World War Who?

by

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?

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10 Responses to “World War Who?”

  1. captmidknight Says:

    WOW!
    A lot to comment on. PhD’s have probably made careers on less. It does demonstrate the truth of some comments about history, though, like:

    “The history you read isn’t necessarily what happened – just what got written down.”

    It’s hard to argue with Davies’ conclusions, based on the numbers. The battles on the Eastern Front were massive and involved numbers of troops and military and civilian casualties that would take your breath away, but they happened “way over there somewhere” to people we didn’t know or care much about and, more importantly, happened without significant American or British causalities, which is probably why Americans in general don’t know much about it.

    I think Hitler felt from the beginning that Russia would be his greatest adversary. Even though he and Stalin signed a non aggression pact at the beginning of the war – which also included an agreement on how to carve up Poland between them – I think Hitler knew he would have to fight Russia eventually, but he hoped that he could settle with the West – which, at the time, since France had already fallen, meant the British – first. Why, after he failed to take Britain out of the war in 1940, did Hitler decide to go ahead with Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 is hard to understand from our vantage point 66 years on.

    The fact that the war was going well for the Germans in the West probably allowed Hitler to believe he could afford to take on Stalin at the time. America wasn’t in yet, and actually had a very active isolationist group that opposed even Roosevelt’s relatively modest efforts to help England. Whether Hitler knew anything about the Japanese plans that would certainly bring America into the war by the end of the year, I don’t know. If he did, maybe he thought we would content ourselves with an Asian war and stay out of Europe. Whatever, it could probably be argued – and maybe Davies does this – that Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in 1941 was his single biggest mistake. While I like to believe that we would have won in the end, if Hitler had been able to fight a one front war instead of two, it could have easily have gone on for another ten years.

    As for the numbers Davies mentions, you’re right. I didn’t realize how big the effort really was until I cheated and googled some figures. In addition to his forces in Europe and North Africa Hitler was able to attack Russia with 148 divisions – a little over 3,000,000 men! Can you imagine, if Hitler had been able to control his hatred for the Communists and managed someway to keep the non aggression pact with Stalin in place with a token force on his Eastern border, what it would have been like to try to invade the Continent with an extra couple of million Germans soldiers on the shores of France?

    Russia became our ally based on the old theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but Stalin held us in almost as much contempt as he did Hitler, and was always going for all he could get. Stalin believed that he could bully the West, and to a large extent, he did – plus he was willing agree to things he never intended to do, since he answered to nobody. Much of the blame for what happened to Eastern Europe after the war probably should fall on Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Churchill, partly because of Yalta, as you mentioned.

    A topic like this could go on for years.

  2. alsturgeon Says:

    Two nonacademic tidbits:

    #1: I should learn much more about WWII. My dad was an electrician on various ships in the Pacific, and from the little I know, I do know he was at Midway.

    #2: I’m going to New Orleans one week from today with my daughter to chaperone a field trip to the World War 2 Museum there. That ought to be interesting, and from what I understand a place that might draw El Capitan back down to these parts someday (hint, hint). Maybe he and Juvenal could meet up in Memphis and carpool?

    Okay, feel free to get back to a real live intellectual discussion…

  3. captmidknight Says:

    Al said:
    “I’m going to New Orleans one week from today with my daughter to chaperone a field trip to the World War 2 Museum there. That ought to be interesting, and from what I understand a place that might draw El Capitan back down to these parts someday.”
    _________

    I doubt that I’ll be getting back down to the New Orleans area anytime soon, but the museum does sound interesting. I think Steven Ambrose was involved in it before he died. BTW, if you like airplanes, the Aviation Museum at Pensacola is not far from you, and is excellent.
    I will, however, be in Memphis in a couple of weeks. We have a grandson due to arrive there around the middle of the month. Maybe I’ll get to see my son’s annual while we’re there – just to get a look at Al as a young scholar.
    Not to open up that can of worms again, but I’m also going over to Searcy this weekend to donate a copy of my Civil War book to the library and see if any other old geezers show up for my 40th Class Reunion.

    It’s really interesting that the subject of WWII has come up now, because I was already getting something ready on a personal WWII story and will post it on the appropriate day. In the meantime, everybody else check in with comments. “Roo, this should be right up your alley.

    JU
    I hadn’t really thought of it this way, but Davies is probably right to characterize WWII as not just a battle between good and bad, but also between bad and worse. Even now, however, looking back over 65 years or so, the issues are very complicated. Think how complicated they must have been for the leaders who were in the middle of it all, with the outcome far from certain.

    WWII history is also of special interest to us for exactly the reason Al brought up about his father. This is the history our parents and grandparents lived through. It made them the people they were, and shaped the world we were born into. While more distant history is interesting, this stuff is personal.

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Great article, JU. I really have a horrible grasp of WWII. Mostly because just as I was getting interested in actually learning things (just after college), whatsisface came out with that “Greatest Generation” book and turned me off to all things WWII. But I really appreciate Davies argument here. I’ve honestly NEVER heard this version of WWII before, so reading your post is very interesting. Also very difficult to wrap my mind around, as it goes against everything I’ve ever read about WWII.

    Any idea on how it is being received in general? By WWII scholars? Capt.: since you’ve mentioned Ambrose — I wonder what historians such as Ambrose would think of this argument, seeing as he made a killing off of selling D-Day?

