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October 15, 2009

The best one-volume general history of the Second World War now available: The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War - Andrew Roberts

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
by Andrew Roberts
Pp. lvi + 712. Allen Lane, London, 2009
Hardback, 25

Andrew Roberts is a multi-talented freelance historian who has written excellent biographies of Conservative politicians like the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and an interesting and in my view "correct" History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (2006), and a best-selling account of the senior Western political and military leaders of the Second World War, Masters and Commanders (2008).

Roberts has now produced what is surely the best one-volume history of the Second World War now available, The Storm of War. He essentially depicts the war as one which Hitler could probably have won, with Germany's armies consistently more devastating until the last months of the war than those of the Allies, but lost through his own foolishness, paranoia, and commitment to a demented and counterproductive racial ideology. It is difficult to question this verdict and, indeed, one might go further and ask, as Robert G. Waite did in his excellent psycho-biography of the Fuhrer, The Psychopathic God (1977), whether Hitler had a "death wish", as virtually nothing else accounts for the sheer insanity of many of his crucial decisions.

Possibly the most insane of all was his gratuitous decision to declare war on the United States three days after Pearl Harbor, an act with which he literally signed his own death warrant. As Waite and others have pointed out, the Axis Treaty committed Germany to declare war on any country that attacked Japan. "This is not what happened at Pearl Harbor", Waite succinctly noted.

Roberts has consistently organised his material along the most fruitful lines, giving equal weight to all of the participants in the War. He is always in control of the narrative, which is a pleasure to read for its writing style if not for its normally horrifying contents. He demonstrates very considerable common sense, as with his caveats (pp. 245-248) on the alleged failure of the Allies to bomb Auschwitz, which, as he notes, was logistically almost impossible. He might also have pointed out that no one, anywhere, actually proposed bombing Auschwitz, or the rail lines to Auschwitz, or any other concentration camp in Europe, until April or May 1944 at the earliest.

Roberts also peppers his book with memorable clever aphorisms.

De Gaulle's staple diet between 1940 and 1944 was the hand that fed him,
(p. 488) is a typical gem. The Storm of War is surely Roberts' best book, and probably the outstanding "trade history" book of the year.

Reviews of The Storm of War have been overwhelmingly fulsome - as they should be - with one striking exception, a now rather notorious review by Professor Richard Evans in the Times Literary Supplement (21-28 August 2009), where Roberts is accused of every conceivable wrongdoing from "approach[ing] his topic in a kind of Boy's Own spirit" to glorifying the British Empire to ignoring important sources and relying on book reviews (that's right) for many of his sources. This review is in my opinion perverse and inappropriate, as well as patronising - Roberts is advised to stop writing histories and concentrate on biographies of Tory politicians.

In The Storm of War, however, Roberts is not writing a scholarly history but a "trade history" work intended for the intelligent lay reader. And, after all, it is the Second World War that Roberts is writing about, not the War of the Spanish Succession. It is surely impossible to write about the Second World War without making moral judgments about good and evil, since Hitler made it into a war between good and evil. That Churchill (above all), Roosevelt, and their key military leaders emerge as heroes is inevitable, since they were responsible for defeating Hitler and his allies.

As to Roberts' use of sources, Evans's copy of his book must be different from mine, which has thirty-eight pages of footnotes and twenty-seven pages of bibliography, including thirty-seven archives of private, unpublished papers which he consulted. I think that I am pretty familiar with the literature of this field, and yet I learned something new on virtually every page.

To be sure, there are aspects of this topic to which I would have devoted more space. To cite two of these, after the attack by Nazi Germany, Stalin gave Lazar Kaganovitch, one of the more dreadful senior commissars, the task of putting as many Soviet factories in the western part of the USSR as he could on boxcars and transporting them to the Urals, to be re-erected there as armaments factories. This he did successfully and, it must be said, amazingly, organising the seemingly imposible task of sending whole factories a thousand miles to the east, in the chaotic conditions of the time, and reassembling them for the war effort. This astonishing feat has never received the attention it deserves from historians, including Roberts.

Roberts also notes the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in early August 1945 in only one line, and most Western historians have assumed that this was a nominal attempt by Stalin to take credit for defeating Japan. In fact, as Geoffrey Roberts (presumably no relation) shows in his outstanding Stalin's Wars (pp. 285-295, Yale University Press, 2006), it was a vast, full-scale invasion, involving 1.5 million Soviet troops, with 5500 tanks and 3900 aircraft. Geoffrey Roberts states (p. 298) that

the Manchurian campaign in many ways represented the peak of Soviet operational art during the Second World War,
with the Red Army conquering a still formidable Japanese occupational force in less than two weeks. Although virtually unknown in the West, Stalin's Manchurian campaign may well be seen as the most successful single military operation of the War. Regrettably, Andrew Roberts does not mention either the removal of factories or the Manchurian campaign - although, obviously, even a 712 page history cannot discuss everything. In an age of moral equivalence and post-modernism, The Storm of War restores a moral dimension to a moral war.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of history at the University of Aberystwyth.

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"He ... depicts the war as one which Hitler could ... have won ... but lost [because he was an ideologue rather than a practical man]."

I make prolific use of ellipses and paraphrase the final clause, because the original sentence was a truly horrible example of loggorhea.

As to the paraphrasable meaning, insofar as there is one, what can one say?

If Hitler hadn't been a nutter there wouldn't have been a war.

The sentence was a linguistic chamber of horrors. But more than that it was an absurdity piled on a counter-factual statement ... if the moon were made of green cheese ...

It isn't.

Posted by: Liam at October 26, 2009 02:49 PM
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