A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937-1945

Edited by Roger Chickering, Stig Förster and Bernd Greiner; Cambridge University Press, 2005, $70.

This collection of articles is the latest in a series. Starting in 1997, the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., has held a series of conferences on the subject of “total war.” The proceedings of each conference have been published as a book. The first book covered the period 1861-71, the second went up to World War I, while the third covered the war itself. The fourth volume covered the interwar period, and this volume deals with World War II.

The volume is divided into six sections, namely, the dimensions of the war, combat, the mobilization of economies, the mobilization of societies, war against noncombatants and, finally, criminal war. In the first section, Gerhard Weinberg gives a brief preview of his latest book (see lead review) by examining the issue of total war through the prism of the visions of the postwar world that were held by the major belligerents.

The section on combat focuses only on two powers: Germany and the United States. In this, Holger Herwig argues that in the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany was trying to wage a total war with limited means. Jürgen Förster highlights the role of ideology in the German war effort, while Dennis Showalter suggests that the United States proved capable of fighting two total wars simultaneously.

The economic section covers the German, British and Soviet economies, while the article dealing with the mobilization of societies examines the British, German, American and Soviet experiences. The section on war against noncombatants begins with a fine article by Hans-Heinrich Nolte on the partisan war in Belorussia, while the Allied bombing campaign against Germany is thoughtfully considered by Richard Overy. Finally, Robert Messer deals with the atomic bomb attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The section concerning criminal war begins with an interesting piece by Birgit Beck on the prosecution of sex crimes by the German army. Louise Young offers a fascinating explanation as to how the Japanese army developed the mentality that made the Rape of Nanking—or Nanking Massacre—possible. Daniel Segesser examines the international debate over how to prosecute war crimes, and the volume is wrapped up by a typically perceptive essay by Sir Michael Howard.

All the essays in this book are well written, and fairly short, averaging about 15-20 pages each. The range of authors covers about three generations, including doyens such as Weinberg and Howard, well-established stars such as Förster, Overy and Showalter, and up-and-comers such as Beck and Young. Like all books of this type, there is clearly an assumption that the reader is already very knowledgeable about World War II, and has a fair grasp of much of the historiography already out there.

While the essays are very informative, the book’s biggest flaw is its very Eurocentric focus. Even in that regard it is somewhat limited. Of the 20 articles, only two address the Asian side of the war, and both of those deal with Japan. Mark Harrison has a fine piece on why the Soviet economy did not collapse in 1942 when, by many standards of economic logic, it should have. One might ask the same question of China. After all, by 1941 most of China’s industrial areas, most notably Manchuria, and the economically important coastal cities were almost entirely in Japanese hands. Yet both Chiang Kaishek and Mao Tse-tung were able to maintain considerable forces in the field until the end of the war. How those forces were sustained is still a relatively unexplored issue. The book also suffers from not providing a map or two. This is particularly a problem with Nolte’s article on the Belorussian war.

Taken altogether, however, this is an excellent addition to the vast array of scholarship on World War II, but at $70 it comes at a pretty high price.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here