Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 1,040 pages; £ 40
WHY ANOTHER one-volume history of WWII? Richard Overy himself has written over 20 books covering different aspects of the conflict and global crisis of the first half of the 20th century. But its aim in “Blood and Ruins” is to challenge the widely held assumption that the war was simply the result of territorial aggression by the Axis Powers and allied resistance to it. Instead, he sees the policies pursued by Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and the Japanese military establishment as effects of the crisis as well as a major cause.
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It makes more sense, according to Overy, to think in terms of the “long” Second World War that began in China in the early 1930s and ended there – as well as in Southeast Asia, in Eastern Europe and the Middle East – only in the decade after 1945. The origins of the war, he says, lie at the height of European colonialism at the end of the 19th century; he has become the sworn enemy of imperialism. Its title comes from Leonard Woolf, an intellectual from Bloomsbury who wrote in 1928: “Imperialism, as it was called in the nineteenth century, is no longer possible, and the only question is whether it will be. buried peacefully or in blood and ruins.
Resentment towards the post 1919 colony, which preserved and expanded the British and French empires, while denying the three Axis Powers what they saw as their own legitimate autonomy, was a powerful motive of conquest. In Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo, the notions of racial superiority that legitimized the territorial push seemed little different from those that underpinned existing empires. The so-called appeasement policy, pursued by Britain and France in the 1930s (Mr. Overy prefers “containment”), reflected a certain sympathy for these ambitions, as well as an “sometimes inconsistent” attempt to ” squaring the circle of growth, international instability and their own desire to protect the imperial status quo ”.
Dreams and nightmares
It was never going to work. The problem was the dynamic nature of any imperial expansion. Each success has whetted the appetite for more, now driven by the belief that the old powers were in final decline. This conviction was reinforced by the speed of the Western collapse after the German invasion of Poland. The dice were cast when the three-power pact was signed on September 27, 1940, heralding a “new order” in which Germany would have an empire in continental Europe, Italy in the Mediterranean basin and in Africa, and Japan in East Asia. The fact that the British Empire had not admitted defeat and that America, although not yet in the fray, was preparing to deploy its economic might through the loan-lease program, did not allow this fantasy to be disturbed.
The Axis Powers saw their imperial mission almost entirely in terms of plundering resources and resettling new settlements at the expense of local populations, who were often seen as less than human. Much like the Japanese in China and elsewhere in their sphere of Greater East Asia co-prosperity, which was “built on war and ruined by war,” Hitler offered the inhabitants of the Occupied East only brutal subjugation, deportation or death. (The racial and cultural attitudes of the Nazis meant that Western Europe was a somewhat different story.)
None of the twin Axis Imperial objectives went well. The potential settlers were few; the exploitation of the resources of the territories conquered in time of war has also proved difficult. In the Caucasian oil fields, which Hitler expected to fuel his war effort, virtually no oil was extracted until the region was abandoned in early 1943.
However, there were also fantasies on the Allied side. There is no doubt that the victory of the Axis Powers would have, as Winston Churchill warned, plunged the world into a new dark age; yet he himself was determined to make the old European empires endure – a result at odds with the liberal internationalism on which Franklin Roosevelt insisted and which was spelled out in the Atlantic Charter of 1941. Given his commitment to In favor of self-determination as a right for all people, Churchill (pictured on previous page) only reluctantly signed it.
As Britain locked up tens of thousands of Indian nationalists in 1942 and slaughtered hundreds of protesters, America was also far from Roosevelt’s rhetoric. The racial segregation that marked the country was reflected in its armed forces. The navy was all white until 1942, subsequently recruiting only a handful of African Americans, mainly as stewards. Less than 2% of army officers were black; the vast majority of the 1.2 million black soldiers were deemed unfit for combat and sent to work or service units. Neither government, meanwhile, was very interested in saving the Jews of Europe. As Mr Overy puts it, on this issue the authorities in London “showed an insensitivity which completely belied the assertion that the British were fighting for decent values”.
Mr. Overy places as much weight on the Pacific and East Asia as he does on Europe. In the global conflict, he discerns a number of different struggles – involving how the belligerents mobilized, how they adapted economically, their use of civilians (who were both participants and victims of the war in unprecedented scale) and how they fought (American and British). technology and manufacturing, he says, compensates for the Wehrmacht’s superior performance on the battlefield). And how they justified the ordeal: Very few Germans or Japanese questioned the correctness of their cause, one of the reasons they held on long after the defeat was certain.
The data, information, and insights Mr. Overy collects can seem overwhelming at times, but even the most expert reader will know more. In his penultimate chapter, he enumerates the crimes and atrocities of war. It is difficult reading. The ability of seemingly ordinary people to do the most terrible things should no longer come as a surprise, but the extent of barbaric inhumanity remains difficult to comprehend.
In the end, he gallops through the events of the decade after 1945 that shaped the world as it is today. Have the old empires simply been replaced by new American and Soviet imperiums? Mr. Overy concludes that no, although his view that Soviet domination of the Eastern Bloc lacks the essential characteristics of an empire is not entirely convincing. This is a minor criticism. It is a magnificent book which reflects the profound scholarship and human judgment of a masterful historian. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Cemetery of Empires”