The Province of Chance
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts (Harper, 768 pp., $29.99)


The fall of Singapore is not news, the Rattenkrieg in Stalingrad’s ruins is not news, the grotesque theater of arrival at the Auschwitz railway siding is not news, but Andrew Roberts’s narrative gifts are such that it is almost impossible to read his retelling of these nightmares without some feeling of encountering the new. Almost: World War II is too familiar a saga for that. Still, Mr. Roberts, a distinguished British military historian, has produced a volume that serves as a comprehensive and clear (good maps too) introduction to this most sprawling of conflicts while adding fresh insights for those already well-versed in its twists, turns, and minutiae. Who knew that Hitler, ever the mystic, held the belief — ominous in the light of Russian winters to come — that “human barometers . . . gifted with a sixth sense” could predict the weather more accurately than mere meteorologists?

This is also, in the best meaning of the word, a balanced book, up to date (its author has made good use of recent research) without being faddish. That’s rarer than it should be. Clio is a restless, untrustworthy muse. History is malleable. Initial impressions count. That’s why Winston Churchill was so quick to write his account of the war: He wanted to set the mold. And he wasn’t the only leader to play this game. Their memoirs are valuable, but partial: Scores are settled, excuses are made, credit is claimed.

Later, when the professional historians moved in, they often seemed to do so in waves, all too frequently driven by fashion, opportunism, contrariness, and ideology. Magisterial in tone and spirit, The Storm of War rises above all that. No history book can ever truly be definitive, but this comes close.

There’s little that rewrites the past more than the release of once-hidden files. Roberts emphasizes the contribution made by the codebreakers of Bletchley Park; yet 40 years ago, their deeds were still classified. The opening of many archives in the former Soviet Union since 1991 ought to have eliminated any remaining traces of doubt about the nature of the Western democracies’ vile, essential, and dangerous ally: “The SS had been using gas vans to kill . . . since 1939: It was an idea borrowed from Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, during which people had been gassed in specially converted trucks.” “Uncle Joe”? Not so much.

Sometimes, the evidence was already available for all to see, even if not too many wished to look. The Holocaust was hardly a secret, yet it was decades before it assumed the central role it now does in our understanding of the European war. Roberts chronicles the darkness that descended in a chapter written with fewer rhetorical flourishes than its title — “The Everlasting Shame of Mankind” — might suggest. He lets the horrors speak for themselves: “Oswald ‘Papa’ Kaduk — his nickname came from his ‘love for children’ — gave Jewish children balloons just before they were squirted (abspritzen) in the heart with phenol injections at the rate of ten per minute.”

The conflict in Europe was, of course, about more than the Holocaust. The Allies did not go to war to rescue the Jews. Many Germans fought for reasons that owed little or nothing to Hitler’s anti-Semitic obsession. Nevertheless, Roberts doesn’t wall off the slaughter of the 6 million into one discrete chapter. As he rightly grasps, it infected everything. Roberts is an enthusiast and expert (as this book repeatedly demonstrates) of battle, campaign, tactics, and strategy, of tanks and planes and all the rest. That said, despite his appreciation of the fighting qualities of the German military — and the skills of its officer corps — he rejects the argument that the “decent” Wehrmacht was quite so different from the wicked SS as many have liked to maintain.

June 20, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 11

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