Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts (2011)

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts, published in the UK in 2009 and in the US in 2011.

British historian Andrew Roberts.
Andrew Roberts’ 2011 book The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War is a superb and fascinating look at the deadliest conflict in human history. I previously read Roberts’ excellent 2014 biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon: A Life, which I reviewed here. Roberts has a knack for choosing the telling historical detail that gets his point across in an entertaining way, and although he writes about very broad subjects, he never gets bogged down in historical minutiae.

I read The Storm of War because I realized recently, as I was teaching World War II to my 10th grade World History students, that I had never read an overview of the war that examined all of the different fronts. So I picked up The Storm of War, in large part because I enjoyed Roberts’ biography of Napoleon so much. 

The Storm of War is an excellent read, as Roberts summarizes the military history of the war, while also examining the political currents that informed the actions of the major players. Roberts focuses more on the European theater than the Pacific, but for a British historian, that’s quite understandable. 

Roberts isn’t afraid to add his two cents when he feels it’s called for. Joseph Goebbels is described as “a man who fully deserves the cliché ‘evil genius,’” (p.23) and General Hans Krebs was “straight out of Nazi central casting.” (p.560) I enjoyed these little asides, as it added more color to the book.

Roberts is perhaps strongest in his writing on the Eastern front of the European theater, and he proves that Germany’s losses on the Eastern front doomed their war effort. Part of Germany’s losing the war was simple arithmetic. As Roberts writes, “In 1941 the USSR had more soldiers and more tanks than, and the same number of aircraft as, the whole of the rest of the world’s armed forces combined.” (p.139) When Hitler launched his invasion of Russia in June of 1941, the Wehrmacht was in much better shape than the Red Army, largely due to Stalin’s disastrous purge of the Red Army leadership in the late 1930’s, but the numbers were never going to be in Germany’s favor. The Russians were simply able to absorb a seemingly infinite amount of casualties and yet still keep reinforcing their troops. Stalin should not have been taken so much by surprise at the German invasion, since “…Stalin received no fewer than eighty warnings of Hitler’s intentions over the previous eight months.” (p.155) 

The chapter about the battle of Stalingrad is superb and haunting. The criticism that Roberts hands out to Stalin is well deserved, as he points out “During the battle of Stalingrad, the NKVD shot around 13,500 Russian soldiers-the size of an entire fully manned division-for treachery, cowardice, desertion, drunkenness and ‘anti-Soviet agitation.’” (p.326) For the average Russian soldier there was simply no alternative than to fight the Germans tooth and nail, street by street in places like Stalingrad.

Roberts puts Russia’s huge sacrifice in context, as he writes, “…between D-Day and VE Day {June 6, 1944 to May 8, 1945} the Russians suffered more than 2 million casualties, three times that of the British, Americans, Canadians and French fighting forces put together. It is worth considering whether democracies could ever have tolerated that level of sacrifice, or whether-as seems likely-it required the whole horrific apparatus of the NKVD and domestic terror to keep the Soviet Union in the war.” (p.520) That’s a sobering thought, but it’s certainly true, and it’s frightening to think how the war would have gone if Hitler had not made the disastrous decision to invade Russia and had instead been able to use the entire force of the Wehrmacht to repel the D-Day invasion. 

One thing I enjoyed about Roberts’ writing is that while he is by no means writing an alternate history of World War II, he is able to show how the Allies’ victory was by no means preordained, and he isn’t afraid to briefly explore alternate paths of action the main players could have taken. 

Examining these other paths of action inevitably means taking a look at how Adolf Hitler made decisions, since he made most of his decisions unilaterally, with a minimum of input from anyone else, usually to the detriment of the German war effort. Roberts also shows how Hitler’s Nazism led him to make decisions that ultimately undermined Germany’s chances of success. It would have been more beneficial for Germany to enlist the Slavic people of Eastern Europe to fight with Germany against the Russians, rather than make them victims of a horrific genocide, but that simply wasn’t how Hitler’s mind worked. 

Roberts relates some interesting anecdotes about the way Hitler’s mind did work, as he writes of Hitler at the Berghof: “Staggeringly beautiful scenery clearly had an effect on Hitler that was opposite to how most other people reacted: rather than softening and humanizing him it hardened his heart and filled him with power-lust.” (p.147) 

We also learn that Hitler had an amazing memory for random military facts, which I was not previously aware of:

 “Instances when Hitler displayed his technical interest in weaponry during the war are legion. When not asking pointed questions at his Führer-conferences with senior OKW figures and military commanders, he liked nothing better than showing off his detailed knowledge. Subjects upon which he would dilate included the horsepower needed for wheeled tractors to pull heavy field howitzers (85 hp); gearshift problems in the Tiger tank; the ricochet hazards associated with the 15cm anti-tank gun…” (p.50-1)

In another instance, “…when {Franz} Halder remarked that the Russians boasted 10,000 tanks, the statement ‘unleashed a more than quarter-hour retort from Hitler, in which he cited from memory the Russians’ annual production for the last twenty years.’” (p.140) Sounds like a fascinating guy.

During a war in which technology produced frightening advances in the ways in which men can kill each other, sometimes old-fashioned technology still played an important part, as during the battle of Berlin when “{German} Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German.” (p.551)

One of Roberts’ wittiest lines comes late in the book, as he makes a reference to a famous line from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, writing of Hermann Göring: “Since the Reichsmarschall was unquestioningly loyal to Hitler until almost the very end, his fidelity as a Nazi mattered more to the Führer than his competence as an air commander. Furthermore, after Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland, to lose one deputy Führer might be considered unfortunate, but to lose two might look like carelessness.” (p.587) If you can make people laugh when writing about Nazis, so much the better. 

The Storm of War is a marvelous book, one that captures the global scope and sweep of World War II while still reminding us of the stark tragedies that each one of the 50 million deaths in that conflict represent.

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