World War II was fueled by imperial fantasies
Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 1,040 pages; £ 40
W.HY OTHER one volume history of the second world war? Richard Overy himself has written more than 20 books on various aspects of the conflict and global crisis of the first half of the 20th century. But his aim in “Blood and Ruins” is to challenge the widespread belief that the war is simply the result of territorial aggression by the Axis powers and Allied opposition to it. Instead, he sees the policies of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and the Japanese military establishment as the consequences of the crisis and the main cause.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
It made more sense, according to Overy, to think of a “long” Second World War that began in China in the early 1930s and there – and in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East – only ended in the United States a decade after 1945. The origins of the War, he says, were at the zenith of European colonialism in the late 19th century; it became the violent archenemy of imperialism. Its title comes from Leonard Woolf, a Bloomsbury intellectual who wrote in 1928: “Imperialism as it was in the 19th century.
Resentment about the post-1919 settlement, which the British and French empires preserved and expanded – while the three Axis powers were denied what they saw as their own rightful autonomy – was a strong motive for the conquest. In Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo, the notions of racial superiority that legitimized territorial urges seemed indistinguishable from those underlying existing empires. The so-called appeasement policies pursued by Britain and France in the 1930s (Mr Overy prefers “containment”) reflected a degree of sympathy for these ambitions as well as a “sometimes incoherent” desire to “square the circle of growth” . international instability and their own desire to protect the imperial status quo ”.
Dreams and nightmares
It would never work. The problem was the dynamic nature of all imperial expansion. Each success aroused the appetite for more, which was now driven by the belief that the old forces were in the final stages of decline. This belief was reinforced by the speed at which the West collapsed after the German invasion of Poland. The die was cast on the signing of the Tripartite Pact on September 27, 1940, which heralded a “New Order” in which Germany would have an empire in continental Europe, Italy in the Mediterranean, and Africa and Japan in East Asia. The fact that the British Empire had not admitted defeat and that America, while not yet participating in the struggle, was preparing to use its economic might through the lend lease program, should not disturb that fantasy.
The Axis powers saw their imperial mission almost entirely in the plundering of resources and the resettlement of new colonies at the expense of the local population, which was often viewed as inhuman. Much like the Japanese in China and elsewhere in their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was “built on warfare and ruined by war,” Hitler offered the people of the occupied east only brutal submission, deportation, or death. (The Nazis’ racist and cultural attitudes meant that Western Europe was a slightly different story.)
Neither of the two Axis powers’ imperial goals went well. There were few potential settlers; Exploitation of the resources of conquered areas in times of war also proved difficult. The oil fields of the Caucasus, which Hitler expected to fuel his war effort, were barely any oil produced before the area was abandoned in early 1943.
But there were also fantasies on the Allied side. Undoubtedly, as Winston Churchill warned, the Axis victory would have plunged the world into a new dark age; yet he himself was determined that the old European empires should endure – a result that contradicted the liberal internationalism on which Franklin Roosevelt insisted and which was enshrined in the 1941 Atlantic Charter of All Peoples, Churchill (fig on the previous page) reluctantly signed it.
While Britain imprisoned tens of thousands of Indian nationalists and shot hundreds of demonstrators in 1942, America also lagged far behind Roosevelt’s rhetoric. The racial segregation that had marked the country was reflected in its armed forces. The Navy was all white until 1942 and only then recruited a handful of African Americans, mostly as stewards. Less than 2% of the army officers were black; the vast majority of the 1.2 million black soldiers were deemed incapacitated and sent to work or service units. Neither government, meanwhile, was much interested in saving Europe’s Jews. As Mr Overy put it, the London authorities displayed “a callousness on the matter which totally refuted claims that the British were fighting for decent values”.
Mr. Overy attaches as much weight to the Pacific and East Asia as he does to Europe. Within the overall conflict, he recognizes a number of different struggles – including the belligerent mobilization, their economic adjustment, their use of civilians (who were both participants and victims of the war on an unprecedented scale), and how they fought (American and British technology and manufacturing, he says, compensate for the superior performance of the Wehrmacht on the battlefield). And how they justified the ordeal: Very few Germans or Japanese questioned the correctness of their cause, one reason why they held on long after the defeat was certain.
The data, information, and insights that Mr. Overy gathers can seem overwhelming at times, but even the most seasoned reader will know more. In its penultimate chapter, he enumerates the crimes and atrocities of war. It’s hard read. The ability of seemingly ordinary people to do the most terrible things should no longer come as a surprise, but the extent of the barbaric inhumanity remains difficult to grasp.
In the end, he gallops through the events of the decade after 1945 that shaped today’s world. Were the old empires simply replaced by new American and Soviet empires? Mr. Overy does not conclude, although his view that Soviet domination in the Eastern Bloc lacked the essential characteristics of an empire is not entirely convincing. That is a minor point of criticism. This is a great book that reflects the deep erudition and human judgment of a senior historian. ■
This article appeared in the Books & Art section of the print edition under the heading “Cemetery of the Rich”.