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Not So Happy Anniversary

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Here's a bleg for the NLT readership: what is your favorite or nominee for best book about the conflict?  Needn't be comprehensive.  My opening bid is John Lukacs' The Last European War, which only covers the first two years before Pearl Harbor.  He is quirky but always interesting.  Best book about the back end of the war is Chester Wilmot's The Struggle for Europe, which takes up the story starting with D-Day.  Might say Wilmot has an "Anglo-centric" perspective; he's critical of the U.S. in many places in the narrative.  Both are older books (Wilmot dates from the 1950s).  Any more recent titles of special merit that I have missed?  As we cay in class, "discuss."
Categories > History

Discussions - 16 Comments

Wow, that's a tough one, but I guess my favorite is Gerhard Weinberg's A WORLD AT ARMS. The writing is clear, although not graceful, but it's comprehensive nature is its best feature. In this regard it's clearly superior to John Keegan's THE SECOND WORLD WAR, which is almost entirely limited to the war's military aspects. Weinberg is wonderful at showing how military, political, diplomatic, and economic developments in one part of the world influenced events elsewhere. The downside, of course, is that the book is well over 1,000 pages, so it's not the sort of thing that can be assigned for a class.

For the beginning of WW II for the U.S., Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor. Churchill's Gathering Storm still moves the reader. Anything by John Wheeler-Bennett is captivating, though mostly pre-war.

I do prefer the Max Hastings books, Armageddon being my favorite, because he understands the relation between the Eastern and Western fronts and articulates it well. I must confess that if Hastings is correct, the whole "greatest generation" stuff is exposed as a shallow, rah-rah myth and we should thank the Russians for our victory. We fought to the last drop of Russian blood, as Churchill quipped.

I think Churchill's SECOND WORLD WAR is a better work of literature than it is of history. Churchill may have been a great leader, but his work is full of self-serving distortions. In particular his account of Munich and the events that followed has largely been debunked by historians.

For those prone to delude themselves that the war was won or lost in the East, peruse VDH's Soul of Battle. And Syneor, Hastings is dead wrong, and is one of those Brits mildly inclined to disparage the accomplishments of his predecessors. Without Allied supplies, particularly without Allied motorized transport, the Red Army wouldn't have gone very far, very quickly. Moreover, without Allied Air activity over the Reich, the Red Army would have been facing the full weight of the Luftwaffe, which would have made their ability to assemble and rapidly move very problematic. For those equally prone to inflate the importance of Bradley and Eisenhower, read the same book by VDH.

Citizen Soldier by Ambrose is an exceptional read.

There's a new study out about the RAF's Bomber Command offensive against the Reich, it's called Reaching for the Clouds. It's worth the read.

It's Hansen who's wrong. True, Allied supplies and the bombing of German factories contributed to the Russian success, but these things only really made an impact starting in 1943--in other words, after the Wehrmacht had already been defeated at Moscow and Stalingrad. Help from the West certainly helped the Soviets in their adtvance toward Berlin, but they stopped the German offensive more or less on their own.

For every five German soldiers killed in World War II, four of them died on the Eastern Front. That helps to keep things in perspective.

Did the Soviet Arm kill the German effort in the east or did the winter? What killled all of those soldiers on the Eastern Front? If the Western allies had not been bombing the German factories, would those factories have produced enough to supply the troops?

Maybe those are silly questions, but most of my assumptions about WWII are from books on my father's shelves read many years ago, titles unremembered, or books from the local library's shelves, including one written from the point of view of a Russinan defector. I remember being struck that he said that the Soviet Army was crippled by Stalin's purges and that without the bitter winter, they would have lost. Is that incorrect?

Kate, the winter was part of it, particularly since Hitler's hubris was such that he refused to equip his army with winter clothing. Hitler was gambling on a quick collapse of Stalin's regime. When that didn't happen before the onset of winter, Operation Barbarossa was essentially doomed. Of course, the weather affected both sides, but the Russians were better prepared for it.

The purges decimated the Red Army, it's true, and its weaknesses were exposed in the war against Finland in 1939-40. However, the abysmal performance of the Russians in that war gave a spur to military reforms, and while those reforms were far from complete in 1941, they were well underway. Ironically the purges probably saved Stalin's position by eliminating anyone who might have been in a position to overthrow him in those pivotal first weeks after the German attack.

An excellent book on this, by the way, is Constantine Pleshakov's STALIN'S FOLLY: THE TRAGIC FIRST TEN DAYS OF WORLD WAR TWO ON THE EASTERN FRONT.

Was it irony or intent? I do not mean that Stalin knew about Germany's future attack, but surely the purges were to eliminate potential threats to Stalin, either real or imagined.

There was a new and amazingly cheap hardback copy of that book on sale from the UK on Amazon just now. It's gone; I bought it. Thank you.

J.M., a lengthy post would be required to respond to the prevailing opinion, to which you apparently prescribe, to wit, that the war was won or lost in the East. And I'm not on retainer to provide briefs in defense of VDH. But perhaps on the morrow I'll take the matter in hand. But not tonight.

