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.
That myth may have helped build the peaceful postwar Bundesrepublik, but myth it was, and a highly successful one at that: An exhibition depicting some of the regular army’s fouler activities outraged a surprising number of Germans as late as the 1990s. But Roberts finds the Wehrmacht guilty as charged. He names the deeds, and he names the names: “After [the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews at] Babi Yar, Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau issued an order celebrating the ‘hard but just punishment for the Jewish sub-humans’ and [Field Marshal Gerd von] Rundstedt signed a directive to senior officers along much the same lines.”
More damning yet, if the experience of the “middle-aged, respectable working- and middle-class citizens of Hamburg” who made up Reserve Police Battalion 101 (the subjects of Christopher Browning’s devastating 1992 book Ordinary Men, and a force responsible for the killing or deportation of 83,000 people in German-occupied eastern Europe) is anything to go by, there would have been little risk of serious punishment for those who opted out of mass murder. It would have been a bad career decision, that’s all, but one that too few were willing to take. We can only wonder why. Ingrained prejudice? The effects of Nazi propaganda? Wartime brutalization? Military discipline? Peer pressure (not all bands of brothers are benign)? Others simply enjoyed killing. Some were indifferent. Human nature is what it is. Our species had much to be ashamed about before Auschwitz. It has had even more to be ashamed about since.
And the disgrace was not confined to the Reich. Roberts devotes a good portion of his book to the war in the Far East and Pacific (with the Nationalist Chinese justly receiving more praise than usual, and Mao’s Communists, quite correctly, less), but, again, never lets his admiration for the martial get in the way of his grip on the moral. He describes Japanese cruelty in the Philippines in revolting detail, but, in a commendable display of respect, holds back on the even worse (“there were many other scenes . . . not denied by the perpetrators that are simply too disgusting to recount here”). The victims have already been degraded enough. In this war, however, there was plenty of savagery to go around: Roberts does not skate over the darker side of the Allies’ long march to victory. That he never falls into the platitudes of moral equivalence speaks volumes.
All this is typical of a book that is, at its core, deeply humane — and is so at several different levels. Roberts clearly relishes history’s wide sweep, which he relates in grand style; yet, no determinist, he is particularly fascinated by the missteps of those who shaped the war’s course. If you want to read a fascinating discussion of the sometimes idiotic decisions that led to the Axis defeat, The Storm of War is for you. Roberts is an author who never loses sight of the human side of this epic: His sketches of the extraordinary collection of bickering warlords who constituted the Anglo-American command, and of quite a few other senior officers besides (the Chindits’ inspirational, onion-munching Maj.-Gen. Orde Wingate — failed suicide, nudist, devout Christian, and ardent Zionist — for one), are worth the price of admission in themselves. But he doesn’t forget those in humbler roles, the millions of innocent dead, the millions left bereft, and, perhaps above all, the millions of soldiers whose feet filled those muddy, dusty, broken, bloody boots on the ground.
“Armchair strategists,” wrote George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the wonderful Flashman books and author of a fine memoir of the war in Burma, “can look at the last stages of a campaign and say there’s nothing left but mopping up, but if you’re holding the mop it’s different.”
Naturally, Mr. Roberts includes that quote.
– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.