  5. urbino Says:

    Excellent stuff, Cap’n. I figured this would be right in your wheelhouse.

    Just a couple of points:

    Regarding Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, my impression of Davies’ argument was that if Hitler hadn’t done it, Stalin would’ve invaded Germany, anyway. Perhaps Hitler subscribed to that best-defense-is-a-good-offense theory.

    I see your point about bad vs. worse, but I’m not sure which you think of as worse. Davies didn’t seem to think there was much to choose between the 2 totalitarian powers; both were doing basically the same things. (For example, the largest concentration camps during WWII were run by the Soviets, not the Germans. Many of the people the Soviets “liberated” from Nazi camps were shipped off to the gulags.)

  6. urbino Says:

    I agree on the “Greatest Generation” stuff, Mikey. Not that I have anything against the WWII generation; I just think it’s a specious argument by its very nature. And it perpetuates some ahistorical stereotypes.

    I’m not sure how Davies’ book is being received. I haven’t seen much about it, and his is is a very different branch of history from the one I studied, so I don’t have any sense of how the specialists in his field would react. It seems like I did see one review a while back. I can’t remember if it was in the NYTimes or on Salon. As I recall, the reviewer thought it was useful as a corrective, though not in all particulars.

    One other thing from Cap’n that I forgot:

    WWII history is also of special interest to us for exactly the reason Al brought up about his father. This is the history our parents and grandparents lived through. It made them the people they were…

    Although my grandparents certainly lived through it, it didn’t seem to touch them much. One of my grandmothers showed us some ration stamps and talked about that every now and then, but that’s it. As best I can recall, I never heard any of the others say a single word about WWII. Neither of my grandfathers were in the military (so far as I know). It’s my guess that one of them may have been a conscientious objector. The other, I’m not sure why he wasn’t in the military (and a good deal less sure that he wasn’t in the military — he didn’t talk much about anything). I mean, he had a wife and several children, but who didn’t?

    All in all, the Great Depression seemed to have made a larger impression on my grandparents than WWII did.

  7. urbino Says:

    While I like to believe that we would have won in the end, if Hitler had been able to fight a one front war instead of two, it could have easily have gone on for another ten years.

    If Hitler had been able to deploy an additional couple of million troops in the west from the beginning, plus all the tanks, planes, etc., that were consumed in the east, it strikes me as very likely that he would have won. Imagine how much his V2 and atomic programs would have advanced in another year, much less ten. It’s hard to see how Britain could’ve stayed in the fight. And without England as a base of operations, it’s hard to see how we could’ve stayed in the fight.

  8. captmidknight Says:

    JU said:
    “All in all, the Great Depression seemed to have made a larger impression on my grandparents than WWII did.”
    ________
    Given the age span of the group, I thought I ought to include parents and grandparents in the statement. In my case, I’d have to agree that the Depression had a larger effect on my grandparents, as you say it did on yours, mainly because my grandparents were already in their 50s when the war started. It was my mother’s generation that was much more shaped by the war. She was born in 1924 – the last year of “The Greatest Generation” by most definitions.
    The first popular book that I remember being written about the different generations in American history defined the one that came to be known as “The Greatest Generation” as being folks born from 1901 through1924. While I agree that it has been overly hyped of late, there were some pretty interesting things about it. For one, it produced seven presidents, more than any other American generation, holding the White House for 30 years, while the next generation – 1925 to 1943 – has been skipped entirely.

    It’s probably true that Stalin was going to attack at some point, and Hitler certainly wanted to throw the first punch, but I doubt that, in the summer of 1941, Stalin was anywhere near ready to go on the offensive, so, in retrospect, Adolph could have probably have taken more time to tidy up his Western front without running much more risk on the Russian side. Who knows how things would have turned out if he had delayed his Russian offensive for another year or so?
    Actually, oil might have had a lot to do with his rush to invade. Southern Russia down into Iran and Iraq would have had him sitting on huge oil reserves, with the Saudi fields just across the Gulf. As it was, he was much too dependent on Romanian oil fields around Ploesti and Bucharest which were in range of Allied bombers by late 1942.

    As for “Bad or Worse,” I would be hard pressed to pick between the two. While not as large, Hitler did control a much more modern, technologically advanced country so, maybe you could argue that a victorious Third Reich would have been more dangerous, but it would be a close call.

    BTW, did anyone see on the news that Paul Tibbets died today?

  9. urbino Says:

    Good points about Hitler having the time to finish off Britain before any action in the East was forced, and his need for oil.

    I’d have to agree that the Depression had a larger effect on my grandparents, as you say it did on yours, mainly because my grandparents were already in their 50s when the war started. It was my mother’s generation that was much more shaped by the war.

    Your parents and my grandparents are the same generation. My grandparents were in their early adulthood during WWII. Yet it remains the case that the Depression seems to have made a much bigger impression on them, played a much larger role in forming their character, than did the war.

    I’m not disagreeing that the converse is the more usual case. Just saying things might be more mixed than one would expect.

  10. alsturgeon Says:

    Just one case study here, but my dad, born in 1920 and a WWII veteran, seemed to have been impacted more by the Great Depression than the war (imho).

    Then again, my dad seemed atypical in most aspects of life, but that could have just been because he was my dad.

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