Ruin, Blood, Iron, and Context

It has been some time since I read a comprehensive history of World War II. Richard Overy’s Blood and Ruins is subtitled The Last Imperial War and so it is an examination of the war as the last blatant excess of imperialism.

At least, in the traditional sense of the term, as an open and unapologetic expression of the prejudice of the so-called Great Powers to hold, maintain, or create vast colonial empires. One can argue that we still live in an imperial age, but not in the same way and certainly not as a condition sustainable in any meaningful way. What we have now is a state of economic imperialism that on the national level constantly fragments, reorganizes, and coalesces around stated anti-colonial principles. Again, one can argue about the successes or failures of this, but it is a different kind of thing than the Empires of the 18th and 19th Centuries, which, according to Overy, collapsed with WWII.

Overy starts with the Great Depression. He is of the school that sees the second world war as a continuation of the first (are there any who see them as distinct anymore?) and the economic catastrophe as a key element in the period between. The Japanese were already invading China, Mussolini was already trying to kick-start a new Roman Empire, which makes the popular “beginning” of the war in 1939 little more than a pin in the timetable to give shape for those not yet directly involved. He then traces the political and military pathways that took Europe and then the United States into the conflict. (A broader look at the period reveals that fighting on one front or another never really stopped in 1918.)

The book is organized into major reviews of the various aspects of the period—political, economic, military, social—to paint a holistic portrait of, essentially, the entirety of the conflict. Ambitious and not altogether successful, but that really is a quibble. (How complete can one be in a single volume, even one as exhaustive as this one?) With the benefit of several decades remove, the blanket assertions of previous histories seem to settle into more clinical analyses. The relations of Hitler with his advisors and the general staff, the miscalculations of Mussolini, the hubris of the various parties, and even in some instances their shared prejudices. 

Overy claims that three battles all in 1942 established the inevitable outcome: Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad. Laying out the logistical, economic, and global impact of these battles, he makes the case that in their aftermath it was nearly impossible for the Three Powers Pact countries, known popularly as the Axis, to achieve their initial aims, that of establishing and maintaining vast Empires and ending military conflict with their adversaries. The cost to Germany and Japan (and Italy) of these battles drained their ability to strike fatal blows. His numbers re persuasive if not conclusive. Of course, other factors had to remain in play—the commitment of Britain and America to continue as they had begun—but all the weaknesses of the Axis were put to the test and found wanting. The end three years later, according to Overy, was plain at this point.

But not apparent to those involved. He shows that those on the ground, in the circumstances, could not have known. Some guessed, a few had a good idea, but for the most part the cracks in the Axis were not perceived as fatal until much later.

Overy puts the numbers out there. How many divisions, how many tanks, how much artillery, air power, the ability to move men and materiél, and from this Olympian view, yes, it’s fairly obvious that Hitler and Tojo had gambled. Early success obviously convinced them they could achieve all their aims, but eventually the costs ground them down. 

All this to make his larger point, which is that this marked the effective end to the idea of Empire. Britain, he shows, fought to keep an empire it was already finding impossible to manage. Germany fought to gain an empire Hitler believed it deserved. Italy fought to recover one lost centuries before. Japan fought for a place at a table that was by then being cleared of the place settings of empire.

Russia fought for survival. Stalin, like many Russian rulers, had a view of empire somewhat different from the Western or even the Eastern concept. Territorial empire for Russia was basically buffer.

As the war wound down, the United States and Russia were the principle “victors” inasmuch as the postwar landscape emerged from their interests, with almost no one in a position to say no. At least ostensibly, the United States was invested in the end of imperialism, at least as it had been conceived and pursued till then. It costs too much. Even the emerging global economy seemed set to render empire a defunct model. Colonialism was on the way out, though it took decades for it that manifest.

Not that national actors did not continue to assert some form of colonial authority anyway. Wars have long aftermaths, which Overy takes pains to stress.

Overy has his biases, but by and large manages them carefully (he’s too kind to Montgomery, for one thing) and sets out a set of portraits of the people involved that renders them human and places their talents and contributions in context rather effectively. 

There is a great deal of detail here for the avid reader. His conclusions are restrained by the fact that he lets the details reveal what was there to see, but he has a decided point-of-view. Given his aims and the thematic center of what he seeks to argue, this is a fascinating assessment of a time that we are still dealing with, economically, culturally, morally, and certainly politically.