The Storm of War
A New History of the Second World War
By Andrew Roberts. 768 pp. Harper, 2011. $29.99.
The World at War, 1939–1945
By Max Hastings. 752 pp. Knopf, 2011. $35.
It takes a lot to justify another single-volume history of World War II, and even more to justify two. By definition such books are hard to write. The war sprawled across time and space and left almost no point on the planet untouched. Any history of the war itself amounts to a history of the globe. Every author has to make tough choices—emphasize some things at the expense of others while omitting other things altogether. No wonder such works often fail to satisfy.
While Storm of War deals with high strategy, Inferno is a bottom-up account focused largely on the responses to the war from the people tangled in it
Both Andrew Roberts and Max Hastings, well-regarded British historians, have given their readers a great deal to think about in these volumes. Roberts is fascinated with the myriad ways that World War II might have gone differently, in particular how the Germans might have fought differently and perhaps even won. Storm of War criticizes Adolf Hitler for his untutored meddling in strategy: the senseless decision to invade the Soviet Union with an unconquered Britain still in the field; the unprovoked declaration of war on the United States in December 1941; the insistence on a “stand fast” strategy in the Soviet Union when a war of maneuver might have made more sense; the lack of foresight in not building enough U-boats, the one weapon with the potential to defeat Britain; and so forth. Above all, he faults Hitler for the ideological nature of his war, and for letting racial ideology trump military necessity, especially in the treatment of occupied peoples and the diversion of substantial wartime resources to the murder of the Jews.
While Roberts deals with high strategy, Hastings aims lower. Inferno is a bottom-up account focused largely on the responses to the war from the people tangled in it: policymakers and commanders, of course, but also students and housewives, workers and poets, Bengali peasants starving in Calcutta and old Russian women in Tula mourning their dead.
Rather than rehash the battles, Hastings seeks the elusive voice of the common man muddling through. Most days were boring and monotonous; all too many were terrifying. Both sides in the war did horrible things, Hastings argues, although some did so for better reasons (the Allied combined bomber offensive) than others (the Germans and the Holocaust).
Even with these divergent approaches, the authors find considerable common ground. Both recognize the primacy of the Eastern Front. Here the Wehrmacht failed to win the quick victory it sought in 1941, found itself trapped in a materiel-intensive war of attrition for which it was unsuited, and went to its doom. The vast majority of Germany’s casualties in World War II occurred on the Eastern Front, and Soviet casualties in the struggle against Germany were not just greater than the other Allies, they were orders of magnitude greater.
Likewise, both books recognize the war’s contingent, even chaotic, nature. The German invasion of Poland in 1939 did not inevitably become the war with which we are familiar. What we have come to know as World War II was the result of thousands of discrete events and decisions taken by the leaders in every warring nation. In a sense, they created the war, little by little, day by day. Hastings is especially adamant that we think of the war not as a single event but as a human experience that unfolded gradually over time. It is food for thought.
So we have two good books here, well worth reading. Neither is without its problems, however. Roberts seems wedded to a mode of analysis that we should have outgrown by now: trying to identify which wrong-headed decision by the führer led Germany to defeat. But why stop there? If we erase Hitler’s mistakes, why not erase those of the Allies? They certainly made their share. If Hitler had done something differently, the Allies would have responded differently, and it’s a very different war.
Beyond that, assigning all blame to Hitler lets the German officer corps off the hook. As Roberts admits, virtually every “wrong” decision Hitler made emerged from an argument between the generals. The battle of Kursk is the classic example, with Hitler usually being blamed for conceiving and ordering the ill-fated offensive even though much of his officer corps was behind it. But there are many others. As a collective, the General Staff often didn’t know what to do any more than Hitler. It was the price they all paid for launching a global war with insufficient resources. Likewise, Roberts seems enamored of a new concept called blitzkrieg as the key to German success in the early war years. It is well known now, however, that the term was much more widely used in the West, that the Germans themselves hardly ever used it, and that they certainly did not use it in any precise doctrinal sense. In that sense, blitzkrieg is a myth, and one we should discard.
Hastings’s problem is inherent in the kind of book he set out to write. He has uncovered hundreds of untapped diaries and letters, but couldn’t always incorporate them into the text with grace. The book’s repeating pattern is a short, often insufficient, discussion of some signal military event followed by a fairly random series of contemporary comments—some meaningful and insightful, others distracting. Rather than sustain a cohesive argument, the final result reads like a script for a film documentary of the Ken Burns variety: short narrative, several first-person accounts, rinse and repeat, again and again.
Finally, for all their expansiveness, both books display a troubling insularity. Not only are the bibliographies entirely in English—not a single original-language Axis source is tapped—but neither takes much notice of recent books written in the United States. May I reach out across the water in the spirit of 1942 and recommend to my British cousins that they pay closer attention to what American scholars have been doing? I’m thinking, for example, of works dealing with the end of the war in Germany by Derek Zumbro or Stephen Fritz. Or Geoffrey Megargee’s research into the German high command and Hitler’s war of annihilation. Had Roberts and Hastings discussed such work, their books would have been immeasurably richer.
Robert M. Citino is a professor of history at the University of North Texas specializing in the Wehrmacht. He blogs for World War II magazine at www.WorldWarII.com.