In The Battle for History: Re-fighting WorldWar II by John Keegan, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, $10
Fifty-one years after World War II officially ended, historians still struggle to define it.
More than 50 years have passed since the surrenders of Germany and Japan brought an end to World War II, but that conflictis still steeped in controversy. A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, in which he argued that Adolf Hitlerblundered into the conflict in 1939 by miscalculation, was denounced almost unanimously by historians. But it provided aspringboard for the plunge into historical dispute, not all of it reputable. David Irving persists in his contention that Hitler’ssubordinates did not share with him the details of Nazism’s “Final Solution,” including the extermination of the Jews (one onlyhas to read Mein Kampf to determine Hitler’s “innocence” in that regard). James Bacque has kept quiet since a scholarlyconference refuted his assertion that General Dwight D. Eisenhower was responsible for the deaths of a million Germanprisoners of war after the guns fell silent in Europe on May 8, 1945.
It may be the next century before the definitive history of the war is written. In The Battle for History: Re-fighting WorldWar II (Vintage Books, New York, 1996, $10), author John Keegan tells us why. Keegan, a former senior lecturer onmilitary history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and current defense editor of the Daily Telegraph in London, is adistinguished historian of war and the men who make it.
The long sorting-out process of historical perspectives in regard to World War II should come as no surprise, Keegan writes;it was not until 1988 that James McPherson succeeded “in publishing a one-volume history of the American Civil War that 130years after the conflict’s conclusion generally satisfied all shades of historical opinion over its causes, nature and consequences.”
A new generation of historians is raising debate with a theory that, after the fall of France, Britain’s correct strategy might havebeen to make peace, although Keegan predicts that “this is not a controversy that promises to thrive.” There are, however, stillrumblings about the role of France, which did make peace, and the Vichy government of Marshal Henri Philippe P?tain thatheld the people’s loyalty to a remarkable degree. Although few joined General Charles de Gaulle when he rejected thearmistice in June 1940, nearly all French men and women were Gaullists by D-Day on June 6, 1944. Even the late president ofFrance, Fran?ois Mitterand, admitted that, while he eventually rallied to de Gaulle, he had previously been involved with theVichy government and had been close to some of P?tain’s collaborators.
Josef Stalin’s role in the partition of Poland is well-known. The Soviet dictator’s trust in Hitler was so firm that he rejectedseveral warnings of the imminent German invasion and suffered what Keegan describes as “something like a nervousbreakdown” when it occurred on June 22, 1941. Recent information from Soviet archives suggests that 45 millionRussians–not the 20 million frequently cited–may have died in the German invasion.
Some still maintain that if the Allies had invaded France instead of Sicily in July 1943, when the battle for Kursk was at itsheight, they would have faced a still uncompleted Atlantic Wall manned by understrength and underequipped troops. Whileagreeing that Germany was weaker in the west in 1943 than it was in 1944, Keegan dismisses that argument as pointlessbecause the Allies were also less ready to mount a cross-Channel operation.
Any history of World War II must cover more than the years 1939 to 1945. For the Chinese, it began in 1931. In Greece, aCommunist-led insurrection began with the German withdrawal in 1944, and fighting did not end until 1947. Vietnamesenationalists resisted the Japanese from 1941 and continued the fight against the French until 1955. “Is it really over at all?”Keegan asks. That question is “given particular force by the apparently unresolvable conflict in Yugoslavia, the roots of whichare all too clearly traceable to the destabilization of that country by the partisan war of 1941-44,” he adds. Furthermore, hesays, World War II “may itself be seen as the direct outcome of issues left unresolved by World War I, raising for the historianthe challenge of writing a satisfactory account not simply of five, but perhaps of thirty years of world history.” And diplomatstrying to forge a European union still encounter opponents with long memories who view it as “Germanization by other means,”a mirror image of what “the Nazi regime laid down for its ‘European Economic Community’ in January 1942.”
Proponents of strategic bombing may rightly claim that two atomic bombs brought Japan to swift surrender, but the claims ofstrategic bombing’s decisive effect are less valid without the nuclear equation. Keegan argues that the massive Allied bombingcampaign against Germany did not significantly hinder German production until the last months of the war, when the Germanarmy was already a spent force.
In this slim, 128-page volume, Keegan has produced a survey of literature and an overview of World War II that isindispensable for students of that conflict. In assessing the general histories, he provides a thought-provoking essay on how ourpast dictates our present.
By John M. Glenn