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A Classicist’s View of the Cataclysm

books and culture

A Classicist’s View of the Cataclysm

Victor Davis Hanson’s magisterial history of the Second World War January 26, 2018
Arts and Culture

The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, by Victor Davis Hanson (Basic Books, 652 pp., $40)

In his six-volume history of the Second World War (1948-53),Winston Churchill gave a well-deserved tribute to Frederick Lindemann, the scientist in the Air Ministry who kept the Conservative M.P. for Epping apprised of Germany’s accelerating air capabilities in the mid-1930s, when the Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain governments were content to look the other way:

There were no doubt greater scientists than Frederick Lindemann, though his credentials and genius command respect. But he had two qualifications of vital consequence to me. First . . . he was my trusted friend and confidant of twenty years. Together we had watched the advance and onset of world disaster. Together we had done our best to sound the alarm. . . . [Secondly,] Lindemann could decipher the signals from the experts . . . and explain to me in lucid, homely terms what the issues were.

Since Harrow and Sandhurst had taught Churchill nothing about science, let alone the science of air defense, this was crucial. “There are only twenty-four hours in the day,” Churchill reminded his readers, “of which at least seven must be spent in sleep and three in eating and relaxation. Anyone in my position would have been ruined if he had attempted to dive into depths which not even a lifetime of study could plumb.” As it was, Churchill and, indeed, all of the Allies, gained immensely from Lindemann’s briefings, before and during the war.

The general reader, as well as the more scholarly specialist, will feel similarly grateful to Victor Davis Hanson for sharing his insights into the complexities of a war that still has much to teach us. The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won is scholarly popular history at its very best, offering as it does a brilliant overview of the war. It is also full of fascinating detail. For example, Hanson shows how the Germans invaded Russia without knowing that the Russians had T-34 tanks—proof of how threadbare their pre-invasion intelligence was. “The heavy tanks cannot be beaten by our weaponry,” one German army report complained. “The men have almost no ammunition left and are being run down by Russian tanks.” When the Soviets eventually encircled the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, sealing Germany’s fate on the Eastern Front, it was largely due to the superior firepower and mobility of their T-34s.

Animated by mastery of both strategy and the ordnance with which strategy is carried out, not to mention the often unedifying psychology of war, Hanson’s book is a summing up that only an historian of great learning and perspicacity could have produced. That the author draws on his enviable knowledge of the military experience of ancient Greece and Rome gives his analysis of the missteps and oversights of his twentieth-century subjects critical perspective. In his dazzling command of the details and sweep of ancient history, Hanson is reminiscent of another crack historian trained in the classics—Peter Green, the biographer of Alexander and chronicler of the Greco-Persian wars.

Hanson writes of how Italy and Japan confirmed Thucydides’ “realist notions of honor and fear” when they threw in their lot with Hitler, convinced that his gamble to make Germany Europe’s leading power would not only pan out for the Germans but also benefit their own expansionist ambitions, though it resulted in redrawing borders, redistributing populations, and killing millions—some 60 million, as it turned out, approximately 80 percent of whom were civilians. The opportunism that impelled the Axis powers had its root in the opportunism of the German people themselves. No one is better on this aspect of the war’s casus belli than Charles Arnold-Baker, the inspired editor of the Companion to British History (2001), who wrote in his autobiography, For He is an Englishman: Memoirs of a Prussian Nobleman (2007):

[The Germans] had adopted an abomination which promised them benefits in return for the destruction of law, democracy and certain scapegoats. These benefits went far beyond the tearing up of the Treaty of Versailles . . . They would re-establish the frontiers (roughly speaking—what’s a few million Slavs between friends?) of the ancient Reich—meaning something golden, glorious, and predatory. The German word Krieg (war) is connected with kriegen meaning to “get or take,” and Reich (according to the dictionary “empire”) means adjectivally “rich.” The Nazis appealed to the myth of the tribal horde with its roistering chieftains ready to fill your hat with gold.

Hanson confirms Arnold-Baker’s insight by showing how the German generals acquiesced in Hitler’s gambles for their own aggrandizement at the expense of the Wehrmacht. He also shows how “Hitler’s blinkered view of geostrategy was abetted by the blinkers of the German General Staff,” few of whom “were equipped to think of war in terms of grand strategy or geopolitics.” Ben Shepherd’s authoritative Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich (2016) exhaustively corroborates this charge. For Shepherd, if Allied superiority in the field, air, and sea finally brought the German army to grief, so too did “the political, economic, strategic and operational failings of the army leadership itself.”

