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Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders

by Gerhard L. Weinberg; Cambridge University Press, 2005, $25.

The best word to describe Gerhard Weinberg’s writing is “unapologetic.” More than any other author around, Weinberg offers up strong opinions in a blunt, plain-spoken and unabashed way. He doesn’t talk around a question, rarely says “on the other hand” and doesn’t view history as the land of ceaseless ambiguity, nuance or shades of gray. His readers may sometimes disagree with a point, and they may even wince occasionally at the directness of his language, but they will never wonder where he stands.

It should be added that Weinberg has earned his right to be forceful. In a career spanning decades, he has established himself as the authoritative voice—the scholarly go-to guy, if you will—on the nature of Nazi foreign policy (The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany) and on World War II in general (A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II). Both books are still definitive in their respective fields. The former work, whose two volumes appeared originally in 1970 and 1980, respectively, has just been re-released in a new single-volume edition by Enigma Books; the latter, published originally in 1994, has just reappeared in a new edition from Cambridge University Press. And now comes Visions of Victory. I note that he is listed on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Web site as an emeritus (retired) faculty member. Some retirement!

Weinberg’s new book is based on a simple idea, so simple that it is surprising no one has thought of it before. It asks some basic questions: What were the war aims of the principal political leaders? How did those ideas develop over time in response to the military situation? How did they determine wartime strategy? And finally, whose “vision of victory” proved to be the most enduring? Certainly, there are studies of each of the various leaders—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo, Chiang Kai-shek, Josef Stalin, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. There are works that look at individual aspects of the wartime alliances, such as the Anglo-American leadership or the Axis. It took a scholar of Weinberg’s enormous learning and great self-confidence, however, to take on the task of a comparative analysis for all eight of them.

Despite its title, this is not a book about the “vision thing,” as the first President George Bush might have put it. Instead, Weinberg analyzes the specific plans of each national leader if and when victory had been secured. As is his wont, he offers a no-nonsense approach here—there are few metaphysical ruminations on the meaning of life—but with great attention to detail: redrawn boundaries, conquered or lost provinces, cities to be rebuilt or destroyed, population exchanges, colonies and more.

The results never fail to be compelling. Weinberg begins, appropriately enough, with Hitler. It was the Führer’s vision of Weltherrschaft (world domination) for Germany, and the necessity to attain it by military means, that was the motor driving the global conflict. The war began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939, of course, but Weinberg points out that Hitler had been equally ready to go to war over Czechoslovakia in 1938. He had been “cheated” out of that conflict by the machinations of Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Conference, and he therefore conducted himself in the summer crisis of 1939 so as to guarantee that this time there would be war.

Indeed, Weinberg repeatedly argues that Hitler, and Germany, had insisted on war. Moreover, the war against the Western powers (Great Britain and France) was only intended to be the first in a series: The Soviet Union’s turn would come next, followed by a war against the United States (which Hitler had discussed in detail as early as his so-called “Second Book,” dictated in 1928). Finally, there would be a war with his erstwhile Japanese ally. Historians who question the wisdom of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States in December 1941, or who wonder what he could have been thinking when he did it, miss this important point. It was something that he intended to do all along. It was simply a case of Hitler being Hitler.

What would a Hitler victory have meant for the world? Weinberg forces us to confront the awful possibilities: An immense German empire in Europe, Asia and Africa, held together by terror and brute force. The “total demographic and racial reordering of the globe,” including the killing of all Jews, Gypsies (the Sinti and Roma people, to be precise) and the handicapped. The last category would have included seriously injured German veterans; Weinberg mentions on several occasions that Allied victory saved the lives of tens of thousands of those. As for the subject peoples who were not targeted for total physical extermination—the Slavs, for example—they could look forward to slave labor, a starvation diet and sterilization en masse.

The “Aryans” who were to rule this nightmarish realm would live the life of overlords, whizzing along four-lane autobahns to their new estates in the conquered eastern territories or riding in luxury coaches on the new super-railroads Hitler intended to build (with a gauge of three meters, about double the width of standard track in Western Europe). Beneath them, “barracks on wheels” would haul masses of slaves to their next destination—perhaps to be worked to death in the broad farmlands of the Ukraine or in constructing the massive new German naval base at Trondheim in Norway.

