A World at Arms

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Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, 1994, Reprint, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 1178, $34.95. Paperback: ISBN 0-521-55879-4. Cloth: ISBN 0521443172


Gerhard Weinberg’s book is a lengthy and comprehensive account of the origins, events, and outcome of World War II. He shows how the war was truly global by stressing the interconnectedness of events in the European and Pacific theaters. He analyzes the thinking of world leaders as they reacted to events and attempted to choose courses of action while operating in the fog of war. He demonstrates convincingly the determination of Hitler to follow a plan based on his vision of Germany developed in his early years. He rejects revisionist arguments that Hitler did not really want to go to war with England, that Europe stumbled into war rather than being forced into it by Hitler, or that Hitler deviated from his plan when he invaded Russia.

In discussing the effects of WW I on Germany, Weinberg disputes popular accounts of German weakness caused by severe surrender terms. Instead, he states that Germany refused to pay reparations, deliberately destroyed its currency to demonstrate its inability to pay, offset any payments it did make through borrowing abroad, and finally repudiated those debts. The idea that Germany “had been most terribly crushed by the peace settlement” was a “popular delusion” that remains “the staple pabulum of history textbooks today.” (p. 15) Weinberg maintains that Germany was weakened less by the war than her European enemies and thus was relatively stronger in 1919 than in 1913. He goes on to say that only by putting the peace settlement in realistic perspective “can one begin to understand how a period of supposed German enfeeblement could culminate within less than two decades in a Europe, even a world, again terrified of German might.” (p. 16)

Hitler came to power in part because of the “stab-in-the-back” legend promoted to explain Germany’s defeat without ever being invaded and despite having armies in the field. Once Hitler was in power, he began to implement the polices he had long planned. Weinberg asserts that Hitler’s plan was always to invade Russia and eventually make war against the US. The aim of National Socialist policy was land expansion, which could only be achieved by war. As Germany expanded, other racial groups both at home and in conquered lands were to be expelled or exterminated. The bulk of the land to be conquered was in Russia, but Germany first had to secure its position in Europe before driving East.

Hitler prepared for war by reaching a secret treaty with the Soviet Union in August, 1939, partitioning Eastern Europe and assuring that Stalin would not interfere with his war in Western Europe. As Weinberg shows, Hitler never had any interest in a peaceful response to his demands. “Hitler invariable rejected out of hand all British efforts at a general settlement, . . . precisely because it was the status quo that he intended to destroy.” (26) He looked on the Munich agreement of 1938 as a big mistake that delayed the war he wanted. “Hitler looked at it as a terrible disappointment then and as the greatest error of his career later.” (p. 28) Germany planned to destroy Poland first, then attack France and Britain, and then move against Russia. The agreement with Russia bought time and was aimed to discourage Britain and France from aiding Poland. But when Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war. According to Weinberg, Hitler’s aim was not to revise the terms of the peace settlement of 1919 but instead was to dramatically alter the world balance by seizing new land, “Lebensraum,” in which the inhabitants were to be enslaved or exterminated and replaced by Germans. “Hitler understood that his aims could be realized only by war.” (45)

As the war began in 1939, the British and French, believing themselves behind in armaments, adopted a defensive strategy. Despite commitments to Poland, neither came to its aid. The plan was to build up forces, blockade Germany, and use naval forces to destroy German shipping. The war began at sea, and it soon became apparent that the British navy had greatly underestimated the ability of the German submarine force to destroy Allied shipping, even though these subs were slow, had to operate on the surface most of the time, and lacked air protection. In May, 1940 Germany invaded Holland and Belgium. The bombing of Rotterdam, a deliberate assault on civilian targets, signaled that traditional restraints on warfare were not to be binding in the modern world. “The restraints on Allied bombing policy were lifted thereafter, and German cities eventually reaped the whirlwind sowed by the Luftwaffe.” (p. 125) German forces quickly reached the English Channel coast, and over 300,000 British and French troops were evacuated at Dunkirk. On June 14 the Germans entered Paris.