As Hanson shows, the very fact that Germany’s military leadership connived in the disastrous decision to invade Russia confirms this point. Early in the war, Hitler might have appeared a gambler on a winning streak, going from strength to offensive strength, but by 1943, when his invasion of Russia had stalled, his strategic miscalculations came home to roost. From that point on, despite his no-retreat, no-surrender bluster, the Wehrmacht was forced into a defensive position from which it would never escape. For Hanson, only “unquestioning vicious fighters” in the Waffen SS who “fought as savagely without hope of victory as they once had when assured of conquest” kept the German army going. Such “suicidal zealotry” would also contribute to the scale and destructiveness of the war. Knowing that Germany and Japan would not concede defeat unless they were entirely ruined, the Allies had no alternative but to effect that ruin.

This does not let the Allies off the hook for the role they played in failing to prevent the war in the first place. Hanson is unsparing about British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration, all of which contributed to making an unnecessary war inevitable. It does, however, explain the necessity of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s incendiary bombing of German cities and President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The military justification of these late bombings may remain controversial, but they did shorten the war and save lives. Harris certainly had no doubts about the warrantability of his actions. “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier,” the unrepentant Air Marshal confessed. Even the great Whig historian Lord Macaulay understood that “the essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility.”

Hanson is eloquent when it comes to the American counterpart to Harris, General Curtis LeMay, who did not shrink from incendiary bombing of Japan once its necessity became clear for the dispersal of the enemy’s industrial war effort. LeMay, he writes, “enjoyed the role of a take-no-prisoners general, but beneath the crusty exterior, like George S. Patton, he was one of the most introspective, analytical, and naturally brilliant commanders of the war. If he was a frightening man in his single-minded drive ‘to put bombs on the target,’ he was also an authentic American genius at war.”

Yet no one can read Hanson’s often harrowing pages without thinking of Thomas Hardy’s lines about the Armistice that ended the Great War—lines that must haunt all historians who write of the essential tragedy of war.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery;

The Sinister Spirit sneered: “It had to be!”

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”

For the classicist in Hanson, German’s infantrymen recall the Spartans. They were “highly trained and terrifyingly professional” and imbued with “militarist doctrine” but “often deployed for imbecile strategic ends.” At times, it is true, they may have been led by generals of the caliber of “the Spartan maverick generals Brasidas, Gylippus and Lysander,” but “in addition to a rare Manstein or Rommel, there were also more unimaginative versions of dullard Spartan kings (Generals Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, and Walter Warlimont) who . . . along with Hitler, would waste their deadly assets.” Shepherd, in his study of the German army, shows how this dullness went hand-in-hand with atrocity. Indeed, “the army as a whole was complicit in terror, exploitation and criminality from the start.”

In reviewing the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the Allies and the Axis as fighting forces, Hanson shows how superior the Allies were, even though, as a result of their combined fecklessness before hostilities began, it took them a fair amount of time to marshal that superiority. “That the Axis produced rockets, jets and superior torpedoes, Hanson points out, “and yet were the most reliant on horse transportation, is emblematic of their lack of comprehensive industrial policy and pragmatic technological planning—an area where America, Britain and the Soviet Union excelled.” When it comes to the upshot of this advantage, Hanson is aphoristic: “We often forget that the Third Reich was postmodern in creative genius but premodern in actual implementation and operations.” He observes that the army that invaded the Soviet Union did so “with fifteen thousand Poland peasant wagons, seventy-five divisions powered only by horses, hundreds of different types of looted and often obsolete European vehicles, seventy-three different models of tanks, and fifty-two different makes of anti-aircraft guns.”

Strategically, Hanson locates the central flaw of the Third Reich’s war plans in Hitler’s contention that he could lead the Fatherland to victory by limiting himself to fighting one front at a time. Poland, in other words, would be a discrete war, followed by other limited border wars. “As a self-taught student of history,” the author writes, “Hitler felt that he had proceeded, in a . . . carefully circumscribed fashion, in direct opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s past nightmare of recklessly incurring an immediate two-theatre war.” Here, again, the classicist in Hanson comes to the fore: “Like Hannibal who thought he could reverse the verdict of the First Punic War, and like Hannibal’s Carthage, which had been defeated but not emasculated in 241 BC, so Hitler and the Third Reich were convinced that the second time around they would not repeat the strategic mistakes of an earlier generation.”