But I will note this, that casualty counts are not decisive on the point at issue, for tallying of corpses as to who won or who lost a battle was a feature of the Great War, not the Second World War. While indecisive battles were being waged in the East, the United States was supplying the Soviet Union, {not just with motorized transport, but with foodstuffs, rail stock, rubber and other essential materials for the waging of war}. Moreover, the United States was knocking out Germany's main ally, seizing control of the Med, securing the Atlantic supply routes and simultaneously bringing war home to the Reich, through the air, -------- something the Soviet Union could never accomplish. The United States and Great Britain spared the Soviet Union even essaying a strategic air campaign, which meant it spared the Soviet Union the money, the manpower and the material expenditure involved in waging such an air campaign. Were the Luftwaffe able to have concentrated on the Soviet Union to the exclusion that it was able to concentrate on France, the Soviet Union would have been knocked out of the war, in '41, '42, or even later in '43.

I second Dan's recommendation for Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers. It is a very thoughtful book that goes beyond merely recounting events. The chapters on the Normandy invasion will stick with you forever.

Was it Ambrose who stressed the importance of the amount of stuff the U.S. could provide to the war effort? Was it he who said that was decisive? Maybe he wasn't the only one. I remember in particular, one of Ambrose books, I think, quoting a German officer as saying that after the Battle of the Bulge, the German Army knew they were losing. Never mind the generals saying that the Americans were proven cowards because they ran away so fast they left behind so much stuff, and stuff necessary for war. The officer said that a better analysis of the matériel left behind was that they knew they could get more and did not need to carry it away. Abandoning to regroup was sensible in the circumstances. Therefore, American productivity won the war as much as any strategy.

Nice place this America?

Dan, I stand by my earlier point. The Soviets didn't start getting western aid in significant amounts until 1943, particularly the second half of that year. U-boats were routinely mauling convoys headed for Murmansk, and the convoys were halted altogether for several months in late 1942.

Also, the Russians were up against virtually the entire Luftwaffe in 1941 and 1942. Allied bombing accomplished very little before 1943; as late as the beginning of 1943 there were fewer than 100 U.S. bombers stationed in England. True, the British were bombing German cities, but because they were wedded to the notion of "area bombing," and rarely attacking during the day, they weren't inflicting serious damage on German industry.

Kate, every historian I know of places due emphasis on the sheer quantity of war materiel that the U.S. was producing. But as Richard Overy has pointed out in his excellent book WHY THE ALLIES WON, economic power alone is insufficient to explain the victory. Were that the case, the United States should have won easily in Vietnam--and the British in the American Revolution.

The fact that the Soviets held off the Wehrmact in '41, without allied material assistance, and before Western air power began to stretch itself out over the skies of the Reich, does not mean that the Soviet Union would have prevailed against the Wehrmact alone in '45.

Think of it this way, ------ how could the Soviets have prevailed in the absence of American participation in that conflict. Were it a simple showdown between the Soviets and the 3d Reich, --- lay out how the Soviets would have defeated their enemy.

The fact that the Germans didn't take Moscow in October of '41 doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't have reached that city in a later year. Were the Wehrmact able to fully focus their power on the Soviet Union, they would have ground down the Red Army by '45. Even as late as late '44, the Red Army was sustaining huge losses. And those losses were only sustainable because the Wehrmact was not able to focus all of their power upon the Red Army.

Even as late as the Fall of '43, which means even after Operation Citadel, the German High command felt they could stabilize the Eastern Front were they able to place von Manstein as Supreme Commander of the Eastern Front. Moreover, by then the mobility of the Wehrmact was being influenced by American air strikes against the petroleum facilities of the Reich. The Soviet Union was not able to impair German oil supplies, but the Western Allies were, and routinely did. The Red Army was able to take advantage of an opponent who could not move as rapidly as they could, because of limitations on fuel supplies and fuel availability.

CW has held that the war was won or lost in the East. But that CW was established by left of center historians who loved to highlight the supposed anti-fascist credentials of the Soviet Union, and loved to hype the suffering of the Soviet Union in that conflict, all to rationalize their continued control of the captive nations in the Warsaw Bloc.

Point taken.

It's true that the Red Army suffered massive casualties during the period 1943-45. However, so did the Wehrmacht. But the Russians were capable of replacing these losses, so that the Red Army was stronger than ever in 1944.

I'm curious as to what your source is on the German High Command, although I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't the memoirs of some German general. The problem with such works is that they are largely unreliable; they seek above all to establish two things: 1) the Wehrmacht had nothing to do with the murder of the Jews (it was all the SS); and 2) if Hitler had only listened to us generals, Germany would've won the war.

As for Germany's shortage of oil, the following comes from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey:

"The German oil supply was tight throughout the war, and was a controlling factor in military operations. The chief source of supply, and the only source for aviation gasoline, was 13 synthetic plants together with a small production from three additional ones that started operations in 1944. The major sources of products refined from crude oil were the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania and the Hungarian fields which together accounted for about a quarter of the total supply of liquid fuels in 1943. In addition, there was a small but significant Austrian and domestic production. The refineries at Ploesti were attacked, beginning with a daring and costly low-level attack in August 1943. These had only limited effects; deliveries increased until April 1944 when the attacks were resumed. The 1944 attacks, together with mining of the Danube, materially reduced Rumanian deliveries. In August 1944, Russian occupation eliminated this source of supply and dependence on the synthetic plants became even greater than before."

In other words, the pinch really set in during mid-1944. By this time the Soviets already had a huge advantage over the Germans in manpower, vehicles, artillery, aircraft, etc. Moreover, what really menaced the German oil supply was less air attack than the Red Army's conquest of the Ploesti oilfields.

Your argument about the CW is correct, but irrelevant. One doesn't have to be a communist sympathizer to appreciate the primary importance of the war on the Eastern Front. Surely Norman Davies could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered pro-Soviet.

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