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Now in Paperback: The Storm of War

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

by Andrew Roberts

Harper Perennial, 2012

Every year now, they come to bookstores, these big one-volume histories of the Second World War. They sometimes have dramatic titles, they usually have provocative asides, and – encouragingly – they always have extensive notes and bibliographies. They seldom represent original research – they are grand syntheses instead; they almost constitute enormously engorged personal essays by their authors on this pivotal subject in the history of the mid-20th Century. Some are meandering; some are dry; most have their signature quirks.

Andrew Roberts’ The Storm of War came out in hardcover last year and is a pure treat of a book, glimmeringly Herodotean and at times decidedly, endearingly odd.

Its most persistent oddness takes the form of a strong Anglo-centrism that tries to pull the entire story of the war off its historical tracks. Comparatively little space is devoted to the Eastern theater where so much of the war (and its aftermath) was decided, and virtually no space is given to the American struggle in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan – this space is given over instead in large part to the lonely heroism of Britain. This doesn’t quite extend to Winston Churchill standing on the cliffs of Dover shooting down Luftwaffe planes with energy-beams from his fingers, but there were many places in the book where such a scene wouldn’t have surprised me.

And there are plenty of the aforementioned provocative asides, as in Roberts’ summation of the Allied fire-bombing of cities like Dresden:

Yet this in itself does not make the raid the war crime that Labour’s Richard Stokes MP and Bishop George Bell described it as at the time and many have since assumed it to have been. For as the foremost historian of the operation, Frederick Taylor, has pointed out, Dresden ‘was by the standards of the time a legitimate military target’. As a nodal point for communications, with its railway marshalling yards and conglomeration of war industries – its pre-war industry based on porcelain, typewriters and cameras had been converted into an extensive network of armaments workshops, particularly in the vital optics, electronics and communications fields – the city was always going to be in danger once long-range penetration by bombers with good fighter escort was possible. ‘Why is it legitimate to kill someone using a weapon’, one historian has asked, ‘and a crime to kill those who make the weapons?’

The historian asking that staggeringly vicious and stupid final question is Robin Neillands, a fine researcher who was known now and then to make provocative statements less for their factual basis than for their likelihood to cause prince-nes’s to plop into champagne flutes. By the time of the Allied bombing (if, indeed, it was ever not the case), cities like Dresden were supine, their half-ruins crowded with women, children, and other non-combatants. In the first hour of such bombing attacks, these cities were rendered utterly incapable of rendering any aid to the German armed forces. The subsequent hours and hours of bombing – until the very air caught fire and gutters ran with glowing, superheated liquid human fat – was simple blood-lust, and historians like Roberts and Neillands should be ashamed to say otherwise no matter how many hours their parents spent huddled in Tube stations during the Blitz.

But The Storm of War, to its credit, seldom baits such controversy, sticking instead to a spirited overview that concludes with its most fascinating chapter, in which Roberts assesses once again that age-old feast of hypotheticals: why did the Nazis lose the war? Under different circumstances, turning right instead of left, might they have won? If Hitler had not turned on his ally the Soviet Union and invaded Russia; if he had not declared war on the United States but had instead worked hard behind the scenes to strengthen the non-intervention bloc in President Roosevelt’s own governnment; if he had sublimated his race-hatreds to a military policy hammered out by his professional army … and you can see the drift of all these ‘ifs': they all revolve around the personality of Hitler himself, and the terrible cost of his need to intervene:

If different counsels had prevailed at Fuhrer-conferences, such as Brauchitsch’s at Dunkirk, Galland’s during the battle of Britain, Manstein’s at Stalingrad, Rommel’s before El Alamein, Guderian’s before Kursk and any number of other generals’ on any number of other occasions, the Reich would have been in a better position to prosecute the war. But Hitler could not have left soldiering to the soldiers. A Fuhrer had to be a superman, equal to any calling, and for such aspectacular know-all as Hitler – with views on everything, a love of military history and an impressive recall of military facts – the prospect of taking a back seat in a world war, like Kings George VI and Victor Emmanuel III, was an emotional and psychological impossibility.

Thus, with this man, this outcome – but the hypothetical thinking – and even all that Anglo-centrism (which is its natural exponent, since no nation stood further out on the knife-edge of the hypothetical than England on the eve of invasion) – this reminder that the war was never a truly foregone conclusion – animates every page of The Storm of War. Readers are the richer for this now-steady outpouring of big fat books on the Second World War, and Roberts’ entry deserves a place in the resulting collection.