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A Companion to World War II


Edited by Thomas W. Zeiler & Daniel M. DuBois


Blackwell Companions to World History

Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Hardcover. 2 volumes. xxxii+1030 p. ISBN 978-1405196819. £200 / $395


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



“The two volumes that comprise this Companion to World War II explore the conflict’s contexts around the world, within nations, and across transnational groupings of people” – so the Editors explain in their Introduction [1]. This is of course a mammoth undertaking and they are aware that even with its 58 chapters and 1062 pages the Companion does not cover the whole field: “We did not attempt to be exhaustive; readers will find topics, theaters, areas of the world, campaigns, and people excluded or addressed in glancing fashion” [1-2]. Interestingly, the dustcover flaps tell us that neither of the Editors is a military historian: Zeiler is Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder and DuBois is a doctoral candidate at the same university, and assistant Editor of Diplomatic History – thus illustrating and reinforcing Clausewitz’s argument that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means”. Now, having said what the Companion is not – i.e. not a compendium of military history which covers every aspect of World War II – it is in order to say what it actually is. Overall, I would argue, it is a work of historiography and bibliography: each chapter constitutes, or aims to constitute, a compact monograph on the state of research into a specific aspect of the War.

Classically, the first part, with six chapters, is devoted to “The Roots of War”. The Editors were fortunate enough to enlist one of the foremost figures in World War II research, Gerhard L. Weinberg, who provides both the opening chapter of the two-volume set, “How a Second World War Happened”, and its concluding remarks one thousand pages further, in Chapter 58, “The Place of World War II in Global History”. Equally classically, the first part continues with “The Versailles Peace Settlement and the Collective Security System” (Frédéric Dessberg) and “The Great Depression” (John E. Moser). The last three chapters cover more unusual topics in this context. In “Colonialism in Asia”, Christopher D. O’Sullivan expands on the often-forgotten point (at least in the West) that “the war in Asia and the Pacific was the climax of a half-century of competition for colonies and resources” [63]. Chapter 5, “Visionaries of Expansion”, was written by a historian of Italy, R.J.B. Bosworth – who not unexpectedly dwells on Mussolini “grandiose” [79] shopping list, but also examines Germany, the USSR and Japan, with the British Empire and France trying to cling to their “illusions” [88]. The bibliography, unlike some of those which follow the various chapters, has I feel a great failing, in that it does not separate pre-1945 works from post-war commentaries – but it has another more irritating one: it does not give the date of first publication, often very useful for the student of the subject. Thus we have Mein Kampf as (1972) [89]. “Soviet Planning for War, 1928-June 1941” (Alexander Hill) will be found extremely useful by those who want to update their information on the real objectives of Soviet policy in those years, notably in the light of the debate between the former dissident, “Suvorov” (1985 & 2008) and Carley (2001) – and his supporters.

Part II, entitled “Fighting the War”, includes some 17 chapters, covering 400 pages. I was puzzled by the title of Chapter 9: “CBI: A Historiographical Review”, by Maochun Yu. I must confess that for me, CBI immediately suggests “Confederation of British Industry” – the employers’ association. Here, in fact, it means China-Burma-India [theater], and the rest of the title is fully justified by a magnificent examination of the papers and repositories, including many in Chinese, which are required reading before one even attempts to treat the question. For different reasons, for what the author calls “the critical discourse of the bombing”, which seems to be taking larger and larger proportions every day, I was attracted to “The Bombers: The Strategic Bombing of Germany and Japan” (Randall Wakelam) – and once again one is not disappointed in this discussion which takes us from 1945 to 2010: Wakelam does not takes sides, resting content with neatly summarizing the various contradictory arguments found in the vast bibliography. Simon Davis, in “the Middle East and World War II”, has one of the longest bibliographies in the set, with eight closely-printed pages. Of course his topic deserves it, as perhaps the longest-lasting sore point, largely inherited in fact from the First World War, but possibly made worse by the Second. Unlike Wakelam, he criticizes some of his quoted authors, all too often guided by “Occidentalist” [278] preconceptions. I noticed an inaccuracy in his text and bibliography, however: Churchill’s vol. III and IV of his The Second World War did not appear in 1959 [283], but in 1949-1950 – the dates are important because the volumes were written with current affairs in mind.

I found the other chapters in Part II of value (they cover Scandinavia, Western Europe 1939-1941, Pearl Harbor, Southern Asia, Eastern Europe 1941-1945, the naval war in the Mediterranean and in the oceans, the Pacific war – plus a chapter on the Home Fronts and one on the Occupations), but I was very disappointed by Christopher R. Gabel’s one-sidedness in his “The Western Front, 1944-1945”. Most lay people, fed on rosy Hollywood narratives, believe this episode to have been non-controversial – but a historian should know better, and say so. It is revealing that his bibliography does not include Montgomery’s Memoirs of 1958, which created a tremendous stir by exposing the deep divisions and constant quarrels between the British and American chiefs, reflecting profound divergences between the strategies to be followed at various points, from Normandy to the Rhine and beyond. One does not ask Gabel to decide which side was right – the debate still goes on, in fact – but he should at least indicate that the Eisenhower-Bradley version which he gives is not accepted by many supporters of the “Montgomery school”.

