During a fireside chat on February 23, 1942, President Roosevelt asked his radio audience to follow along on a map as he explicated the global nature of the war the U.S. had recently been drawn into. “This war is a new kind of war,” FDR insisted. “It is different from all other wars of the past, not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography. It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air lane in the world.” For many then and since, the “Second World War” (in the Anglosphere) or “World War Two” (in the United States) has been conceived as a single event. But as Victor Davis Hanson reminds us in his ambitious and monumental The Second World Wars, the war began as a series of on-again, off-again localized border wars primarily involving European countries in the 1930s. How these separate wars characterized by a diversity of combatants, geographic theaters, and ways and means of fighting—what Hanson means by the term the “Second World Wars”—coalesced into one war is the “paradox” Hanson sets out to explore.
But does the world need another history of the Second World War, already one of the most studied events in human history? There is hardly a shortage of compact histories covering the military, political, economic, and diplomatic aspects of the war as well as more recent attempts to integrate the experience of civilians and perspectives of ordinary soldiers, not to mention the Shoah and the other crimes against civilians.
Hanson’s title provides the first inkling that this is not going to be just another narrative history of the war. Indeed, readers unfamiliar with the basic outline of the conflict or its theaters, battles, and personalities will be at a distinct disadvantage, and may not fully appreciate Hanson’s often illuminating insights and observations. If you’re coming at the subject for the first time, Hanson may not necessarily be the best place to start.
For those familiar with the war, or who think they are, Hanson offers a fresh and unique perspective. A classicist and specialist in military history at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Hanson is not an obvious candidate to undertake a rethinking of the first modern war. Academics in particular will dislike or ignore this book: it’s a military history, a marginal and even taboo topic, and this is not Hanson’s field. But this is precisely what gives the book verve and freshness. Hanson produces an original work of synthesis that, while offering no new research or archival discoveries, is well written, thoughtful, and offers learned insights on almost every page. When was the last time anything comparable could be said about a scholarly tome?
Hanson’s thesis is that a series of conventional border conflicts between European powers in 1939–40 (he later includes Japan, which began its own localized war in China in 1937) were transformed into a continuous and interconnected global conflict by three “unexpected” events in the second half of 1941—the German invasion of the USSR in June, the Japanese surprise attack on Great Britain and the U.S. in December, and the German and Italian declarations of war on the U.S. shortly thereafter. According to Hanson, the “holistic idea” of a Second World War pitting the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) against the Allies (Britain, the USA, the USSR, and China), with lesser allied states on both sides, dates from the beginning of 1942 at the earliest, and has been with us ever since. A related thesis Hanson hammers home is that, once the Axis thoughtlessly blundered into a global war in 1941, they were fundamentally unprepared to win it and destined to lose “in catastrophic fashion.”
The book’s twenty chapters are subdivided into seven parts: Ideas, Air, Water, Earth, Fire, People, and Ends. Each functions as a self-contained essay. Hanson begins in “Ideas” by setting the war in a “classical” context. For Hanson, the war was fought as a “characteristic” Western war in which the traditions of “free markets, private property, unfettered natural inquiry, personal freedom, and a secular tradition” had produced greater economic military and economic dynamism in Europe than elsewhere. The modern technology and ideologies of the war should not obscure the fact that it followed familiar contours developed over 2,500 years—balance of power, deterrence versus appeasement, collective security, preemption and preventive attacks, and peace through victory and occupation—as well as the classical dictum that the winning side is the one that most rapidly learns and adapts from its mistakes. In many respects, planners on both sides ignored or forgot these lessons. On balance, however, the Allies ignored or forgot less and managed the war more flexibly than the Axis did or could, obsessed as each was to fight their own “parallel war” (to borrow Mussolini’s phrase for Italy’s misadventures in the Mediterranean and Africa).
Hanson’s book is unlike many academic works in another way: it is well written. Hanson’s crisp, staccato prose makes it a fun read. And even students of the war will not fail to learn something new. For instance, I never conceived of the war as “a deliberate effort to kill civilians, mostly on the part of the Axis powers.” As stark as the statistics are—as Hanson points out, by the end of the war, about 3 percent of the two billion people alive in 1939 would be dead—it’s interesting to contemplate that most of these deaths (80 percent) were caused by the losers. Indeed, rarely have the defeated inflicted such “lopsided carnage” on the victors.
Hanson’s assessments of the Axis powers provide a glimpse into both the excellence of Hanson’s prose and the sharpness of his judgments. Germany, we are told, had no way to wage a long war of attrition against enemies with “limitless industrial potential across long distances, in inclement weather, and on difficult terrain.” The strategic judgment on Germany’s entire war effort is pithy and merciless:
Few pondered what would follow once Germany ran out of easy border enemies or guess that it would predictably have to send Panzers across the sea or slog in the mud of the steppes. That proved an impossible task for a nation whose forces relied on literal horsepower and had little domestic oil, no real long-range bombing capability or blue-water navy, and a strategically incoherent leadership. German blitzkrieg would never cross the English Channel. It would die a logical if not overdue death at Stalingrad in the late autumn of 1942.
As for the Japanese, although they began the war with certain technological and material advantages—the Japanese possessed the most lethal torpedoes of any combatant, for example—Japanese naval strategy was “predicated on an array of unlikely assumptions that were soon rendered little more than fantasies.”
Hanson’s judgment of Italy is no less severe, but on balance offers a more sympathetic view of Italy’s military that avoids the clichés and stereotypes that characterize much English-language literature. As the nation with the “least resources of the major powers,” Italian military craftsmanship was “superb” and produced “excellent” ground weapons and prototypes. Moreover, Italy undertook one of the most outsized roles of any army in the war. With a population of 45 million, Italy fielded over 90 divisions, a force almost as large as that fielded by the U.S. with a population more than three times as large. This is a book that will repay careful reading.
The book is far from flawless. Hanson’s treatment of diplomatic history is cursory and could have benefited from consulting Gerhard Weinberg’s definitive The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany, both volumes of which are absent from the bibliography. Most disappointingly, for Hanson the war could have had no other outcome. The subtle art of the historian’s craft that seeks to understand the past on its own terms gives way to a determinism that obliterates the unknowability of the future. In this respect, Hanson is diametrically opposed to Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won (1995), which, while acknowledging the Allies’ overwhelming superiority, left open the possibility that events could have transpired differently. The sense of historical indeterminateness, that the actors could not know the future as confidently as we know the past, is absent from Hanson’s account.
These shortcomings do not detract from an otherwise comprehensive and lucid book. Victor Davis Hanson has made an important and far-reaching contribution to understanding the war and its legacy. This alone justifies another book about what Anthony Beevor called the “greatest man-made disaster in history.”
David De Gregorio has an MA in modern European history and practices law in New York. He lives in Brooklyn, USA.