A World at Arms
The history of World War II still haunts the modern imagination. As the veterans of the war gradually pass away and even the boundaries fixed by the conflict break down, the world continues to live in the shadow of the greatest and most destructive struggle it has ever known. As anniversaries of the most memorable battles come and go, people remember the heroism of the soldiers who liberated Europe and Asia from barbarous, formidable foes. At the same time, all must ponder the casual brutality of a war that was waged as much against civilians as against soldiers and in which the number of noncombatant dead far outnumbered those in uniform. Finally, there is the memory of the Holocaust, a scientific attempt to exterminate an entire people, an unforgettable, almost incomprehensible reminder of the bottomless evil that can lurk in the hearts of the most unassuming men and women.
A number of histories of World War II have appeared since its fiftieth anniversary in 1989. Perhaps the best is Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Weinberg writes with the authority of a master historian. He can justly claim to be one of the world’s leading experts on the period of World War II. He is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume history of Adolf Hitler’s diplomacy; he also discovered and edited Hitler’s long-lost second book. In researching his massive history of World War II, Weinberg mastered a voluminous secondary literature, and he displays a thorough familiarity with the most recent scholarship on the war. Weinberg also prepared for his history by working extensively in American, British, and German archives, giving his work the originality and freshness that come from challenging accepted conventions.
Few historians can match the breadth of Weinberg’s knowledge. Yet even more important for the success of his history is Weinberg’s moral conviction. Weinberg’s book, for all its scholarly apparatus, is a passionate work. It is all too easy when writing of the past, and especially of past wars, to fall into a bland objectivity that obscures rather than illuminates the vitality of the subject. This sort of history substitutes process for insight. Descriptions of military campaigns become painstakingly accurate catalogs of marches and regiments. Numbers and acronyms abound. The names of commanders become talismans. Lost in these dry narrations is the heart of any real interest the past possesses. Submerged under minutiae is the human drama of events, the ebb and flow of experience. Any sense of the meaning of the action described is missing.
Traditionally, the very best history has been a moral as well as scholarly endeavor. Weinberg realizes this. Although, of necessity, he paints in broad strokes and on an enormous canvas, he never lets people become buried under the flow of facts, and he repeatedly reminds his readers of the moral issues underlying the war. Weinberg’s moral compass raises his history to the level of high literature as well as accomplished scholarship.
World War II, states Weinberg at the outset, was Hitler’s war. He dismisses assertions that the war was simply an extension of World War I, or an escalation of Japan’s assault on China or the Spanish Civil War. Weinberg does not see World War II as the product of amorphous economic or sociological trends. He also discounts notions that the war was a consequence of the burdens placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. In fact, he argues that Germany emerged from World War I in many ways stronger than its victorious rivals; it remained united, with its industrial base unscathed. In 1919, however, Germany was bounded by small and exhausted powers. German grievances about the Treaty of Versailles soon found a ready audience in the West, and in the years following 1919 most of the onerous provisions of the settlement were watered down or canceled. Hitler made brilliant use of the revisionist mood concerning the treaty, but only as a mask for his own objectives. Weinberg argues persuasively that a Germany crippled by the peace of 1919 could hardly have come within a hair of conquering the Western world. If Germany possessed the capability to launch another bid for empire two decades after the failure of its first attempt, however, it did so only because of the efforts of one man. Without Hitler, Weinberg argues, there would have been no World War II. Hitler willed the war, worked actively to bring it about, and then used it to deepen and extend his revolutionary geopolitical and racial ambitions.
Weinberg’s understanding of the origins of World War II is crucial to the moral power underpinning his work. This most devastating of all wars was not some cataclysm brought on by forces beyond human control. It was the result of human agency. Even the history of a process as vast as World War II is still, for Weinberg, the story of people and the consequences of their actions. A World at Arms is not marred by a false objectivity. While he is careful never simply to sermonize, Weinberg passes judgment on his variegated cast of characters. His measure is not frivolous or idiosyncratic; his standards are those traditionally regarded in the West as encoding personal and social decency.
(The entire section is 2160 words.)