Skip to comments.Book Review: Victor Davis Hanson's "The Second World Wars"
Posted on 07/19/2020 6:34:40 PM PDT by LS
Victor Davis Hanson is, I think, now regarded as one of the two or three most important military historians alive. This is largely because of his incredible book "Carnage and Culture," but also his books on generals and battles "Soul of Battle," "Ripples of Battle," and his numerous columns during the Iraq War. I'll never forget one of his best columns was "I'd hate to be fighting us."
His latest foray, however, isn't up to the same quality, despite a massive 529 pages of densely packed text. Its strengths:
*It is well researched with extensive notes and bibliography. That said, there were some rather troublesome omissions, including a series of papers and arguments about the effectiveness of US infantry in Europe in Parameters; a key paper by Evan Huelfer on the horrendous casualties of WW I and how that affected US military doctrine; Blumenson's book on Kasserine (since Hanson discusses the battle so much); Addison and Calder's essay collection on GIs in Europe (esp Paul Reid's essay); Ronald Spector's "Eagle Against the Sun"; Stephen Biddle on military power; the very best book on Midway by Parshall and Tully; and the Ross/Sherry debates about strategic bombing in WW II. Just to name a few. No book on WW II in the Pacific, for example can ignore either Spector or Parhsall/Tully.
*Perhaps the most important point of the book is Hanson's understanding of the relative strength and weakness of both the Axis and the Allies on the eve of war. As he puts it, "Between the two wars, the European democracies . . .sought to explain the horrors of the Great War within a general theory of Western erosion." (28) Almost every public proclamation, he notes, "that the Allies had voiced in the 1920s and early 1930s projected at least an appearance of timidity that invited war from what were still relatively weak powers."(23) Indeed, Depression era democracies lacked confidence that their industrial potential would ever recover. This was a BIG DEAL, and Hanson is right to emphasize it.
Equally important, Hanson notes early that few in the British government especially understood that in Hitler they weren't dealing with British gentlemen. Anthony Eden said "You know, the hardest thing for me during that time was to convince my friends that Hitler and Mussolini were quite different from the British businessman or country gentlemen as regards their psychology, motivations, and mode of action."
Here, one could (but Hanson does not, because it isn't his focus) make the point of the "average" American and today's leftists. Most people have difficulty grasping that the Marxist whackadoodle liberal of today's BLM or fascist so-called antifa is in reality someone who very much hates everything about this country. As Rush Limbaugh constantly explains, the concept was utterly foreign to him until about a few years ago---that AMERICANS could hate the USA so much.
Perhaps Hanson's greatest insight is that the Nazis and Japanese both thought of themselves as "supermen," when in fact the real supermen were the American industrial workers, the British sailors, and the Red infantrymen. The first two in particular thought less highly of themselves at the beginning of the war. The Germans DID achieve a 3:1 kill ratio in the East, but they needed 20:1.
*Numbers. Hanson knows the numbers, and he isn't afraid to let you know that he knows. He regales you with constant repeated references to Soviet tank production, American air construction, and casualties.
*Insight in dividing the war into "wars." This is perhaps the most important aspect of the book, for Hanson sees that World War II was actually two wars fought by two separate groups of allies against two different Axis alignments. On one side, the Atlantic/European front, the US, Great Britain, and the USSR battled Germany and Italy; in the Pacific, the US, China, and Great Britain, though hardly ever coordinated in their efforts, fought Japan. Germany and Italy almost never even consulted the Japanese, let alone worked in tandem with them. Would it have turned out differently if the Axis were as "allied" as the Allies? Doubtful.
*Production won the war. While Hanson pays plenty of due respect to the massive Russian army efforts, it seems clear that the Arsenal of Democracy not only made possible much of the Red Army's tactical mobility from 1942 on, but that the Americans and British posed enough of a threat to fracture the German effort.
Here I don't think Hanson goes nearly far enough. In December 1941, when Moscow hung by a thread, 85% of the heavy tanks outside the city were British or American. At the key battle of Kursk, wherein the Nazis still might have attained a draw in the east, the Soviets won not because of the number or superiority of their tanks, but because the feared Luftwaffe tank-killers were driven off by the Red Air Force. That, in turn, ONLY occurred because the Germans were busy spending 30% (!!) of their entire air and GROUND military resources on the anti-bombing campaign in the west. I once calculated that had the Luftwaffe had 30% more air at Kursk, it would have easily dominated the skies, and, in due course, the German armor would have taken the ground.