The German offensive opened up opportunities for Japan to expand its empire in Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies. Japan had already invaded China. The Japanese assumed that a push into Indo-China would provoke sanctions that would lead Japan to go to war with the US. Planning began for a surprise attack on US naval forces at Pearl Harbor. During lengthy negotiations Japan imposed conditions on the US, which it knew could not be met. On December 7, 1941, Japan struck in an attack designed to eliminate US naval power in the Pacific and thus give Japan a free hand in its plans for conquest. However, as Weinberg points out, “In reality, the Pearl Harbor attack proved a strategic and tactical disaster for Japan.” (p. 261) A large portion of the fleet had been transferred to the Atlantic, and all the carriers were at sea. The battleships sunk were in shallow water, and all but one were eventually repaired and returned to service. The “unprovoked attack in peacetime was guaranteed to unite the American people for war until Japan surrendered,” thus eliminating any possible outcome for Japan other than complete and unconditional surrender. “The attainment of surprise guaranteed defeat, not victory, for Japan.” (p. 262)

Weinberg traces events in different areas. Germany commenced its air war against Britain, while preparing for an invasion. At the same time Germany planned its attack on the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Russia invaded Denmark and Finland. The Japanese signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union in April, 1941. Germany commenced its attack on Russia in June, 1941. It anticipated a quick victory in a short campaign against an unprepared foe, but it soon became apparent that the Germans had vastly underestimated the Russian capabilities and willingness to fight. “The original German plan to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union by stupendous initial blows had failed.” (p. 269) The Germans were defeated at Moscow in December, 1941, and the Russians launched a series of counteroffensives. The war in Russia ground on until the climactic defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad in 1943. From that point on the Russians steadily drove the Germans out of Russia and pushed into Germany itself.

After Pearl Harbor the Japanese continued the war in East Asia. They invaded the Philippines and forced the surrender of American forces on June 9, 1942. The infamous Bataan death march heralded the atrocious treatment of POW’s, which resulted from Japanese contempt for cowardly Westerners who surrendered rather than die honorably in battle. The Japanese took Singapore on February 15, 1942 and then proceeded to conquer Burma, Borneo, and the Netherlands East Indies. At the battle of the Java Sea on February 27-28, 1942, the Allied fleet was destroyed, and Java fell on March 8. They also took Rangoon, New Guinea, the Solomons, and Rabaul as they conquered a new empire. Finally, on May 3-8, 1942, the Japanese advance was halted at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first great carrier battle of the war. On June 4, at the Battle of Midway, the Allies achieved their first victory and destroyed much of the Japanese fleet, paving the way for the beginning of an American counter-offensive. On August 7 the Marines landed on Guadalcanal, and after a brutal six-month battle, took the island.

As the tide was turning against Japan in the Pacific, the Germans under Rommel were driving forward in the Middle East, winning a big victory against the British at Tobruk in May 1942. However, the British regrouped and turned things around, with Montgomery winning a major victory at El Alamein in October. Planning was underway for the invasion of Europe by Allied forces, but the Americans and British differed over the timing, with the British fearing a disaster and wanting to launch other operations first. Stalin was applying pressure for the opening of a second front to take pressure off Russia. At this point Allied aid for Russia was limited to arms and supplies delivered by naval convoys under constant attack by German U-Boats.

U-Boats were grouped into wolf packs, which were very effective in sinking Allied shipping early in the war. However, technological improvements such as radio direction finders and sonar, coupled with the breaking of German codes, greatly enhanced Allied defenses against them. The Allies used the convoy system to group transports under destroyer protection. The introduction in 1943 of escort carriers provided air protection to the convoys that contributed significantly to the defeat of the U-Boats. The Germans designed new types of submarines, which were faster and could stay submerged longer by using snorkels, but they did not become operational before the end of the war.

In November 1942, immediately after the British victory at El Alamein, the Allies launched Operation Torch, landing in French Northwest Africa. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the Allies decided to follow the campaign in North Africa with an invasion of Sicily, ruling out a cross-channel invasion till 1944. At this time the Russians were bringing the siege of Stalingrad to a conclusion with the total defeat of the Germans.

