‘When it came to killing Germans on the ground, the Russians were far and away more effective’
Why a new history of World War II?
There is an enormous amount of Second World War scholarship, and to synthesize that seems to me to be worthwhile. Though some books are very good about covering some areas of the conflict, there didn’t seem to me to be a really satisfactory one-volume history that covers the whole war comprehensively. So, I attempted to provide one. This is the culmination of 20 years of research and writing about the war, so it fitted in very well with what I wanted to do at some stage.
Did your research reveal any especially valuable new sources?
Yes, I was fortunate to come across English businessman Ian Sayer, who since the 1970s had been building up a personal archive of, by the time I met him, more than 100,000 Second World War documents—diaries, letters, photographs and so on. He’d bought a lot of the material from some really serious and substantial figures, and no historian had ever asked to examine the collection. When I invited myself to his home, I discovered such new things as a 1940 letter by German Maj. Gen. Alfred Jodl that completely explodes the myth that Hitler deliberately allowed the British Expeditionary Force to escape from Dunkirk in an attempt to persuade Britain to make peace. It’s every historian’s dream to discover a lot of valuable new material, and there it was.
How useful were your visits to many of the World War II battlefields?
They were absolutely invaluable. Historians who write about a battle without having visited the battlefield are like detectives trying to solve a murder without visiting the scene of the crime. A sense of the topography, the sight lines, the actual distances between points of attack, the climate—all of these things can only truly be appreciated if you’ve trod the ground yourself.
Which battlefield affected you most on an emotional level?
The site of the 1943 Battle of Kursk, in Russia. It was not only the greatest tank battle in human history, it was also the point at which Nazism really breathed its last. The dead are literally buried all around you; it’s impossible not to be affected by the sheer courage of those Russians who stood up against the massive German onslaught. It’s a very moving place indeed, and one that really got me in the gut.
You write that Hitler’s war aims were impossible—how so?
The Germans were trying to win a straightforward conventional war and, at the same time, trying to fight an ideological war: a specifically Nazi war as opposed to a German war. I believe that a true German nationalist—Otto von Bismarck, say, or Helmuth von Moltke—could have won the Second World War, because he wouldn’t have made the kind of demands of the German military that Hitler did, which was to win a two-front conventional war while at the same time imposing the policies of the “Aryan master race.” Those aims were directly in opposition.
Could the Nazis have won, had they done something differently?
Absolutely. If they had not invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and if they had instead thrown at the Allies even a fraction of the 3 million men they eventually unleashed against Russia, they would have chased us out of the Middle East and cut off access to 80 percent of the Allies’ oil. We simply would not have been able to continue the struggle.
Was Hitler solely responsible for Germany’s military blunders?
No, there were plenty of people to blame. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring is a perfect example: He promised Hitler that no Allied bombs would fall on Germany; he promised to destroy the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk solely through airpower; he promised to completely supply the German forces at Stalingrad by air. Yet he could not deliver on any of these promises. In the end, all of these poor military leaders were appointed or promoted by Hitler, many solely because they were Nazis, and that’s no way to fight—or win—a war.
Had Hitler been assassinated, would Germany have sued for peace?
Not necessarily. Had Hitler been assassinated on July 20, 1944, Heinrich Himmler, Göring and Joseph Goebbels were all still alive, and any one of them—or others—could have taken over and carried on the war. And remember, while Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were undoubtedly brave, the idea that they were somehow liberal democrats is rubbish, and we can’t assume they would have ended the war. Possibly the only positive thing that would have resulted from Hitler’s death, from the German point of view, is that whoever replaced him would probably have made fewer strategic blunders than he did.
Why didn’t Germany and Japan cooperate more closely than they did?
The Germans saw the Japanese as adjuncts to the greater effort they were putting in. The Japanese never trusted the Germans; they didn’t even tell Berlin they were going to attack Pearl Harbor. Neither country put in the diplomatic work required to really coordinate their efforts. Essentially, the Second World War was two separate conflicts fought simultaneously.
Who were the most effective combat generals of the war?
The Russian Georgy Zhukov, because he was given every impossible task and succeeded at all of them. For Germany, Erich von Manstein, who came up with the “sickle cut” maneuver that in May 1940 defeated France and was the most effective German general on the Eastern Front. George Patton, who seemed to have a sixth sense for war, despite the fact that by the end of the conflict he seems to have been stark, staring mad. Britain’s General Sir William Slim was an astonishingly good commander, both when he led the retreat from Burma and when he led the advance back through Burma. And the greatest French combat general was the very gifted armor commander Philippe Leclerc.
What about the Soviet Union’s part in the war?
The major problem with the historiography of World War II is the Cold War—it was not in the West’s postwar interest to acknowledge that it was the Russians who destroyed the Wehrmacht, at an unbelievable cost to themselves. We are just now beginning to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s contribution. Consider that when in August 1944 the Allies closed the Falaise pocket, they captured some 35,000 Germans. At roughly the same time, during Operation Bagration, the Russians killed, wounded or captured 510,000 Germans. Statistically, the Eastern Front was where the war was won—out of every five Germans killed in battlefield combat, four died on the Eastern Front. Yes, the British and Americans smashed Germany’s war economy and defeated the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine; but when it came to killing Germans on the ground, the Russians were far and away more effective.