The ten chapters in Part III (“Multinational and Transnational Zones of Combat: Strategy”) cover fields which appear prima facie to be unrelated, from “Axis Coalition Building” (Richard L. Di Nardo) to “Civilians in the Combat Zone: Anglo-American Strategic Bombing” (Sean L. Malloy), whose bibliography inevitably overlaps with that of Wakelam in Part I while complementing it. Some discuss subjects which are often neglected, like “French African Soldiers in World War II” by Raffael Scheck, who includes important references in French and German. Some were de rigueur, like “British and American Strategic Planning”, by Earl J. Catagnus Jr., which has to be read in connection with “Strategies, Commands, and Tactics, 1939-1941” (Talbot C. Imlay), or Mark A. Stoler’s “Wartime Conferences”. Others provide a fresh point of view on a well-trodden topic, e.g. “The US War against Japan: A Transnational Perspective” by the great specialist of the question, Akira Iriye. What is often called The Secret War is covered in three chapters: “Of Spies and Stratagems” (John Prados, with a copious, nine-page bibliography); “Scientists and Nuclear Weapons in World War II”, by Barton J. Bernstein, a specialist of the subject of long standing (as made clear by the long list of his own publications, 1976-1996, in the bibliography) ; and the ambiguously-titled “World War II and Communication Technologies” (James Schwoch), which I found confusing since it mixes signals, radio, television, censorship and propaganda – all this in only five pages.

Moving on to Volume II, we find a continuation of the Multinational and Transnational Zones of Combat strand, with Part IV: “Multinational and Transnational Zones of Combat: Society”. The first three chapters are devoted to Europe, starting with “European Societies in Wartime” by Isabelle Davion, who provides several references in Czech, French, German and Polish on top of the conventional titles in English. Neville Wylie, the well-known specialist of wartime Switzerland, follows with “Neutral Europe in World War II”, and in “Resistance in Eastern Europe” Stephan Lehnstaedt provides, too, a copious list of books in German and Polish, with a few in Russian. The rest of Part IV contains chapters which one would not have found in a work published in, say, 1950. Patricia Kollander covers “German Émigrés in the US Army during World War II” – a curiously neglected subject, on which she in fact wrote the first monograph, in 2005. Two complementary chapters are devoted to the Holocaust: “Race, Genocide and Holocaust” (Jochen Böhler), with a large selection of German titles, and “Holocaust and Genocide Today” (Yehuda Bauer). A chapter addresses the gender dimension: “The Women of World War II”, by D’Ann Campbell, who has an impossible task, since the enormous historiography which the subject implies if one really wants to discuss it on a world scale – as it should be – cannot obviously be covered in eighteen pages of text and four and a half pages of bibliography. Another chapter examines “Environmental Dimensions of World War II” (Jacob Darwin Hamblin) – an unexpected topic, which ranges inter alia from insect control and Zyklon B to research on synthetic rubber, the search for uranium or “American propaganda [which] described the Japanese as vermin to be annihilated” [707]. Not unexpectedly, in contrast, most of the books mentioned were published in the 2000s. Part IV concludes with equally recent preoccupations: “Transnational Civil Rights during World War II” which, as stated by the author, Travis J. Hardy, concentrates in fact on the United States, Britain, Canada and France; and “Global Culture and World War II” (M. Todd Bennett), whose title is a complete misnomer, as it does not indicate the real theme, viz. the cinema, mainly as a tool of subtle or not-so-subtle propaganda, and mainly in the United States and Britain. It is an excellent exploration of the historiography of the theme – but is culture really limited to film in either country, and where is the “global” promised in the title? These two chapters, whose interest is undeniable, raise however the limits of “Multinational”, “Transnational” and “Global” approaches: beyond bilateral comparisons it becomes difficult for one individual to seriously grasp the mindsets, cultural legacies and language subtleties of the peoples concerned by world-wide samples – even more so for Westerners who venture into unfamiliar territories outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Part V reassuringly reverts to “national” aspects, with the United States being given pride of place, since it has four chapters to itself. Two have self-explanatory titles: “US Foreign Policy, the Grand Alliance, and the Struggle for Indian Independence during the Pacific War” (Sarah Ellen Graham); and “American Anti-Semitism during World War II”, a subject which, Stephen H. Norwood tells us, “College-level American history textbooks largely ignore” [909]. The other two draw heavily on the work of Paul A.C. Koistinen, 1984-2004: “ ‘P’ Was for Plenty”, an examination of American industry at war by William H. Miller; and “Generating American Combat Power in World War II”, by Edward G. Miller, who explains how this huge industrial production was actually coordinated and then brought to the fighting forces thousands of miles away – the problem of what is now called “logistics”.

