World War II: The Big Picture Plus Thousands of Snapshots

GERMANY, HITLER, AND WORLD WAR II: ESSAYS IN MODERN GERMAN AND WORLD HISTORY

By Gerhard L. Weinberg

Cambridge University Press, 347 pp., $27.95

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO WORLD WAR II

Edited by I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot

Oxford University Press, 1343 pp., $49.95

NO other historical event approached the vortex that was World War II. It drew to itself the entire human race across all the continents, oceans, seas -- and even the skies above. World War I introduced warplanes and submarines that made conflict three dimensional; World War II produced rockets, electronic ventures, and nuclear bombs that reached farther still. And Nazism added a demographic dimension of social engineering run wild, the imposition of migration or destruction on entire populations.

All this constitutes both a bonanza and an embarrassment for historians. It offers rich opportunities for small-scale investigations: battles, campaigns, leaders, technology, the various home fronts from around the world. But a broad synthesis, the big picture, that delicate mixture of analysis and narrative which gives scholarship authority and longevity, has escaped many historians.

Not so with Gerhard Weinberg, as he demonstrated in his sweeping, prize-winning work, ''A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II'' (Cambridge University Press, 1994). His latest book, ''Germany, Hitler, and World War II,'' serves as a companion volume, assembling 24 essays written over the past 30 years. These are scholarly but accessible to the general reader, authoritative in their archival basis, and imaginative in raising such neglected issues as ''German Plans for Victory, 1944-1945.''

The focus is on Hitler, whom Weinberg rightly sees as the very embodiment of the racist imperialism that drove the world into the abyss. To define (excuse?) the Holocaust and the attack on Russia as mere errors in judgment is to drastically misunderstand Hitler, as Weinberg makes clear, since Hitler saw creating a bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic global Aryan empire as an essential cornerstone of Nazism.

Weinberg is scathing in treating those German dignitaries who reinvented themselves after 1945 as opponents of Hitler.

Consider, for example, the famous field marshal Heinz Guderian, whose protestations of innocence were eagerly accepted by so many Westerners. Yet ''practically all field marshals and four-star generals received enormous sums secretly from Hitler, ... partly in regular monthly secret supplements to their already very high pay.'' By revealing this practice, which remained largely unknown, Weinberg seriously challenges the generals' self-image of knightly self-sacrifice and Prussian asceticism.

During 1942, Guderian ''[traveled] around occupied Poland to select an estate to be stolen for him by the German government.'' Weinberg even offers precise archival references for those doubting his conclusions.

In demanding skepticism, solid research, and a commitment to truth, he presents us with a Nazi-era diplomat, Curt Prufer, whose postwar scheme to enhance his reputation with a sanitized diary was countered by his son, who enabled an American scholar to print ''Rewriting History: The Original and Revised World War II Diaries of Curt Prufer.''

Weinberg is courageous and tough-minded enough to voice the suspicions that most professional historians have regarding diaries, memoirs, and autobiographies. The current firestorm about Robert McNamara's recollections of the Vietnam War is a case in point.

Weinberg's critique extends to revisionism by both left and right, and the distortions imposed on World War II writings by the cold war. Respecting history too much to ignore its rewriting, Weinberg obviously despises what he sees as the willful blindness of those like the late A.J.P. Taylor, the champion of Hitler as a traditional, more or less ''normal'' European statesman, who inexplicably got in over his head.

Those seeking the factual data from which Weinberg and others quarry their strategic interpretations might well consult ''The Oxford Companion to World War II,'' whose confusing title actually conceals a highly sophisticated, alphabetical encyclopedia that gives excellent material even to the specialist. The predictable entries offering the names, dates, and facts of this or that battle or commander are supplemented by concise, masterful accounts by acknowledged masters of such wide-ranging issues as tank technology, infantry weapons, and artillery developments.

Encyclopedia entries often are watered down to avoid disputes, but not here! Admiral Louis Mountbatten, for instance, is cited for ''immense vanity and hunger for publicity and power;'' his responsibility for the disastrous Dieppe raid is made clear. The authors are equally critical of British incapacity during the airborne attack -- made famous by ''A Bridge Too Far'' on Arnhem.

There is unusually extensive coverage of the home fronts, highly detailed maps, tables, and chronologies, and a very occasional dash of British humor. Don't forget Wojtek, a bear cub mascot with Polish forces in Italy, who ''saw action during the battle for Monte Dassion ... when he helped move ammunition boxes,'' before retiring to the Edinburgh zoo.

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