particularly German, American, and British.
But Weinberg is more than an academic historian bombarding his reader with facts and references. He brings to this study a point of view, and a methodology. He is, for one thing, morally outraged at the events that occurred between 1939 and 1945; though for the most part his feelings are tempered by a clear, cool judgment, anger simmers beneath the surface. Equally telling is Weinberg’s decision to focus on the individuals who conducted the war; unlike historians besotted with the workings of impersonal bureaucracies or the supposedly determinative movements of unnamed “forces,” Weinberg refuses to minimize the role of individuals in causing and shaping events. Foremost among these, of course, was Adolf Hitler, whose ideas exercised a terrible hold not only on German politics, but, as Weinberg shows, on German strategy and even on German operational decision-making.
Thus, Weinberg departs from the current tendency in historical analysis to regard the whole period from 1914 to 1945 as a single continuum: the European Civil War. Such an approach does offer advantages, but, Weinberg argues correctly, it also holds pitfalls, the principal one being that it obscures the major difference between World Wars I and II.
That difference lay in intent. World War II was Hitler’s war, a war deliberately provoked by the dictator in pursuit of a megalomaniacal aim: a radical revision of the world. As Weinberg writes:
This was, in fact, a struggle not only for control of territory and resources [like World War I] but about who would live and control the resources of the globe and which people would vanish entirely because they were believed inferior and undesirable by the victors.
Consequently, to understand the decisions that Hitler and his military advisers made, one must grasp the ideological framework within which they operated. German war strategy, in Weinberg’s view, owed more to Hitler’s conception of “International Jewry” than to any other factor—economic, military, or social. And as the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was bound up with an ideology that aimed to subjugate Europe’s Slavic populations as well, so the story of Germany’s operational conquest of much of Europe is also the story of the decisions that deliberately paved the way for the Holocaust.
For those who have kept up with the scholarly literature, Weinberg’s discussion of the wholesale cooperation of the German military with the various and extensive criminal activities of the SS will not come as a surprise. For the non-specialist, however, he has laid out in excruciating detail the enthusiastic acceptance of Hitler’s ideological designs by the senior leadership of the German army. That acceptance had a direct effect on virtually every decision made during the war—including the most disastrous. For example, Weinberg clearly shows that the constant and continuous German underestimation of the Red Army, right up to the moment of final defeat in 1945, was the result of the German military’s unshakable belief in its racial superiority. (A similar blindness, he argues convincingly, caused both Hitler and Germany’s military leadership to dismiss the United States as a credible opponent.)
More than an account of how Nazi Germany lost the war, Weinberg’s history is also a careful analysis of how the three Allied powers—Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—waged their war to destroy Nazi Germany. Weinberg is particularly good on the evolution of the special relationship between America and Britain, its successes as well as its difficulties. And he is no less satisfying on the sinister policies of the Soviet Union.
Stalin’s regime made its deal with Hitler in August 1939 in the hope that it would lead to a massive bloodletting among the capitalist powers. Even after France collapsed, and the Soviets found themselves alone on the European continent with Nazi Germany, their ideological preconceptions persuaded them that, as a capitalist power, Nazi Germany would be satisfied with its conquest of Western Europe. Since he was only the tool of “monopoly capitalism,” Hitler’s ravings about Lebensraum were not to be taken seriously.
So it was that, despite its best efforts, the Soviet Union found itself an unwilling participant in a war it had done a very great deal to bring about. These early miscalculations, and the resulting catastrophic defeats for Russia, led Stalin to rail against Britain and the United States for failing to create a second front—a failure, he alleged, designed deliberately to bleed the Soviet Union to death. But, as Weinberg points out, the Allied powers’ Combined Bomber Offensive did represent a second front, one that placed increasing pressure on the German economy and German military capabilities from 1942 on. The Battle of the Atlantic similarly engaged huge resources on the part of the Germans that could have been used fighting in the east.
Weinberg devotes careful attention as well to the war in the Pacific. Here he underlines the failure of the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, to cooperate in their extravagant efforts to seize vast new empires. This lack of strategic synergy only served to magnify their individual difficulties. Throughout the war, for instance, American lend-lease flowed across the Northern Pacific; despite desperate pleas from the Germans, the Japanese refused to take any action that might disturb the Soviets. Undoubtedly they were motivated in part by the memory of the defeat of Japanese troops by the Red Army in 1939; but the threat that the U.S. might utilize air bases in Siberia to strike at the Home Islands also stayed the Japanese hand. Weinberg’s discussion of these issues demonstrates his fine ability to explicate the interplay among vast and seemingly unrelated events.
As was the case with the Nazis in the territories they conquered inside the Soviet Union, the Japanese might have come as liberators to the Western colonies in Asia that they took over in 1942. But Japanese arrogance, contempt for other races, and habitual mistreatment of subject populations soon extinguished whatever sympathy existed for Japan in Asia. In fact, one suspects that the postwar rejection of colonialism by the Asian peoples may have owed much to the failure of their colonial masters to protect them from the Japanese during the war.
In the end, the Germans quit in May 1945 and left the Japanese to continue fighting. Weinberg demolishes claims that the Japanese were themselves desperately trying to exit the war in the summer of 1945. The messages the Tokyo government sent to its embassies in Moscow and elsewhere were so naive that its own envoys cabled back to urge a greater sense of realism. Truman, a man who had been on the sharp end of war as an artillery officer in 1918, saw the American casualty totals at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and drew the sensible conclusion: the atomic bomb was the only alternative to even greater casualties that would be brought about by an invasion of Japan. In making the hard decision, he avoided what would have been, as he later put it, “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
This, then, is the premier study of the catastrophic years between 1939 and 1945. It is a story of horror and evil, but also, on the Allied side, of strategic and political wisdom. In the deluge of books marking the seemingly endless 50th anniversaries of World War II battles, this one stands well above the rest, a benchmark for anyone who seeks truly to understand the greatest conflict in human history.