Book Review: The Rise of Germany
by James Holland
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015
When it comes to histories of the Second World War, writes James Holland at the beginning of his bracingly refreshing The Rise of Germany: The War in the West, 1939-1941 (the first in a new trilogy), “despite the continued appetite for the subject, and despite a steady stream of books, documentaries, magazines and even movies about the war, it is amazing how often they still conform to the traditional, and in many regards mythical, view of the conflict.”
Among those treasured myths: that the German army at the start of the war was the fiercest, best-trained, and most technologically superior fighting force on Earth, that Britain heroically stood alone once that fighting force had conquered Europe, that the tide of the war was turned by the arrival of American military might, which quickly began vanquishing a Germany already bled white by disasters on the Eastern Front, etc.
The Rise of Germany takes aim at several of these comfortable versions, and in addition to being genuinely thought-provoking, it’s also great good fun to watch Holland, author of several first-rate popular histories and some historical novels as well, do the polite demolition work every new generation of historians must do in and around the precincts of the previous generation’s sacred temples. In this first volume, one of his primary targets is that much-vaunted reputation of the Wehrmacht at the start of the war. Veteran memoirs and such highly effective dramatizations as Band of Brothers might have later readers believing the Nazis went to war with a wall of towering, ferocious tanks, when the reality was at the start something quite different:
It is tempting still to assume Nazi Germany in those first months of war had the finest Army the world has ever seen, in terms of both training and equipment, and especially when compared with other armies at that time. Propaganda certainly shielded both most Germans and the wider world from the truth of its levels of mechanization. As regards its tanks, again the reality was rather different from the perceived wisdom. The vast majority were Mk I and Mk Iis and Czech T35s and T38s, all of which were small, under-gunned and under-armoured. The Panzer Mk I, for example, stood about six feet off the ground and carried nothing more than a brace of machine guns. This accounted for around a third of all German tanks.
And throughout the story, there’s the highly-charged human drama that makes the Second World War such an unending fascination. Holland has an acute sensibility for the human players in his account, whether it’s recounting the stark message delivered to Winston Churchill from the French Foreign Minister regarding the German forces then overrunning his country’s defenses – “We are beaten. We have lost the battle” – or the overweening personality of the dictator Benito Mussolini, whose dangerous buffoonery comes in for a drubbing every time Holland can reasonably indulge himself:
This was Mussolini’s worst nightmare: a bullying, dominant ally with a raft of victories already under its belt, and his own useless generals lacking any kind of get up and go; and all the while the British, who were supposed to be dead and buried already, were getting stronger, not weaker. This was not how it was supposed to be, and now the Germans appeared to be invading his patch. Mussolini wanted a parallel war in which the Germans butted out and where the British were so weak, his victories would be ridiculously easy, but which would make him, and Italy, look good and the leading world player he thought they should be. So far, nothing had gone to plan at all …
The autumn and winter book-buying season of 2015 will see the usual glut of titles on all aspects of the Second World War, and there’ll be the usual chance that The Rise of Germany will get a bit lost in the surplus. This would be a shame; Holland has begun a mighty and in some senses much-overdue work here