The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts
Writing a single volume history of the Second World War is one of the most ambitious things an historian can do – because the sheer scale of the topic, in terms of geographical range, span of time and the number of military campaigns make it a war about which you could easily write a copious multi-volume account (Winston Churchill, for instance, managed to keep his history to six books). There is also a unique obligation to do justice to the events of the Holocaust, and somewhere in there, the historian needs to find some time and space to develop and support arguments that add to our understanding of the events, rather than merely delivering a narrative account. Fortunately, Andrew Roberts is more than up to the task, and has written a book that can’t fail to be considered essential reading.
Structurally, Roberts avoids the pitfall of attempting a straightforward narrative account, instead devoting chapters to particular theatres of war or campaigns (for example, the Battle of the Atlantic gets a chapter, as does the Combined Bomber Offensive) – as you would expect, the war on the Eastern Front garners considerable attention, and by and large there is a feeling that Roberts focuses the most attention on those areas where the most blood was shed: Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and so on. The account is peppered with statistics and facts, unavoidably, but Roberts does his best to grant us new perspective on these: for instance, the total number of Russians killed in the German siege of Leningrad exceeds the total military and civilian death toll for the Western Allies in the whole of the war, a fact that puts in to perspective the scale of Russian suffering.
Roberts’ central theme is really about leadership and grand strategy: there is a strong focus on Hitler and Churchill especially, and he emphasises repeatedly the divergent styles they used. Hitler’s autocratic, centralised, detail-obsessed approach, his frequent juggling of generals, his increasing tendency to issue ‘stand or die’ orders to troops in hopeless situations, are all contrasted with the ‘war by committee’ approach of the Allied powers, whose generals could and did overrule their political masters when it mattered most. Roberts also highlights the many points at which a different approach by the Axis could have led to a much more difficult war for the Allies: their failure to co-ordinate, Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA, his failure to develop the right weapons when they could have made a difference, and the huge missed opportunity that the disaffected, anti-Soviet masses who came under German control in the opening stages of the invasion of the USSR represented, as a labour force and as soldiers. Of course, as Roberts acknowledges, any regime that had taken a different approach to these issues would probably not have initiated the Second World War in the first place. Although Stalin’s folly in trusting Hitler is repeatedly emphasised, Roberts compares him favourably with Hitler in terms of his approach to running the war, and doubts that a liberal democracy, faced with the might of the German onslaught, could have found the necessary brutality to successfully withstand the invasion, much less win the ultimate victory.
The Pacific war receives considerably less attention that the war in Europe and North Africa, and it’s a valid criticism to say that China barely gets a mention, but by and large these things are weighted by their strategic relevance, and the Japanese, lacking a well-known figurehead akin to Hitler or Mussolini, have always been harder to give meaningful insights in to when writing history at this level.
This is a wonderful, scholarly and also very moving book, which should be as essential to the reader of WW2 historys as John Keegan’s The Second World War, Gerhard Weinberg’s A World At Arms and RJ Overy’s Why The Allies Won as a means of understanding an awful war that has done so much to shape our modern world, and whose mythology can still be strongly felt today. It’s a very human book, and Roberts is not afraid to focus on individuals, some famous, some not, nor to count the cost in lives. Finally, it’s an opinionated book, refreshingly so, which is what makes it so stimulating, and ultimately, totally essential.