Excellent British author on WWII again
Rose asks pertinent questions
Charlies Rose had a fine British type on tonight, Jun 16, an amiable military historian and author so well versed in his topic that his voice never rose above the cheerful reasonableness of his pleasingly Oxbridge patrician background. That’s what one discerned, anyway, as Andrew Roberts answered some very good questions from Charlie, who was either very well briefed or, it seemed more likely, a student of the topic himself who knew the key questions to ask – such as Could Hitler have won the War? Who was the greatest general of the War? (the brutal Marshal Zhukov, who defeated the Germans, killing four out of the five the Allies killed in total). Did Hitler resent his failure as a painter? Enormously, it seemed.
The key question is why after his early successes, including the Blitzkrieg across to the Channel which put France out of the War in six weeks, which Hitler approved of despite the reservations of most of his generals, did Hitler end up failing, primarily by opening the Eastern front, his big mistake? According to Roberts, whose The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, is obviously a fine guide to the best thinking on the topic, because he kept putting his ideology first rather than the best military strategy. In the early phase, there was every reason to believe he would have won.
If he had just left the Russians, and the Jews, alone, he would have, it seems clear. One wonders what on earth Europe would have looked like today.
Here’s Robert Service in the Observer:
It is a safe bet that at any given moment there is someone in the United Kingdom writing a general history of the Second World War. Andrew Roberts’s latest offering is a sparkling addition to the groaning shelves. The British have almost a monopoly in the subject. Go into any bookshop in Italy and there are always plenty of publications about the fighting in the Apennines. In Warsaw, the same is true of the Soviet massacre of Polish troops in the Katyn forest. Russian military historians produce an annual stream of books on the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. American authors write endlessly about FDR, Patton and even Churchill. But it is in this country that most accounts have appeared about the war as a global phenomenon from September 1939 right through to the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
There is an obvious reason for this. Once Hitler had invaded Poland, it was the British and the French who opened hostilities against him. In less than a year, France had fallen. The United Kingdom fought on alone against Germany and Japan (sic – corrected later) at a time when the USSR had a near-alliance with the Third Reich and American internal politics prevented Roosevelt from entering the conflict. This changed in 1941 after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the Japanese air force attacked the American fleet in Pearl Harbour. Immediately, the “Big Three” – America, the Soviet Union and Britain – came together to smash militarist imperialism west and east. Russian rulers to this day have dealt with their country’s less than glorious history before Operation Barbarossa by focusing on the “great patriotic war” of 1941-1945 to the exclusion of the years of collusion with German power.
Roberts offers refreshing judgments on the politicians and commanders in lively prose and his denunciation of the murder of millions of Jews is as measured as it is moving. His pride in the British national performance is frequently on display, but he is not shy about puncturing the bubble of reputations. General Montgomery’s foibles are exposed alongside his virtues as a field commander. Roberts also freely acknowledge the importance of the American military contribution without failing to point out the scary vanity of General Patton. He also refrains from the conventional praise for Marshal Zhukov, instead highlighting how brutally he and fellow Soviet commanders treated their troops.
The thread binding the book together is the question of historical contingency. Roberts indicates how often Hitler would have done better, and even won the war, if he had made different choices. This is not an original thought, nor is it claimed as such. No one in 1940 needed to tell Churchill that the Germans stood a good chance of crushing the United Kingdom. In the long summer of 1941, as the German armies streamed as fast as their tanks could carry them towards the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad, it was the belief of nearly every Soviet citizen that the USSR was on the brink of complete defeat. Such was Roosevelt’s feeling that the Third Reich was about to gain definitive victory in Europe that he twisted arms in the Washington political establishment to send food and armaments to the United Kingdom even before America’s entry into the war.
Hitler as a military leader was Stalin’s blood twin. He accepted only forward movement from his generals and regarded tactical withdrawal as a shameful betrayal of the Fatherland. When advancing, he often lost his sense of strategic realism. Thus he foolishly fiddled around with the planned distribution of his forces on the Eastern Front in August and September 1941, when a more sensible idea would have been to amass German strength for a decisive thrust against Moscow. If Stalin had had to evacuate his capital, the damage to Soviet morale, communications and industrial capacity would have been tremendous.
Then there was Hitler’s disastrous handling of operations around and in Stalingrad. His insistence that Paulus’s army should fight on and die rather than save themselves and their equipment by effecting a temporary retreat consigned hundreds of thousands of Germans and their allies to their graves or to the gulag.
As Roberts emphasises, Churchill could not resist poking fun at “Corporal Hitler” for his ineptitude. Hitler had form as an inflexible commander. When Rommel, outnumbered in men and tanks, wanted to undertake a strategic withdrawal in North Africa in 1942, he got short shrift from the Führer. Large quantities of experienced German and Italian soldiers fell into captivity who could otherwise have fought the enemies of the Third Reich in Italy.
Hitler also damaged his cause through his political management. The book makes the interesting point that German Jews would probably have fought patriotically in his army if only he had not spurned them. A feeling that Germany, after the Versailles treaty of 1919, deserved to expand its territory again was not peculiar to the Nazi party. The scientists who invented the American atomic bomb included several Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It is also well known that many Ukrainian villages in 1941 greeted the German invaders with the traditional welcome of bread and salt. The Germans allowed churches and private shops, closed under Soviet rule, to be reopened. For a while, it looked as though the Third Reich was exploiting “the national question” in the USSR to great advantage. But Ukrainians soon learnt the truth about Hitler. Grain requisitioning by the Germans was as ruthless as under Stalin. Young, able-bodied people were conscripted for labour service in German factories. Mass executions of Jews, Roma, communists and other suspect groups became a routine affair.
Whether it would have been possible to govern Ukraine gently while continuing to impose a brutal occupation of neighbouring Poland is not clear. But Roberts makes a strong case that Hitler’s interventions turned eastern Europe against him. He puts the same arguments about the Japanese army in the Asian territories it conquered from the north Pacific down to Burma. Colonial peoples who might have welcomed them as liberators from white imperial rule were savagely suppressed and exploited.
The British, French and Dutch did poorly in the initial stages of the war in the east. But American manpower, technology and guts proved greater than anyone in Tokyo or Berlin had imagined possible. After Pearl Harbour, Roosevelt had little difficulty in carrying his people with him in aiming at a total triumph over Japan and its ally Germany. Although his health declined in 1944-1945, he never lost sight of this objective. He made mistakes, especially by failing to deal more robustly with Stalin, but he played a crucial role in enabling Britain to survive its ghastly isolation in 1940.
The central character in the book’s drama, inevitably, is Hitler. Roberts’s suggestion seems to be that he could only have won the war if he had not allowed it to spiral into a global struggle. Hitler missed his chance to knock out the USSR early on and provoked the US into entering the ring on the side of the opposition. He may have won the war if he had kept it as “the First European War”; the gamble that did not pay off was to make it global.