While Hanson admits this, he does so almost in passing. The Air War in the West was key because it totally destroyed the Luftwaffe---not by blowing up the factories on the ground, but by using the bombers as bait to shoot down German planes in the skies. By mid-1943 when long-range Allied fighters accompanied the bombers, the bombing runs because roach motels, sucking in the German fighters and destroying them. By D-Day, Germany was so overwhelmed in the skies that it put up NO air resistance over the beaches.
*Toward the end, Hanson rightly notes the differences in command and structure between democratic armies that are sent to war by consensus of the public and Axis armies sent by tyrants. He notes that ironically the Axis armies, excluding the Italians, often fought to the death incurring horrific casualties, while Americans and British surrendered large fortresses rather than fight to the end (Singapore and Corregidor).
This also, however, involves a view of human life that strangely Hanson, who made the point beautifully in "Carnage and Culture," ignores. Free men have faith in their societies and their armies. Living to fight another day is preferable to hari kari. At the same time, Hanson correctly points out that the % of American prisoners who died at the hands of the Germans was low, but the % of Russians who died at German hands was extremely high. At the same time, both German and Japanese POWs had a very low death rate in American prisons (1-2%).
This marked another important statistic, as contrary to Howard Zinn, who saw the Americans as little different from the Nazis, in fact in this one statistic alone one could see that the Americans were ENTIRELY different, and were not (in most cases) the monsters that either the Germans or Japanese could be.
*Finally, Hanson is good about pointing out oddities and relative numbers. For example, the British fleet added more merchant and surface warships added during the war than the Axis powers combined. He also notes that Hitler failed to appreciate the inherent strength of the American and British navies and how that (Mahan-like) allowed them total flexibility as to when, and where, to strike.
*In addition to some of the things mentioned above, there is one glaring weakness and it is that the book is too long by at least 1/3. Hanson is infuriatingly repetitive. An editor should have chopped this. There are plenty of gems here, but they are buried in far too many repetitions.
*Most important of all, Hanson fails to understand the inherent deeply imbedded war aim of Hitler, which was not particularly to win a military battle with either the West or the Soviets, but to destroy the Jews as a force on planet earth. Only this explains his insanity of continuing to divert war resources to killing Jews; only this explains his otherwise insane invasion of Russia; only this explains whey he thought (see "Hitler's Second Book") that war with the US was inevitable---despite, as Hanson points out, any short term weapons to attack the US.
To Hitler, FDR and Stalin were bookends of the Jewish bolshevik menace and (he actually said this) even if Germany was wiped off the map, if he succeeded in eradicating the Jews Germany would have earned history's great applause. Indeed, Hanson virtually ignores Hitler's anti semitic motivations (and his bibliography likewise shows a distinct absence of literature on who Hitler was or on the Hitlerian mind---for example, Daniel Goldhagen, "Hitler's Willing Executioners") or Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler"). Understanding Hitler's race motivations is absolutely critical to understanding why he ignored the military drawbacks of invading Russia.
In short (or, "in sum" as Hanson must write 50 times), this is an informative book, but not a critical one to understanding World War II. To put it in a modernism, "The juice isn't worth the squeeze."
You might find this interesting.
“...Free men have faith in their societies and their armies. ...”
We used to...before Obama.
Someone here on FR pointed out that the Russians averaged losing 5000 men a day for the entire war.
I did not think that possible but did some quick figuring and it was true!
Great book. Great book. Loved it.
I enjoy his perspective...
I thought Hitler was motivated by two things....eradicating the Jews and his belief in expanding the Germanic people into Ukraine and the east. The two were equal motivations. Lebensraum
That is a low daily figure. It yields about 7,200,000 lost. The Soviets admitted to 20,000,000 lost and some more recent figures range up to 30-35,000,000 lost.
A recent book that covers the WWII from a unique perspective (hard to do) is "The German War: A Nation Under Arms".
I very much enjoy VDH’s lectures and always appreciate his commentary.
I hear it is an excellent book
Has VDH ever been asked to speak at the annual Conference and Symposium at the WWII Museum in New Orleans?
I’ve been attending these for almost 10 years. They are, generally, excellent. Mr. (Dr.?) Hanson would certainly be a welcome speaker.
Trouble is, I believe the Museum staff lean a little left; more so in recent years. I believe the majority of attendees lean in quite the opposite direction.
And quite telling was that the Soviets executed more of their own soldiers in 41 - 42 than we lost in Vietnam.
I find it strange that we fought Russia for decades and we are in a world war now with china but back then ,they were uncomfortable allies.
In his huge six volume “History Of WWII” Churchill mentions that we were worse off after winning the war than we were before the war began, mainly by what Russia gained.
For instance Britain declared war after the Germans invaded Poland then let Russia keep it.
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