None of the other leaders could match the radical nature of Hitler’s vision. They were simply out to win a war and to collect a spoil or two. Most were rooted firmly in the statesmanship of the 19th century: Military victory was supposed to gain you provinces, colonies, perhaps a naval base. Mussolini, while a willing participant in Hitler’s war, was a far more traditional leader. His postwar vision had Britain and France greatly weakened but not enslaved, and there would be other states in existence. The world, Weinberg notes, would be “greatly changed but not transformed as Hitler expected.” De Gaulle’s major agenda, obviously, was the rebirth of France as a great power. It was a goal that he pursued, oddly enough, by being as rude as possible to Churchill and Roosevelt, the two men whose money and soldiers would make it possible. Not satisfied with this, he also insisted on territorial acquisitions in the Alps (the Valle d’Aosta) and in Africa (portions of southern Libya to be annexed to French Equatorial Africa), both at the expense of defeated Italy. As Weinberg points out, France already had enough Alpine glaciers and desert oases, and de Gaulle’s insistence on picking up more of each shows the traditional nature of his postwar vision.

The same went, in spades, for Winston Churchill. He wanted to crush “Hitlerism” and all it stood for, liberate every land overrun by the German army and shoot every Nazi leader he could get his hands on without trial. In the end, he got to do two out of three. When it came to the empire, however, he was a traditionalist. The Atlantic Charter and the “Four Freedoms” were all well and good, but they certainly didn’t apply to Britain’s overseas possessions. “I have not become the King’s First Minister,” he told the House of Commons in 1942, “in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

It is Franklin Roosevelt who is the star in Weinberg’s constellation. Since the 1960s, a great amount of scholarly work has cast U.S. foreign policy in a highly negative light. Leftist historians, in particular, have argued that American rhetoric on freedom and liberty was often at variance with its behavior abroad, and that economic interests have more often than not determined American actions. Weinberg rejects that view entirely. His Roosevelt is a man who was more closely attuned to the broad historical forces at work than were any of the others, more able to read the signs of the times—particularly with regard to the European colonial empires. While European statesmen were envisioning their restoration, Roosevelt knew the colonial age was over. He didn’t want to get boys from Des Moines, Iowa, or Ypsilanti, Mich., killed so that the French could recover Indochina or the Dutch could retake Borneo.

Alone among wartime statesmen, he saw that China was a great power in the making, and his insistence on including Chiang Kai-shek in the summit meetings, a tendency often chalked up to Roosevelt’s naiveté, has to be seen in that light. His views here were a refreshing contrast to those of Churchill, who still peppered his chat with words like “Chinamen” and “chinks.” Contrary to the views of many scholars and observers, Roosevelt harbored no illusions at all about Stalin, and he certainly wasn’t responsible for “surrendering” Eastern Europe to the Soviets at Yalta. As Weinberg repeatedly points out, the Germans did that. Hitler started the war, invaded the Soviet Union and then was beaten. In the process he brought the Soviets into the heart of Europe, and nothing short of World War III—which Roosevelt had no intention of starting—was going to get them out. Above all, Roosevelt was an optimist. He fervently believed that victory would come sooner or later. Even if his allies were knocked out of the war one by one, the United States would simply win it alone. In that way, he was quintessentially American.

Perhaps Weinberg’s most striking idea is this: Rarely, if ever, did wartime statesmen take a careful and sober calculation of their own resources, and then limit their war aims accordingly. Rather, he notes, they “concentrated on aims first,” and tended to assume that a lack of resources—human and materiel alike—was a problem that could be overcome by careful planning or by willpower. Triangulating between the leadership’s often grandiose plans and the typically fragile logistical shoestring? That was somebody else’s job. In fact, we might have seen it was everybody else’s job, from the general staffs to the fighting men to the worker in the factory to the housewife juggling her ration coupons at home. Some combatant nations handled it better than others.

Weinberg has given us another excellent book, packed with profound insights that can come only from a lifetime of study. The short piece on Tojo, who despite all his importance to the Japanese war effort has gone missing in most Western histories, is alone worth the price of the book. More generally, Weinberg makes an important point that often gets lost in the details of the typical campaign study. There really were important things at stake in World War II, and the right side won it.


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