Gilbert: The Second World War

March 9, 2010

The Second World War
A Complete History
Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt, 1989)
864 p.  First reading.

What I have learned of the Second World War in my life has been picked up through casual references, novels, films, and newspaper articles, and this haphazard instruction has resulted, not surprisingly, in an incomplete picture, with significant gaps, and ambiguities in the chronology.  It thought it high time that I read a solid history of the war in order to tidy up my understanding.  I have actually selected about a half dozen WWII books as a reading project, and this is the first.

I could not have picked a better book as a starting point.  Gilbert, the great biographer of Churchill, begins with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and proceeds week by week, and often day by day, through the entire course of the conflict.  He strives for a comprehensive overview, covering military strategy, civilian life, resistance fighting, intelligence networks, and the whole geographical sweep of the war on land, in air, and at sea.

The scale of the death and destruction in this war almost defies imagination.  Everyone knows that the Germans killed six million Jews, but we sometimes forget that an additional three million Polish civilians and at least seven million Russian civilians were killed, and that the total death toll of the conflict, military and civilian, was in excess of fifty million lives.  The Allies, with about a million lives lost between the United States, Britain, and the Commonwealth, got off comparatively easily.  On each page of this book the death toll mounts into the thousands, tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands.  It is difficult reading.  It is evident, too, that Gilbert has a humane purpose in writing, for in addition to narrating the “big” events of the war he frequently narrows the scope to focus on individuals, often civilians, who suffered terribly at the hands of their foes, or at the hands of their own governments.  And indeed it is important to remember these people.

A few scattered thoughts on various topics:

  • intelligence.  Throughout the war the British and Americans had the intelligence advantage, and this had a significant impact on the conduct and outcome of the war.  Early in the conflict the British began to read the German Enigma messages, and they later added other sources, both German and Japanese, to their portfolio.  They made good use of this high-level intelligence.  They also devised clever counter-intelligence diversions to disguise their intended plans, especially in advance of the invasions of Sicily and Normandy, that duped the Germans.  I would love to read a good book about Bletchley Park, where the code-breakers were working; if you know of one, please leave a comment.
  • resistance.  One sometimes hears French valour dismissed on account of the Gallic readiness to wave the white flag.  It is true that the French military collapsed quickly when the Germans advanced, but we do well to remember that a French resistance did arise, and there were civilians who risked their lives to carry out espionage and sabotage operations against the Germans.  Moreover, this was true not only in France but throughout the area occupied by Germany, and in the course of time these guerrilla tactics caused significant difficulties for the Germans.
  • assassinating Hitler.  I have sometimes wondered why Hitler was not assassinated.  It seems that many lives could have been saved if the man most responsible for the conflict had been killed.  I was surprised to learn, therefore, that there were numerous attempts made to kill him.  In 1939 a bomb planted near a podium at which he was speaking went off several minutes after he had left. (Imagine what might have happened if he had been removed at that early stage in the war.)  Again in 1942 a bomb was placed on his private airplane, but it had a faulty detonator.  And in 1944 a bomb did detonate in his bunker, but by chance he escaped injury.  Those responsible were killed.  I believe that there were other assassination attempts as well.
  • German anti-Semitism.  Underneath much of the Nazi evil was a frankly bizarre racial ideology which put the Aryans at the top and the Jews, evidently, at the bottom.  Where did this ideology come from?  I know that some have tried to pin it on “Christian” anti-Semitism, but that falls far short of being an adequate explanation.  Hitler seems to have believed that he had a duty to eliminate, not just the Jews, but anyone who was “unfit”: the sick, the mentally unstable, the old. (Germany had an active war-time euthanasia program.)  I would like to know in particular the extent to which the stated justification for the doctrine of Aryan supremacy was “scientific”.
  • brutality.  The brutality of the Germans, and especially of the SS, is infamous.  It seem to me that in addition to being wicked this was also counter-productive.  They put huge resources into rounding up, transporting, and killing people behind the lines, resources that might have been used on the front.  The vicious character of these actions also turned many people against Hitler and the German leadership.  As the tide of war turned and Germany began to lose ground, the slaughter of civilians never let up.  It was almost as though Hitler was waging two wars, and he was determined to win one even if he must lose the other. Japan also treated civilians and prisoners-of-war brutally, often capturing them only to kill them directly.  They apparently had a deep-seated contempt for anyone who would not fight to the death.  Instances of brutality against prisoners-of-war did occur among the Allies, but they were comparatively rare and were usually punished.
  • aerial bombing of civilians.  In the British Commonwealth we tend to remember the German bombing of London (and other cities) as one of the principal outrages perpetrated directly upon civilians.  But we must also remember that the Allies bombed German cities too, and not only in order to disrupt industrial activity.  The number of German civilians killed by Allied bombs far surpassed the number killed during the Blitz: on one occasion, a firestorm created by incendiary bombs killed 40000 inhabitants of Hamburg in a single night.  These were shameful episodes in the Allied war effort.
  • Hitler’s strategic mistakes.  It seems to me that two principal strategic errors contributed to the downfall of the German war effort.  The first was that Hitler underestimated the strength of his Russian adversary (I imagine it is tempting to underestimate your foe when he belongs to an inferior race), and consequently began his campaign in Russia too late in the year.  The error was small — German troops approached to within 20 miles of Moscow before the onset of winter halted them — but it was enough.  Second, Hitler declared war on the United States in 1941 after Pearl Harbor.  At first the Americans had declared war only on Japan, and had intended to leave the European war to Europeans.  When Hitler made his declaration, Churchill reportedly sighed with relief, for he knew then that Germany would ultimately lose.
  • public knowledge of the Holocaust.  Who knew what, and when, about the systematic, large-scale killing of Jews?  The German leadership spoke in euphemisms about those who were being transported to concentration camps and gas chambers: they were being “deported” or “resettled”, or they had been selected for “special treatment”, and so on.  Even the Allied leadership, who were reading the top-secret German communication channels, seem to have been unaware of what was really happening.  Only in 1943 and 1944, when a few people managed to escape from Auschwitz, did news begin to leak out in the underground press, and even then it must have been subject to some doubt by those who heard it.  The first aerial photographs of Auschwitz were not gathered by the Allies until mid-1944, when the invasion of Normandy was underway, and even then they were collected accidentally and were not remarked upon.  As the Allies closed in on Berlin, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of their gas chambers and camps.  This secrecy is obviously very important to consider when we try to assess the moral responsibility of those who might have done something to hinder the killing.

5 Responses to “Gilbert: The Second World War”

  1. Joel D Says:

    In re German Anti-semitism, I know you would love the book “The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933”, a very well-written and engaging examination of the place of Jews in the German psyche and culture. The book is remarkable in that it explores not just the twenty but the two hundred years before the war, and after you read it you will see why such an extensive retrospect is essential to any understanding of German anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler’s rise.

  2. MamasBoy Says:

    Hitler’s Aryan supremacy movement was an extreme offshoot of the population control movement as a whole, which was extremely popular at that time. Fatal Misconception by Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly offers a decent history of that movement as a whole.

  3. Christina A. Says:

    “This secrecy is obviously very important to consider when we try to assess the moral responsibility of those who might have done something to hinder the killing.”

    An interesting read into this question of moral responsibility is Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)”.

  4. Chun Says:

    Indeed a great book (along with Christina’s suggestion as well). Gilbert has an accompanying atlas that is a great reference alongside. Gilbert is my favourite WWII historian and am currently reading his “Righteous Gentiles” … excellent and quick read!

  5. cburrell Says:

    A quick read? That sounds good. This book on WWII was one of the longest books that I’ve ever read: fewer than 900 pages, but each page in a large format with small margins and small type. It took me about 2 months of sustained reading to get through it.

    The Arendt book is already on my to-read list, but who knows when I’ll get to it.

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