The remaining five chapters in Part V are devoted to European case studies. “The Balkans in the Origins of World War II” by Marietta Stankova curiously only gives two references to publications outside Britain and the United States: an article and a book in Bulgarian – surely the literature on the Balkans includes many more books published in the region since the Fall of the Soviet Union? We seem here to have the archetype of the “Occidentalist” approach denounced by Simon Davis. We have the same limitations with Michael Alfred Peszke, who only has four or five Polish references in the much longer bibliography of “Poland’s Military in World War II”. The proportion of German books is slightly better in Frank McDonough’s “Resistance inside Nazi Germany”. It is only with Julian Jackson and “Occupied France: The Vichy Regime, Collaboration, and Resistance” that we have at last the proper proportions in the bibliography, with a copious selection of books in French (or French books translated into English). Elena Agarossi’s “The Italian Campaign” is a borderline case in that it deals primarily with Anglo-American operations, not with the concurrent Italian civil war, which only receives a few paragraphs: the paucity of Italian references is therefore justified. Once again, for some reason, Montgomery’s Memoirs are omitted, though they provide essential information on Allied discord in Sicily and during the last months of 1943.

The last section, Part VI, “Aftermath and Consequences”, is fraught with difficulties because, apart from Chapter 55, “Anglo-American Postwar Planning” (Charlie Whitham), there continue to rage innumerable controversies over the subjects discussed. For instance “the topic of German wartime suffering” [975] – one of the strands in Susanne Vees-Gulani’s “The Cultural Legacy of World War II in Germany” is still anathema to many survivors who suffered from Nazi atrocities. She rightly starts from the German concept of Stunde Null (Zero Hour) [963], the idea being that the crumbling of Germany in 1945 led to a situation of tabula rasa: German society had to be rebuilt from scratch. But she does not mention that none less than the former President, Richard von Weizsäcker, dismissed the theory of the clean slate as too convenient in a speech on 8 May 1985. Incidentally, Marc Gallicchio, in “World War II in Historical Memory” pointedly alludes to Weizsäcker’s speech on “this emotionally difficult issue” (for the Germans who wanted to forget pre-1945 events) and contrasts it with Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s manipulation of President Reagan a few days earlier over the question of SS troopers’ tombs [989]. In this connection, Vees-Gulani makes a serious mistake when she translates the standard word used by the Germans in these debates, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, by “exploring the past” [966]. Bewältigung is about “surmounting” – not “exploring” – and this is not mere pedantry, since the true nature of the controversy over Stunde Null is most unfortunately lost with this faulty translation. No less controversial is the theme of Christoph J.M. Safferling’s chapter, “War Crimes in Europe”: how does one define a war crime? – and were the German Nazis the only ones to commit these crimes? While Safferling provides an excellent examination of what constitutes a war crime in the light of all the difficulties which were raised at Nuremberg, he expedites the second question in one sentence, which very surprisingly lumps together the Katyn massacre and Allied carpet bombing [942].

Marc Gallicchio ends his chapter, “World War II in Historical Memory”, with the sad conclusion that “[a]lthough the war ended more than 65 years ago memories of the war will remain doggedly nationalistic because they are as much about the present as the past” [996]. The discussion bears on the five permanent members of the Security Council – the official victors of the War – plus the two major defeated nations, Germany and Japan. For once, the emphasis is not on Europe (including Russia / the USSR) or the United States, but on Asia, with a thorough examination of Japanese nationalism and how it led, from the 1990s, “to an effort to construct shared memories of the war between the United States and China” [993]. The bibliography includes works by Chinese and Japanese authors, in English only. I would have been particularly interested in a discussion of Austria, with all the contradictions between its claimed status as “the first victim of Nazism” and the averred enthusiasm for the Anschluss by some of its most prominent citizens, like Kurt Waldheim. But Austria is unfortunately left out. As indicated above, it was left to Gerhard L. Weinberg to give the concluding remarks, which he does in “The Place of World War II in Global History”, a very useful survey of what we can now say with the perspective of the historian, almost seventy years after its end – but also an interesting reflection on what we still do not know, generally because the archives remain closed.

There is no doubt that, taken as a whole, the Companion is full of first-class, historiographical and bibliographical information and insights. For obvious reasons if one considers the publishing house it is dominated by Anglo-American scholarship – most contributors teaching in American universities, in fact – but it shows a commendable effort to go beyond the comfortable certainties which largely continue to inform Hollywood productions and British television series. As stated by the Editors, it does not cover every aspect of the War – but most of the aspects covered receive an up-to-date, comprehensive treatment. The price puts the set beyond the means of private individuals, and it is clear that it was published with public institutions in mind. Accordingly one can unreservedly recommend it to all University and Departmental libraries as a reliable work of reference on the state of research into the Second World War.


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