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Interview with World War II Historian Andrew Roberts

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: November 04, 2011 
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Andrew Roberts' new book takes an alternative look at German and Russian roles in World War II.
Andrew Roberts' new book takes an alternative look at German and Russian roles in World War II.
In The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (HarperCollins, 2011) Andrew Roberts has produced a single-volume history of World War II that is both comprehensive and delightfully readable. While Roberts—the Cambridge-educated historian and author of several earlier works of military and social history—deals with each of the war's global theaters, his insights on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are especially valuable. He demolishes many of the prevailing myths about Adolf Hitler as military leader, the competence of his generals and the various reasons why Germany's vaunted military forces lost the war. Roberts also thoroughly explores the Soviets' significant contributions to the final victory—contributions purposely belittled in the West during the Cold War—and the huge and tragic cost of that victory.

'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.

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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.


8 Responses to “Interview with World War II Historian Andrew Roberts”


  1. 1
    Doug Ashcroft says:

    As usual Andrew Roberts is both concise and 'spot on'.

    The Wehremacht were bled white, although intensely loyal to the self-styled, 'Greatest General in History.' When I was at University I was taught that The Russians won World War Two. I have to concur. They sapped German Military Power to a staggering degree.

  2. 2
    Anon Ymus says:

    Roberts delivers the standard rundown.
    Yet another brick in the stagnant, neverending
    WWII franchise.

    MEANWHILE

    "Korea, and NOT the long gone World Wars,
    is rapidly emerging as the pivotal conflict of the
    20th century viz a viz the 21st."

    Indeed it is—

    Take note: Hollywood, media and academia
    have deliberately BURIED the 20th –30th –40th
    –50th and NOW 60th Anniversary of the awesomely
    relevant

    ————————-KOREAN WAR————————-

  3. 3
    Doug Ashcroft says:

    An interesting comment Anon Ymus.

    Whilst the Korean conflict certainly sparked off a 'Red Scare' This had serious social effects in the USA such as the McCarthy witch hunt and political influences. For example Nixon and Kissinger saw 'Reds' everywhere. Even to proposing that somewhere in the Kremlin was a Master Plan for World Takeover. Kennedy also had his finger on the trigger just in case.

    How far this is traceable to the Korean War is debateable. Surely that was an event. Rather than a groundbreaking scenario. Surely, the Russian takeover in Eastern Europe as part of the WWII drama was of greater significance, leading to the scare over the Korean War and its aftermath.

    I would certainly like to read your point by point analysis of the greater significance of the Korean War.

  4. 4
    Gloria Williams says:

    I was born in 1926 and asked some local 'boys' for their WW II stories, with information reflecting conditions and/or experiences both before, during and after the war. I have one especially interesting (I think) – giving his childhood – near Gerster, MO, then a few pages, "Remembering my Old Army Service", and the last page, "My Years After the Army". Document is typed, single spaced, and a little over five pages. I have been in contact with him the past few years, and before I left Missouri we met at a Wal Mart midway between where we lived. I am not especially a "History Buff" – but really hate to see the written word 'wasted'. Is this something of interest to you? Thanks.

  5. 5
    Keith Patton says:

    While I have not read your book, I have read John Moiser's Deathride. His book flies in the face of your conclusions. The numbers and statistics he cites paints a different picture, especially when history shows that any information out of the USSR prior to the early 1990's was usually false. I find it also interesting that you continue to cite Martin Caidin's fiction about Kursk (The Tiger's Are Burning) and Prokhorovka, which I found impossible to believe when I first read his book…he depicts some kind of armored heavy cavalry charge by the Soviets. I also find it quite revealing his discussion of the relative casualties (I believe over 7-1 in the German's favor) when discussing combat effectiveness, and his combat power of some of what he calls the German super units, which were withdraw from the East and sent to Italy and France. This in itself along with the withdrawl of large parts of the Luftwaffe, enabled the Soviets to be as effective as they were, while still suffering outrageous casualties due to Stalin insistance on attacks and Zhukov's complacency in carrying them out. We both know that order of battle in the east was not a little misleading as to actual combat power at the front. It is telling that the Wehrmacht still managed to maintain a coherent defense in the east up till the final gotterdamerung in Berlin while being "bled white". I have to agree with Moiser that the Soviet system never recovered from WWII and died of gangrenous wounds inflicted by the Wehrmacht, which festered for 50 years before the patient died.
    I believe the Soviets were never as effective militarily as they were made out to be. Look how well their client states, Egypt, and Iraq faired when using their doctrine and equipment against foes. I am referring to Israel and Iran. It was obvious that Iraq was as outclassed by the US in 1991 and 2002. The Germans were still able to outclass the Soviets until 1943 using lesser equipment and fewer men than the Soviets. I believe you give short shrift to the Allied lend lease materials, especially trucks and railroad rolling stock, not to mention armor. At the very least, it allowed the Soviets to focus on other production. Of course as Moiser points out their official production numbers don't jibe with their losses, and just like their industrial output numbers during the cold war are suspect from top to bottom.

  6. 6

    [...] Interview with World War II Historian Andrew Roberts [...]

  7. 7
    Penny says:

    I don't know if you are just looking for information on the United States, or if you are doing everyone that was involved in World War 2.

    My father was in the war from I think from 1942-1945.
    CPL, Bob Foster, Westmister Regiment from Italy to Holland. He was at the time the only man to wear three gold stripes in his Regiment on his left sleeve to denote the fact he had been wounded on three separate occasions. The first one was in Germany when a mine exploded on the Naples side of Italy. The second time was the Adriatic side which put him the in hospital. The third was on the North Holland front. He served with his three brothers. Also my fathers step dad was Gordon Calbick who was an original member of the 29th Vancouver Battalion in world War 1.. With this information wanted to know if I could get the names of the men my father served with.. If you can help or send me to someone that can. You see dad passed away at 46 just two months after I was born 1967.



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