28 November, 2011Issue 17.4History

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Weathering Conflict

Abhishek Majumdar

Best British PoetryAndrew Roberts
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
Harper, 2011
768 Pages
ISBN 978-1907773044


For an historian to attempt to document the blood-soaked entirety of the Second World War in a single volume is an ambitious, perhaps foolhardy task. Andrew Roberts has both the talent and the ego to match it. The biographer of Lords Halifax and Salisbury counts George W. Bush among his fans, and won praise and ridicule in equal measure for his grandiose History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900. One of the most skilled historians of his generation, Roberts flavours his work with his firm neoconservative views, which in this book surface in the form of admiration for Winston Churchill and a conviction that the war was a struggle of good versus evil.

This volume is a masterwork, combining detail with concision and condensing the terror of those six years into a gripping 600-page narrative. Roberts sets out to discover why exactly the Axis lost the war. His answer is simple enough: the Nazis lost because they were Nazis. A command structure that brooked no dissent and was therefore immune to constructive feedback sowed the seeds of failure. A murderous obsession with Jews diverted resources from defeating the enemy to conducting genocide.

With the historian’s gift for measure, Roberts tackles the grim task of probing the motives that propel men to commit acts of barbarity. The mindset of ogres such as Himmler, who spoke coolly about reducing the population of Eastern Europe by expulsion or mass murder, is dissected with care, seeking explanations while leaving no doubt as to its wickedness. The Holocaust is treated with the combination of outrage and sensitivity it deserves.

With admirable vigour and not a trace of gloss, Roberts goes on to defend actions of the Allies that, when exposed to full daylight, are not pleasant to behold. The obliteration of Dresden is defended valiantly, as is the use of atomic weapons in Japan. There is an excoriation of armchair generals, and it is not unfairly pointed out that the circumstances were extraordinary and the enemy singularly frightening.

And yet, for all his undoubted skill and bold defence of civilised Western liberal democratic values, Roberts fails to convince that this was a just war. Some of the most harrowing writing is found in the chapters dealing with Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s insane invasion of Russia and Stalin’s brutal retaliation. This is no struggle of good versus bad but a clash of monstrous behemoths, machine versus machine. The picture of mass killing, famine, and total destruction is unbearably bleak.

Total control was the only way to rally Russia to fight its Great Patriotic War. Stalin’s barbarity saved his country from defeat, and in keeping Hitler busy in the East, was instrumental for the Allies. Roberts criticises the means, such as the brutality with which commanders such as Marshal Zhukov treated their own troops, but stops short of criticising the ends. There is little consideration of the misery endured by Poland in exchanging one set of inhuman oppressors for another or of the eventual imprisonment of millions of Eastern Europeans behind an Iron Curtain. Ultimately, he avoids the uncomfortable truth—that the Nazi tyranny was only defeated because it was stopped by a tyranny as bloodstained as itself. Unable to justify this, Roberts describes it pithily as the “giant and abiding paradox” that lies at the heart of the war.

A fascinating and counterintuitive comparison arises between Nazi and Soviet systems of command. Those who challenged Hitler were given no more severe punishment than demotion. It is puzzling that so few spoke out against the disastrous leadership of their Führer. Some, like Field Marshal Model, instrumental in the Battle of the Bulge, were ideological Nazis who believed in the cause. Many were simply cowards. On the other hand, commanders who disagreed with Stalin were often killed (one unfortunate soul was executed in 1950, having been sentenced in absentia). Comparing Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia does little to reinforce the author’s view of the Allies as an unmitigated force for good.

Roberts’s main claim, that the Nazis were destined to lose, stands up well. A compelling aspect of the book is its collection of character sketches and the study of Hitler’s character explains a great deal. Hitler’s great fault militarily, as shown in disaster after another, was his total inability to comprehend the value of a tactical retreat. His perennial order was to move forward, despite entreaties from seasoned generals such as Rommel that a temporary withdrawal and regrouping might be a better idea than mindless attack. During the first part of the conflict, momentum was the Nazis’ friend. The blitzkrieg tactic of highly coordinated and fast-moving armoured assault was brutally effective in knocking France and Poland, amongst others, out of the war. But as the tide turned, Hitler’s insistence on movement was his undoing. The book describes the stream of “stand and die” orders issued by the Führer; commands to perish rather than retreat and preserve strength. During the battle of Stalingrad, such an order resulted in the slaughter or capture and eventual murder of hundreds of thousands of Germans. The myth of Hitler’s tactical genius is comprehensively debunked.

In the gallery of rogues and heroes, the author’s own idol, Churchill, features heavily. His decency evinced by the genuine concern he showed for his troops is complemented by his cheerful enjoyment in belittling his foe as “Corporal Hitler”. Montgomery is shown to be a vain self-publicist whose heroic mastery of desert warfare never goes unnoticed, thanks to his own efforts. There is also a portrait of Patton, a borderline psychopath for whom the theatre of war was a natural home.

The test of a good history of the Second World War must be whether it adds anything new to the existing works about that conflict, which compiled would fill several libraries. The Storm of War does this partly by presenting a wealth of newly unearthed material, but primarily by focusing on the inevitability of Nazi defeat. If Roberts’s Manichean world-view does not quite stand up to scrutiny, his examination of Nazi incompetence does. Moreover, the achievement of documenting the whole war from Atlantic to Pacific in a single, readable book is a magisterial one. It will be a brave historian that attempts to better this feat.

Abhishek Majumdar graduated in 2006 with a BA in Physics from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.