A Global Perspective On a World Conflict

`A WORLD at Arms: A Global History of World War II'' is an immense achievement of scholarship and synthesis, a definitive one-volume history, if not the definitive one, of the central event of our century.

It is literally global in its tracking of World War II around the planet, covering not only Western Europe, but Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East, Africa, and even Latin America. Author Gerhard Weinberg also notably helps to put the contribution of the Russians, which Westerners tend to underestimate, into perspective.

Yet this is a Western-oriented book, based primarily on German, British, and American archives and providing less complete accounts from the perspectives of the Russians, Japanese, and Chinese, among others. And though it does fold in broad themes of politics, culture, and the effects of war on daily life, this is primarily a military and diplomatic history, with accounts of negotiations, battles, weapons, tactics, and intelligence-gathering. This is not to underestimate the decade and a half Weinberg spent researching the book. Readers of subsequent ``global'' histories may demand that they be more global, but such histories may have to be the work of more than one scholar.

But as Weinberg demonstrates (if there was any doubt in the first place), the madness in Germany was the main engine of World War II, and thus an expert on Hitler and Nazi Germany, such as Weinberg, makes as good a candidate as any to write a one-volume history of World War II.

However much ``the Great War'' of 1914 was unlike what had gone before and changed ideas of what war was like, in World War II, ``A total reordering of the globe was at stake from the very beginning, and the leadership on both sides recognized this.... This was, in fact, a struggle not only for control of territory and resources but about who would live and control the resources of the globe and which peoples would vanish entirely because they were believed inferior or undesirable by the victors.''

Weinberg also makes plain that both the Germans and the Japanese really wanted war. He credits Neville Chamberlain's notorious ``peace in our time'' deal for Czechoslovakia as at least a moral victory against Hitler, because it denied him the shooting war he really wanted. The following year, when Poland was attacked, Hitler took great care to ensure that peace did not inadvertently break out.

The author also describes the attack on Pearl Harbor as a major strategic and tactical blunder for the Japanese, because it galvanized the American people into war, even as the Luftwaffe air raids on London galvanized the British.

All this is conveyed in a necessarily swiftly moving narrative that does not linger over anecdotes and sometimes suggests a whole other book in just a footnote or a transitional paragraph. The prose does not continuously sparkle, but the book does contain a number of dryly ironic understatements of the sort that make one want to pencil ``Touche!'' in the margin.

Among the interesting odd bits one can glean from this volume: At one point the Germans hoped to exile the world's Jews on the island of Madagascar; the Germans were still heavily dependent on horses for transport as they moved to attack the Soviet Union; the British made secret plans to run a government-in-exile in Canada if the Germans invaded Britain; and the Canadians interned their citizens of Japanese extraction, just as the Americans did, with even worse results.

A couple of points on the presentation of the book: Although it has a fine collection of maps in a section at the back, a reader seriously trying to follow the battle narratives of the main text would be better served with lots of smaller maps on the same page as the prose. Also, given the way the author refers throughout his text to preceding and subsequent chapters by number, it would be useful to have chapter numbers across the top of the page, and also running indications of which year we are in.

One of the continual refrains through ``A World at Arms'' is ``it remains to be investigated.'' At numerous points Weinberg signals that this or that controversy has not been settled, perhaps because the relevant archives have not been opened yet. It is intellectually generous of him to suggest avenues for further study in a field that some will feel consists of mostly familiar ground; and it may be simply that he knows so much as to be aware of what he doesn't yet know.

In any case, it is clear that after half a century, with the war beginning to fade from living memory, it has still not been fully processed through all the relevant national consciousnesses. Weinberg's global approach may be seen as the first of a new type of history.

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