Even after Hitler had entered into a three-front war with Britain, Russia, and the United States, he deluded himself into imagining that he was fighting only a one-front war against Russia, which, once won, would consolidate his gains in Europe. Yet Hanson exhibits his understanding of the complexity of Hitler’s nature by showing how the Führer’s delusions were not unvisited by moments of lucidity. “Hitler,” he writes, “seemed aware of his own failings, manifested in self-doubt,” which his megalomania never entirely concealed. “To Albert Speer, Hitler confessed shortly before his death that he had always known that Hermann Goering was a drug addict . . . but he had been too timid to confront [him] . . . given his earlier key services to the Nazi cause, even as the latter’s buffoonery cost tens of thousands of Luftwaffe air crewmen their lives.”

If Hitler’s definitive biographer Ian Kershaw showed how the Third Reich was often kept going by a kind of rivalrous chaos, Hanson shows that the chaos emanated, to a great degree, from the incoherence and incompetence of Hitler himself, who, the author points out, “had no direct knowledge of anything more than a few hundred miles from his birthplace.” Never having been to Europe, Russia, or any of the other places he opposed, he knew little of them other than what maps could tell him. The footage we have of him in conquered Paris underscores this. The erstwhile Austrian corporal is not so much pleased as overwhelmed by his army’s capture of so glorious a city. Pitted against opponents of the wide experience, knowledge, and sophistication of Churchill and Roosevelt, Hitler was out of his depth.

Hanson rightly regards Churchill as the best of the war’s commanders, whether from the Allied or the Axis camp, because he “possessed the greatest moral courage,” though he recognizes Churchill’s shortcomings, particularly his sometimes-imprudent readiness to allow both Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Joseph Stalin free rein and “his constant attention to the effect of operations on Britain’s postwar empire.” This squares with Max Hastings’s overall assessment of Churchill as a war leader: “If the governance of nations in peace is best conducted by reasonable men, in war there is a powerful argument for leadership by those sometimes willing to adopt courses beyond the boundaries of reason, as Churchill did.”

An amusing example of Churchill’s unorthodox approach to war planning was given by Earl Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command who attended war meetings at Chequers after 1942, when the country house was sufficiently camouflaged to protect the prime minister:

At 8.30 p.m. the company assembled for drinks and then at about 9 we went in to dinner and a very good dinner it used to be. It went on a long while and then at about ten or 10:15 the ladies left the room and Winston held forth over brandy and a good cigar. It was most entertaining and amusing. At about 10.40 or so we’d get up and join the ladies and we all went up and saw a film. He had a cinema projector at Chequers and always had a film over the weekends. When the film was over, which would be perhaps about 12.30 a.m., we had a nightcap with the ladies, and at about 1 o’clock we’d start work going through all things he wanted to discuss until 2, 3 or 3.30 a.m. On one occasion General Marshall, the Chief of the United States Army, was in the party. We went through this process and at 12.30, when the ladies went to bed, he got up to go. We all said: “You can’t go now; it hasn’t started yet!”

Hanson also stresses that Churchill, who had fought in the trenches in World War I, was consequently sensible enough never to overrule his chiefs of staff, all of whom had also fought in that war or in Britain’s colonial wars. This gave his conduct of the war a certain hardheaded wisdom, despite his incidental eccentricity. Unlike Roosevelt, Churchill never lost sight of the high price the Allies would pay for allying themselves with Soviet Russia, especially once it came time to sorting out postwar Western and Eastern Europe, though he was the first of the Allied commanders to see the indispensability of what was otherwise a distasteful alliance. As Churchill told his private secretary Jock Colville, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil.”

Churchill also clearly learned from the mistakes of the First World War. He drew on the experience of the Somme to urge against precipitateness in the timing of the D-Day invasion; he drew on his collaborative relationship with Lloyd George (when that wily man was Minister of Munitions) to ensure against inadequate production of war materiel; and he clearly derived the right lesson from Marshal Josef Joffre’s insouciant belief in attrition when he saw to it that the British Expeditionary Force was kept out of the irresistible collapse of France in 1940. In his history of the war, Churchill memorably described how the opening day of the evacuation of Dunkirk affected him and his countrymen: “There was a short service of Intercession and Prayer in Westminster Abbey on May 26. The English are loth to expose their feelings, but in my stall in the Choir I could feel the pent-up, passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or material loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.”

