- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005


By Gerhard L. Weinberg

Cambridge, $25, 292 pages, maps


While it may be an understatement to say that there is no shortage of books being published on WorId War II, such a remark would not constitute a complaint. Few events in American history have been the setting for more gripping, harrowing, heroic and dramatic stories. In part due to the popular work of people such as Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw, there has been in the past decade a welcome attentiveness to the effort it took to defeat the Axis powers in the war, especially in terms of the individual soldiers who did the fighting.

Books such as “Ghost Soldiers,” “Flags of our Fathers,” “The Bedford Boys,” Ambrose’s own “D-Day and Citizen Soldiers” and Mr. Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” became bestsellers by providing captivating narratives to readers eager to understand the human experience within the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century.

Dwelling for the most part in the shadow of such bestsellers are analytical volumes penned by historians seeking to explain the less personal aspects of the war. One such historian is Gerhard Weinberg, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, whose latest contribution to World War II scholarship is “Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders.” Mr. Weinberg is the author of “A World at Arms,” a 1000-plus page global history of WWII first published to great acclaim in 1994 and reprinted several times since, with a new edition coming out just this past spring.

“Visions of Victory,” while a very different kind of book than “A World at Arms,” is even more useful in helping readers understand why the war came about in the first place. In it, Mr. Weinberg explains the intentions of the primary leaders of the nations involved in the war and their assumptions about the postwar world. If anyone reading about WWII ever finds himself asking, for instance, “What was Hitler thinking?” Mr. Weinberg gives us the answer here in detail.

The leaders he examines are Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Tojo Hideki, Chiang Kai-shek, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and lastly, Franklin Roosevelt. In deciding on this particular order he thought it made the most sense to examine “the leaders of the countries that took the initiative in starting the war … in the sequence in which they came to be involved in open hostilities, followed by the Allied leaders in the sequence in which they came to be involved.”

The chapter on Hitler is the most revealing and the most chilling due to Mr. Weinberg’s detailed explanation of Hitler’s incredibly well-developed vision, a vision “as terrible as it was consistent.” As he explains Hitler’s determination to redraw almost all European borders and the detailed timetable for the series of wars he anticipated fighting (including the ultimate contest against the United States which would be concluded by 1950), Mr. Weinberg also details the personal fate Hitler envisioned for those deemed not suitable to live anywhere in the new German Empire.

Hitler’s plans for European Jews are well-known, of course, but here the author makes it clear that the idea of extermination was no afterthought. Rather, Hitler intended that his wars would provide the necessary cover for his program of extermination. Shifting borders seems almost to have been a secondary goal. Looking beyond Europe, Hitler promised the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, with whom he met in November, 1941, that German troops would even see to the extermination of all the Jews then living in the Middle East, a region he intended ultimately to be incorporated into Italy’s territorial empire. Equally disturbing but less well known is Hitler’s desire to eradicate all of Europe’s disabled, including tens of thousands of German veterans from not only the World War I but even those who were maimed while fighting for Hitler.

While it is clear that Benito Mussolini’s postwar vision for Italy was nowhere near as ambitious as Hitler’s, Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki’s goals, at least in terms of geography, were equally grandiose. Tojo’s plans, though less well-developed than Hitler’s, nevertheless seem almost as fantastic in their own regard. As Mr. Weinberg humorously puts it, the residents of Cuba and Jamaica “would surely have been astonished to learn that they were to be included in Greater East Asia.” Though the author does not press the claim, one gets the sense that even if both Hitler’s and Tojo’s ambitious postwar visions came to complete fruition, it would not be long before the two former allies were at war over the parts of the globe they each thought rightly belonged in his own sphere of control. The overwhelming ambition is incredible to see.

As far as the Allied leaders are concerned, Mr. Weinberg portrays them as being for the most part completely reactive, the one exception being Stalin, whose interest in controlling the Soviet Union’s neighbors existed independent of and prior to the war. After 1941 both he and Churchill developed detailed ideas about changing borders and relocating nationalities, although their visions were usually in stark opposition. Beyond the total defeat of Nazi Germany, however, Churchill’s primary postwar goal was to retain the British Empire (and other European empires) intact, a point on which he was not willing to budge, even at the prodding of Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt’s ideas of the postwar world were anchored by the certainty that the United States had to play a major role in international affairs from that point forward, a notion with which Churchill completely agreed. The president’s other great determination was to guarantee that Germany, Japan, and Italy would never be able to wage war on this scale again. He was perfectly willing to see substantial territory taken away from Germany to ensure this, but as late as 1944 said “I dislike making detailed plans for a country which we do not yet occupy.”

Vagueness from Roosevelt, as anyone who has studied the New Deal will already know, was to be expected. He was certain, however, about the need for unconditional surrender, which Mr. Weinberg asserts was the president’s intention from the outset of the war, even if the precise phrase didn’t emerge until the Casablanca conference in 1943. For FDR, any other details could be worked out later.

One of the themes that emerges in Mr. Weinberg’s analysis is a fundamental difference between what are called “revisionist” powers (in WWII, the Axis) and “status quo” powers (the Allies). Revisionist powers wage war with an established list of changes they want to bring about, while their opponents usually find themselves suddenly at war with few preconceived intentions beyond victory. Only as the war progresses do they come to envision the postwar world as explicitly as did the aggressors.

At a time in which the United States sees potential adversaries in many places around the world, a book such as this has a contemporary message. Assuming that such adversaries do not have well-developed and highly ambitious plans is to risk being caught as unprepared and surprised as the victims of Hitler’s blitzkrieg and Japan’s early explosion into the Pacific.

The most distinctive overall strength of “Visions of Victory” is its concept. Reading this book provides one of those instances in which one finds oneself saying “I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before.” Despite many volumes on each of these leaders, Mr. Weinberg explains there was “none that compares their view of the future assuming their side of the war emerged victorious.” That now can be seen as a grave oversight in light of this useful book. Its only real weakness is ironically related to its strength. It tends to be a little tedious at times. Nevertheless, it’s not a tedium of content, so to speak, as much as it’s a tedium borne simply out of the very structure of the book, which is clear and methodical, if repetitive.

Such a problem — and it’s a minor one, to be sure — is probably unavoidable due to the similarity of material from chapter to chapter. (Occasionally a didactic tone compounds this problem: “Before we turn to the two other categories of territory controlled by Germany … .”) Because the purpose of “Visions of Victory” is to closely examine the intentions harbored by each of the major leaders of the warring countries, it’s not really possible to do a narrative. But we already have our narratives, and now thanks to Gerhard Weinberg, we now have much more.

David A. Smith teaches history at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide