WWII: THE STORM OF WAR: A NEW HISTORY OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Andrew Roberts
Harper, $29.99, 712 pages
Andrew Roberts, author of "Masters and Commanders" and "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900," has produced what Gen. George Patton might call "a helluva book" - the first totally readable one-volume history of World War II, a literary and historical blitzkrieg, propelled by strong, positive prose, written with concision yet a wealth of detail, and supplied with an arsenal of sources.
Mr. Roberts sweeps at top speed through all the theaters of war. From Poland in 1939, through the quick victories in Norway, France and the Low Countries, the Battle of Britain, the invasion of Russia and the initial successes, then Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the 1,000-mile retreat back to Berlin, Mr. Roberts sees this, above all, as Hitler's war.
The initial lightning successes won the admiration and respect of his generals, so that he was able to take personal control of Germany's armed forces and function as his own war minister, issuing orders directly to all branches. And for a time it worked.
Given the initial conquests and the strength of fascist movements throughout Europe, many believed that with a negotiated peace with England (Mr. Roberts suggests this might have happened had Winston Churchill not taken command), Hitler was well on his way to establishing an effective united Europe.
But a union was not what Hitler had in mind. The objective was to subjugate the Slavs and use their territory to build an Aryan civilization. "This was to be the world's first wholly political ideological war," writes Mr. Roberts, "and ... this was the primary reason why the Nazis lost it."
The first great mistake was the invasion of Russia, which began brilliantly. On the first day of the invasion, "the Luftwaffe knocked out more Russian warplanes ... than did British warplanes in the entire Battle of Britain. Lt.-Gen. Ivan Kopets, the chief of Russia's Bomber Command, shot himself on the second day of the invasion, which under the circumstances in Stalin's regime counted as a smart career move."
The second great mistake came four days after Pearl Harbor. Even though not obliged by treaty to do so, Hitler declared war on the United States, "an unimaginably stupid thing to have done ... a suicidally hubristic act less than six months after attacking the Soviet Union."
By declaring war, Hitler gave Franklin Roosevelt the reason he needed to come to the aid of the Allies, "Now," Mr. Roberts writes, "the Fuhrer had solved Roosevelt's problem at a stroke."
"Coming within a week of the checking of his offensive against Moscow, when Russians started taking German prisoners for the first time, it is now easy to see precisely when the seeds of Germany's defeat were sown."
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the Japanese had captured an area of some 32 million square miles, containing great quantities of the world's supply of natural resources. As one historian quoted here noted, their military triumphs had been " 'as spectacular as any in the history of warfare.' "
Mr. Roberts provides compact accounts of the Pacific naval engagements, chief among them the Battle of Midway, "one of the most decisive battles of history," as well as evocative descriptions of the ground war: Guadalcanal was "the first of several stations on a via dolorosa whose names - Kwajalein, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa - are " 'written in blood into American history.' " (And, one might add, written with honor into the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.)
Mr. Roberts draws vivid thumbnail sketches of some of the war's leaders. Gen. Orde Wingate, commander of the Chindits in Burma, was "a nudist who frequently wore only a pith helmet and carried a fly whisk in camp: someone who never bathed but instead cleaned himself by vigorous scrubbing of his body with a stiff brush."
Charles de Gaulle was a "weirdly angular giraffe of a man," who stood "virtually alone [in] his courage and determination" to defend "the honor of la France eternelle." That he succeeded despite France's record in WWII was a historic feat. "As more Frenchmen bore arms for the Axis than for the Allies," Mr. Roberts writes, "it is unsurprising that there is still no official French history of the period."
Had different decisions been made, some argue, Hitler could have won his war. And Germany might have developed the first atom bomb. But that wasn't possible. "Because of his racial policies - denying himself the scientific brains necessary to create a bomb of his own, Hitler's Nazism meant that he had persecuted the very people who could have prevented his own downfall."
For all the second guessing, for all the analyses of crucial mistakes, Mr. Roberts concludes: "The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: He was a Nazi."
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley, 2007).
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