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Despite having read plenty of doorstop World War II histories, military buffs should not pass up this latest. Richard Overy, perhaps Britain’s most honored WWII historian, has written two dozen books on the subject and, in “Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945,” gives his usual lucid account of the fireworks while casting a gimlet eye on the conflict’s background, conduct and surprisingly violent aftermath, which dragged on until the 1960s.    

Popular accounts proclaim that the Allies defended freedom against totalitarianism. Serious historians deliver a more nuanced view that emphasizes economics, nationalism, the disastrous features of the Treaty of Versailles and an irresistible fascination with Adolf Hitler. 

Overy states bluntly that it was an imperialist war no less than World War I, but one that delivered the kiss of death to imperialism — unlike the earlier war in which it triumphed. This mildly controversial interpretation requires nearly 1,000 pages, but readers will enjoy the experience and likely conclude that the author is onto something. 

He points out that, since the dawn of history, national prosperity depended on land and people. Rome thrived as it expanded but then declined and fell. With the explosion of trade and technology after 1500, half a dozen European nations acquired worldwide empires, led as the 19th century ended by Britain, France and Russia. 

Scholars agree that the roots of both world wars lay in the latter half of the 19th century with the addition of three ambitious new powers: Germany and Italy, newly united, and Japan, having discarded its feudal monarchy. 

Eager to acquire colonies, their leaders discovered that most were already taken. Germany and Italy settled for scraps of Africa, Japan exploited China. The most powerful and resentful of the three, Germany, possessed a huge army, a loose-cannon kaiser and a remarkably dense foreign policy establishment whose efforts to assert their nation’s glory spread paranoia among older great powers.  

Historians agree that WWI was an imperialist war but still debate who started it. Barbara Tuchman’s superb “Guns of August” spreads the blame equally. Max Hastings’ equally superb “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” gives Germany the lion’s share, a position first proposed by German scholars.  

No historian fails to mention Woodrow Wilson, whose 1918 proclamation that the war would make the world safe for democracy and that all people deserve the right of self-determination produced worldwide acclaim — except among leaders of the other victorious nations. Overy points out that Wilson, a devoted white supremacist, never intended his Fourteen Points to undo empires. In his view, imperial powers should bring the benefits of “civilization” to primitive peoples, as America was then attempting to do in the Philippines. This infuriated colonial activists, who looked on Wilson as a beacon of freedom, but also two European nations — Italy and Japan — who considered themselves shortchanged in the 1919 peace conference.. 

Historians deplore America’s refusal to join the League of Nations, but the major effect was to leave it firmly in the hands of Britain and France — both of which had a vested interest in sustaining their empires. 

Throughout the 1920s, Germany, Italy and Japan fumed at the disrespect they perceived from established powers. During the 1930s, suffering the effects of the Depression but aware that their oppressors also suffered, all three decided to acquire the empires they felt they deserved.   

Overy maintains that World War II actually began in 1931, when Japan invaded China. Readers who admit that the Soviet Red Army did most of the fighting against Hitler may be surprised to learn that China played that role against Japan. Chiang’s army fought for 14 years, losing almost every battle and retreating steadily, but most of Japan’s army remained in China until 1945.  

Although now looked on as a comic opera figure, Benito Mussolini’s efforts to revive the Roman Empire produced a great deal of death and misery outside of Italy and near-bankruptcy at home. 

Although unhinged by his dazzling early triumphs, Overy’s Hitler was less a megalomaniac bent on world conquest than a hypernationalistic patriot aiming to make Germany great again. He saw his nation surrounded by “subhumans” (mainly Slavs) as dim as the Africans and Indians ruled by Britain whose land and untapped resources would fulfill his nation’s destiny. That Britain and France disapproved was, Hitler believed, simple jealousy. 

Germany invades Poland on page 63 of Overy’s opus, and the Axis surrenders on page 373 of an 878-page text. Fifty concluding pages describe the disturbingly violent postwar decolonization.  

These narrative chapters do not stand out from many others except for a modest focus on Overy’s theme and the brilliance of his writing. In between seven thematic chapters he delivers thoughtful insights into the wider experience of the conflict. Why did almost everyone in every nation support the war? Governments extolled the superiority of democracy, communism or Nazism, but individuals love their tribe most of all. Nationalism always trumps ideology.  

How did states mobilize their resources? America invariably comes out on top with titanic mass production accompanied by essentially no civilian self-sacrifice, but Soviet industry swamped Nazi Germany’s at the expense of cruel citizen deprivation. Although aware of the benefits of mass production, Nazi industrialists and their military customers remained fond of German craftsmanship. The superiority of German tanks has become a cliché, but there were always far too few. America and Britain had long given up horses for moving troops and artillery. The vaunted Wehrmacht required millions.  

The resistance of conquered nations was occasionally effective but always nearly suicidal for those involved and no less sadistic than its opponents. Readers who know of concentration camps, atrocities, mass murders (sometimes on instructions from above but often spontaneous) and the widely tolerated brutality of individual soldiers, not excluding American and British, will squirm as they learn that Overy knows much more.  

Few readers will deny that WWII represented a profound historical shift. After 1945, when the USSR and America exchanged accusations of imperialist ambitions, these were insults. The Cold War was not an imperial but an ideological confrontation, as was the war on terrorism that followed. Sadly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, likely a war to acquire land and people, is painful evidence that drawing conclusions from history is a mug’s game.  

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