Winston Churchill walks through the ruined nave of Coventry Cathedral, 1941 (Library of Congress)

For students of history, both the celerity and the decisiveness with which the Allies defeated the Axis can be misleading precisely because they can suggest that Allied victory was somehow inevitable. Churchill’s recollections nicely explode the falsity of this notion. Many contingencies throughout the war might not have gone the Allies way, and certainly Dunkirk was one of them. In summing up Churchill’s conduct of the British war effort, Hanson makes some revelatory comparisons with Britain’s experience in the Great War:

Britain was to fight much longer than in World War I (roughly 71 versus 51 months) on two distant fronts against a much more formidable coalition of enemies. Yet it suffered far fewer deaths (approximately 450,000 versus nearly one million fatalities) in achieving a far more lasting victory in 1918. This was an extraordinary achievement, given that Britain had a continental army far smaller than those of either Germany, Russia or the United States. Although Churchill may have despaired frequently—after the fall of France when an inglorious defeat seemed likely, the ignominious surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk, and in negotiations about the postwar world with undemocratic Joseph Stalin creating facts on the ground throughout Eastern Europe—he was the first Allied leader to see a way to beat Hitler and the only one to fight from the beginning to the end.

Most of this is persuasive, but surely it is dubious that Churchill “frequently despaired” when setbacks arose. On the contrary, his hallmark as a war leader is precisely that he did not despair, even amid setbacks that would have demoralized lesser men. In this, as Colville recognized, it was the man’s very guilelessness that inoculated him against despair. “Strength often marches with simplicity,” Colville wrote. “In the war Churchill’s burden was lightened and his task simplified by his refusal to be diverted from the single aim of victory; victory at any price, since the alternative was slavery or extinction. This suited his temperament, because although a brilliant tactician and more fertile than most men in imagination and ideas, he was fundamentally a straightforward person . . . In August 1940, he considered the clamour for a Statement of War Aims ill-conceived. We had, he said, only one aim: to destroy Hitler.”

As good as Hanson is on the strategy and tactics of the Second World War, he can be heartbreaking on the millions of civilians who died as a result of the war. Turning to the Holocaust, he cites Hans Frank, the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, who wrote in his diary in December 1939: “We cannot shoot 2,500,000 Jews. Neither can we poison them. We shall have to take steps, however, designed to extirpate them in some way—and this will be done.” Hanson points out a grim irony: “The three major Axis powers directly or indirectly caused about 80 percent of the total World War II dead while suffering somewhere around 20 percent . . . Rarely in any war of the past had the defeated inflicted such carnage, in such lopsided fashion, on the victorious.” In the case of the failed invasion of Russia, the more frustrated the German generals became with what proved an undefeatable Red Army, the more they exhorted their soldiers to gratify their exasperated sadism by slaughtering defenseless Slavs and Jews. If they could not fill their hats with gold, they could spread murder and mayhem.

What ultimately distinguishes Hanson as an historian is his appreciation of the moral dynamics of war. “Men are the city-state,” one of his epigraphs from Thucydides states, “and not walls nor ships empty of men.” At a time when America and her allies need clear-sighted moral decisiveness as never before, Hanson’s book could not be timelier. The way that he sets out his study shows his own moral clarity, which, in a history profession riddled with Marxist determinism and Progressive faddishness, is bracing and salutary:

Why the Western world—which was aware of the classical lessons and geography of war, and was still suffering from the immediate trauma of the First World War—chose to tear itself apart in 1939 is a story not so much of accidents, miscalculations, and overreactions (although there were plenty of those, to be sure) as of the carefully considered decision to ignore, appease or collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany by nations that had the resources and knowledge, but not yet the willpower to do otherwise.

While excellent general histories on the Second World War abound—those by Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, Max Hastings, and Andrew Roberts come to mind—Victor Davis Hanson’s Second World Wars will not only swell but enhance their distinguished company.

Invasion of Poland, 1939 (Wojskowa Agencja Fotograficzna, Public Domain)

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