The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
April 19, 2006

The Global and Total Dimensions of World War Two: A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937-1945 - (Eds.) Roger Chickering, Stig Forster and Bernd Greiner

Posted by Jeremy Black

A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937-1945
edited by Roger Chickering, Stig Forster and Bernd Greiner
Pp. 402. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
Hardback, £45

The far greater role of Japan and, to a lesser extent, China in World War Two than in World War One, in causes, course and consequences, helped ensure that the later struggle was more truly global in character. This is signified by the choice of 1937 rather than 1939 as the starting point for the study.

Nevertheless, as Gerhard Weinberg makes clear in "Total War: The Global Dimensions of Conflict", it was the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 that really started the global character of World War Two. He points out that the participation of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa guaranteed this, and that the wide-ranging nature of German commerce raiding underlined this global character.

On the other hand, the beginning of large-scale hostilities in the Pacific was due to the Japanese attack on the USA. Furthermore, in terms of new entrants into hostilities, Hitler's unnecessary decision to declare war on the USA was important. The USA, in response, declared war on Germany on 11th December 1941, as did Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti; Honduras and El Salvador following the next day, and Panama, Mexico and Brazil in 1942. Other states delayed, Bolivia and Colombia until 1943, and Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela until 1945. Other late entrants were Liberia in 1944, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey in 1945.

Of these states, Brazil played the biggest combat role, sending 25,000 troops to Italy, but other states still played an important role by providing raw materials, such as oil from Venezuela, as well as air and naval bases, and by allowing use of their air space. New airbases were developed by, and for, the Americans in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Panama. These bases were used to oppose the destructive U-boat campaign in the Caribbean, as well as against U-boat operations in the Atlantic. The war was important to Latin America for economic development.

The subject of the book, however, is total war, not global war, and that is presented in a series of chapters, grouped respectively as The Dimensions of War, Combat, Mobilizing Economies, Mobilizing Societies, The War against Noncombatants and Criminal War, that are essentially studies of the major participants, rather than broad-ranging considerations of aspects of the war. Thus, John Barber's chapter on women in the Soviet war effort, while impressive, does not glance at the situation in other states, including, for example, Finland, which only fought the Soviet Union.

Even among the major participants, there is an over-concentration on the Soviet Union, the USA, Britain and Germany. Japan receives relatively little attention, although Louise Young's "Ideologies of Difference and the Turn to Atrocity: Japan's War on China" is valuable, while China itself is largely ignored. This is unfortunate, although recent work by Hans van de Ven helps fill the gap.

As studies in particular aspects of total war, however, the volume is very useful. It represents the culmination of a series of conference-volumes and offers high-grade discussion both of aspects of World War Two and of the vexed issue of total war. There are some important qualifications of the latter, not least the determination of wartime populations to return to peacetime "normality": despite the claims of some commentators, there was scant sense among the public that peace and war were simply aspects of conflict or different operational forms of a common strategy.

Dennis Showalter, in a masterful study of the USA, also brings out the extent to which the USA waged a global war but one that was not really total. As he points out, mobilizing hostility had limited effect at best. In particular, to most Americans, even those in uniform, the Germans remained throughout the war an abstract enemy. To Showalter, because the conflict was not a war for the direct survival of the USA, its institutions, and its people, it was not total. Furthermore, national mobilization did not press hard on domestic living standards.

A far more total account emerges in Jürgen Förster's discussion of German war aims including the Holocaust. Hans-Heinrich Nolte provides a discussion of some of the consequences on the ground in considering partisan war in Belorussia. German policy helped cause partisan resistance, and this included Jewish opposition. Richard Overy presents a characteristically perceptive analysis of Allied bombing and the destruction of German cities, although he remains overly inclined to underrate the extent to which the German use of terror bombing from the outset – against Warsaw – ensures that there was scant equivalence between the two sides. Furthermore, the extent to which the V-weapon guidance systems ensured that only widespread and random urban destruction was possible for German weaponry is worth underlining.

Robert Messer brings in the morality of the use of atomic weaponry against Japan. He argues that Hiroshima was the logical culmination of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and the altered moral context of total war. This first-rate collection offers much, but there is still room for a study of the global dimension of the war.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of War since 1945 (Reaktion, 2004), Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004), Introduction to Global Military History (Routledge, 2005), The Age of Total War (Praeger, 2006), George III (Yale, 2006) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement