Archive for October 30th, 2007

World War Who?

October 30, 2007

Here’s a topic that at least a couple of people here’bouts know way, waaaay more about than I do: World War II.

I bring it up because, over the weekend, I saw Norman Davies do a presentation about his new history of WWII in Europe, No Simple Victory, and I found it both fascinating and radically mind-altering. I think I felt a bit like the King of Siam must have in The King and I, when Anna shows him a world map and he sees for the first time how small Siam really is: the world suddenly gets much larger, and one’s own country’s importance in it shrinks precipitously.

Davies, a slightly frumpy and very careful British historian who studies primarily the history of Eastern Europe, makes the argument that we in the West — that is, the U.S. and Britain, primarily — have seriously misread the facts of WWII in Europe. We all tend to see it as “the good war”; the war in which we, the forces of democracy and good, defeated the forces of totalitarianism and evil.

That view is, he says, fundamentally at odds with the historical data.

He argues that WWII was primarily, even overwhelmingly, a war between 2 forces of totalitarianism and evil: the German Nazis under Hitler and the Soviet Communists under Stalin. The war in Western Europe — the one in which the good guys triumphed over the bad guys — was a sideshow to the main war, which took place in Eastern Europe. In short, we didn’t win WWII in Europe; the Soviet Union did, condemning all of Eastern Europe to 45 years of murderous totalitarianism. This was their intention from the beginning. The western democracies, therefore, did not defeat totalitarianism. By any rational measure, totalitarianism won (just not German totalitarianism). It had to, because the war was primarily between 2 totalitarian powers.

To support his argument about how historically cockeyed our view of the war is, Davies pointed out, among other things, that the battle we in the West think of as overwhelmingly the largest battle of the war — the D-Day invasion — actually isn’t even in the top 10. The 10 largest battles of the war all took place in Eastern Europe, between the 2 totalitarian forces. The “good guys” weren’t even in those fights. He also pointed out the sheer numbers of forces involved in the fight on the Eastern Front. For example, there was one eastern battle in which the Germans committed more forces than they committed to the entire Western Front over the entire war. For another, Stalin had more of his own soldiers shot (to motivate the rest) than the number of dead among the combined western allies for the entire war. All in all (and it wasn’t clear exactly what he was measuring with these numbers, though I’m sure it is in his book), he said 80% of WWII in Europe was fought between Germany and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union won 80% of the war.

The western allies may have won the rest of the European war, but “the rest” constituted only 20% of the whole. It was little more than holding our own. We left the rest of Europe to a power fully as evil and totalitarian as Nazi Germany.

If you’re wondering about the Pacific Theater, Davies did address how that factored into all of this, though I don’t recall the details. Basically, he said the Americans, in particular, couldn’t push back against the Soviets because we were fighting the Pacific war basically alone, and all the military forecasts predicted that we would lose 1 million men taking the main islands of Japan. We needed the Soviets to commit their huge army to that fight once the war in Europe was over. That was the agreement we came to in Yalta: they kept all of Eastern Europe in exchange for agreeing to help us with Japan. As it turned out, of course, we didn’t invade the main islands of Japan and didn’t need the Soviets. But we didn’t know that at Yalta.

I didn’t get the impression that Davies felt it would be more accurate for us to think we lost the war in Europe, per se. I think he just feels that some of our grandiosity about it — both historical and moral — is unsupportable on the facts. We won a small piece of the war. We kept totalitarianism from taking over the whole of Europe. We held our own. But the war in Europe was not a case of “the forces of democracy defeating the forces of totalitarianism.” That just didn’t happen, and we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back as if it did.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting and very mind-opening argument, so I figured I’d post it here and see if it stirred any dissent and/or discussion. Like I said, I know very little about WWII, aside from the baseball-card kinds of things an American boy learns growing up. I’m interested in the social and cultural effects of wars, but not so much in military history itself.

Those of you who know more military history, what do you think of Davies’ argument?