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Taking a Good Look at World War II

There's no better one-volume history of the war than Andrew Roberts' latest masterpiece.

By From the September 2011 issue

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The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
By Andrew Roberts
(Harper, 712 pages, $29.99)

LIKE THE ANNUAL inundation of the Nile, each year brings its fresh flood of increasingly trivial books about World War II, many of them slanted, pedantic, or downright silly. Like so many other contemporary historians, most of today's chroniclers of the Second World War have a perverse inclination to write more and more about less and less. The high-or low-water mark for WWII trivia may have been reached in 2004 with the publication of Peter Conradi's earnest but error-sprinkled Hitler's Piano Player, an excruciatingly detailed biography of Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, a third rate Third Reich propagandist and court buffoon who occasionally served as der Führer's lounge pianist.

All the more reason, then, to welcome a healthy corrective to this flood of fluff--a concise but comprehensive history that gets to the heart of one of mankind's greatest struggles with keen intelligence and a minimum of cant. This is exactly what The Storm of War by British historian Andrew Roberts does. The broad sweep of Mr. Roberts's narrative, which never flags, marches the reader from battle to battle, theater to theater of this colossal contest, but it does much more than merely chronicle events.

Besides vividly evoking the storm of war, Mr. Roberts offers his readers that rarest of the historian's gifts, the ability to synthesize. For history, like science, is much more than an inventory of ingredients or occurrences; it is, to quote a dictionary definition of synthesis, "the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole."

Again and again, Mr. Roberts achieves historical synthesis, taking us behind the scenes and into the minds of antagonists and protagonists to help us understand why people acted the way they did, and why things turned out the way they did. His ultimate act of synthesis is to be found in the last paragraph of the last page of his narrative: "Analyses of Hitler's defeat have tended to portray him as a strategic imbecile--'Corporal Hitler'--or otherwise as a madman, but these explanations are clearly not enough. The real reason Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi."

By which Mr. Roberts means--and amply demonstrates in his text--that Hitler's various political and racial obsessions, which formed the basis of Nazism, undercut all of his initial military and diplomatic triumphs and made the eventual Allied victory not only possible but well nigh inevitable. A few examples:

• It was Hitler's paranoid anti-Semitism that stripped Germany of thousands of its most brilliant minds, including many of the key scientists and mathematicians who, as political refugees, would create the atomic bomb in America.

 It was his racist xenophobia, his obsession with Lebensraum for his Aryan supermen, that led Hitler to alienate millions of victims of Soviet oppression who welcomed the Germans as liberators only to turn against them after being treated as subhuman slave labor.

 The flip side of Hitler's Nazi racism--his admiration for and identification with the Anglo-Saxon–dominated British Empire--meant that the man whose conquering legions had blitzed their way through Western Europe would show little interest in the German General Staff's plans for invading the British Isles at their weakest moment, still dreaming of an Aryan consortium in which the Thousand Year Reich would rule the European continent while overseas Untermenschen would remain under the heel of a British Empire upon which, with Hitler's help, the sun would never set.

 Even the Nazi cult of death and violence, initially directed against political opponents, minorities, and foreign foes, would eventually be turned on the German people as Hitler ordered whole armies to die where they stood and, when he finally recognized that defeat was inevitable, led him to the egomaniacal conclusion that Germany had been unworthy of him and therefore deserved to die when he did.

Mr. Roberts also brings his considerable analytic skills to bear on the Allied effort and its leaders. His pen portraits of Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Marshall, and the rest are vivid, insightful, and often highly entertaining, as is his choice of source material. Witness this telling glimpse of two battling egos: "Patton and Montgomery had long mutually loathed one another--Patton called Monty 'that cocky little limey fart,' Monty thought Patton a 'foul-mouthed lover of war'…"

In this particular case, they were both right--and Mr. Roberts's lapidary choice of quote tells us a lot about the character of the men themselves, as well as what they thought of each other. His appreciation for Eisenhower--whose reputation as both soldier and statesman has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence in recent years--is equally pithy and on the mark. When, on September 1, 1944, Ike took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, he had almost as much to fear from the bitter animosities dividing Monty, Patton, and Omar Bradley, each with an egocentric war plan of his own, as he did from the enemy.

"It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers," Mr. Roberts writes, "and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness--doubted by some like [Field Marshall Sir Alan] Brooke and Montgomery--stems in part from his success in achieving that."

Mr. Roberts is also a model of intelligent objectivity when it comes to weighing the various national contributions to Allied victory. He recognizes the key role of American industrial and military might in tipping the balance and underscores the pivotal importance of his native England's determination to go it alone after the fall of France without overstating the case. And he also gives the Devil his due where many Western historians have not:

It was the Russians who provided the oceans of blood necessary to defeat Germany, and it cannot be reiterated enough that out of every five Germans killed in combat--that is, on the battle field rather than in aerial bombing or through other means--four died on the Eastern Front. It is the central statistic of the Second World War.

Thanks to Mr. Roberts's mastery of substance, style, and, yes, statistics, readers can now enjoy a comprehensive, one-volume history of that war that is far superior to most of the works preceding it. 

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.