John Keegan and World War II

In The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War II  British historian John Keegan tackles some of the well-known controversies surrounding the Second World War, from questions about how much Roosevelt may have known about a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to the pro-Hitler revisionism of David Irving. Keegan starts by critiquing A. J. P. Taylor’s fascinating but idiosyncratic Origins of the Second World War. Taylor’s thesis is that the outbreak of hostilities was due less to a German master plan for aggression and dominance than it was by the blundering of the major powers. Keegan argues that the book is full of inconsistencies and generalizations. We know from Hitler’s writings and speeches what his overall intentions were even if luck played a role in the events that unfolded.

In just one of many interesting observations, Keegan states: “No one more closely collaborated with Hitler in his years of triumph than Stalin.” Like so many obvious historical points, it has been obscured for years by political and academic bias. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin adopted a self-righteous pose, demanding that the Western Allies open up a “second front” to relieve pressure on the Russian Motherland. This glossed over how Russia had benefited from the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland and the occupation of the Balkans and Moldavia, as well as its generous trade agreement with the Third Reich. Keegan also discusses the misconceptions about partisan warfare. Despite the mighty claims during the war (and after) for armed uprisings by civilians, only Tito’s Yugoslav movement achieved any degree of success against the occupiers. Even then it was at a terrible cost in life. Overall the impact of guerillas on Nazi rule was negligible, mainly because the Germans could be far more ruthless in suppressing dissidents than any democracy could.

Naturally I don’t agree with Keegan on every point. He perceptively describes the limitations of Britain’s economic policies, and the disastrous effect those would have on its postwar empire. He understands much less the nature of Roosevelt’s administration. While the American president was an inspired wartime leader, who correctly discerned the threats of Germany and Japan (which many contemporaries did not), in terms of domestic policies his New Deal was disastrous and his conciliation of the Soviet Union simply placed Eastern Europe in the hands of a tyranny operating from Moscow rather then Berlin. Those criticisms aside, The Battle for History is a nice resource and refresher for students of the period, with its detailed bibliography that will direct them to other works of interest.

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