Weinberg discusses the arms used in WW II and traces the progression of improved models of tanks, ships, and planes. The Sherman tank became the standard for armored units. Development of the dive-bomber increased naval air effectiveness, and the P-51 Mustang provided fighter protection for long-range bombers. Battleships proved to be obsolete and were surpassed by the carrier as the dominant ship in naval warfare. Code breaking was an important element in WW II, as the Germans and Allies broke each other’s codes. The Allies triumphed in this competition by breaking the Enigma code. Japanese codes were also broken, most famously when Midway was identified as a target enabling the US Navy to achieve a great victory. The Germans developed the V-1 and V-2 rockets, used against London. Strategic bombing played a major role in Allied strategy, “with that term used as meaning a strike at the enemy’s capacity and willingness to continue in the conflict.” (p. 574) The moral barrier against bombing civilian populations in urban centers was breached early in the war, first by the Germans against London. Massive bombing of German cities became a major aspect of Allied offensive operations, and firebombing of Japanese cities was also carried out on a large scale. Post-war studies showed that strategic bombing was not as effective as thought. As Weinberg says, “the extraordinarily extreme predictions of the advocates of strategic bombing turned out to be erroneous.” (p. 580)

The Allied offensive continued in 1943 with the conquest of Sicily in July and the subsequent invasion of Italy in September. American and British forces advanced up the boot of Italy against German forces, taking Naples in October and after an arduous campaign going on to Rome in June 1944. In the Pacific in 1943, American forces pursued an island-hopping campaign, bypassing Japanese strongholds, moving steadily toward Japan itself. In China the Chinese Nationalist forces collapsed in the summer of 1944, and this meant that “the approach to Japan clearly would not be able to depend on a major base in China.” (p. 640) On June 15, 1944, the marines landed on Saipan. The naval Battle of the Philippine Sea, also known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, was a major Allied victory, securing the Saipan landing. Soon after Tinian and Guam were taken.

On the Eastern front in early 1944, Soviet forces retook the Crimea and made major advances everywhere against Axis troops. On the Western front the Allies mobilized for the invasion of France, launched on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Allied armies advanced steadily across France, pausing in the Fall to regroup and resupply for the final assault on Germany itself. The Germans launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes on December 16 and made major advances, creating a bulge in Allied lines, which gave the Battle of the Bulge its name. The Allies held and drove the Germans back. They then drove into Germany and linked up with the Russians at Torgau on April 25, 1945. The Russians advanced on Berlin, which fell after a bloody battle. The Germans surrendered on May 7.

Allied leaders met at Yalta to make decisions on post-war Europe and plan for the formation of the United Nations. The Soviets insisted on large reparations from Germany, recovery of lands previously lost to the Japanese, and other territorial adjustments. The desire of the Allies to involve Russia in the war against Japan led them to make concessions. As Weinberg points out, “In subsequent years, the Yalta Conference came to be denounced as a sell-out to the Soviet Union, especially in the United States . . ..” (P. 808) However, Weinberg says, “Perhaps it would be more reasonable to take a view which sees the three Allies as trying hard for an accommodation of divergent ideologies and interests . . . .” (P. 809)

In the Pacific in 1944, the Allies invaded the Philippines in October, and the navy won the greatest naval battle in history at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Saturation bombing of Japanese cities, including the massive firebombing of Tokyo, took place in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. The fight for Okinawa was the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific War. .”Over 100,000 Japanese soldiers had died on the island as had tens of thousands of Okinawa civilians. American casualties numbered 75,000.” (P. 883) Kamikaze suicide airplane attacks caused 5,000 naval casualties and destroyed several ships. The refusal to surrender and the desperate suicide attacks of the Japanese were an ominous sign of what was to come in the planned invasion of the mainland. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, coupled with the Soviet declaration of war on August 8, precipitated the surrender by the Japanese, with the formal ceremony held on the Missouri on September 2.

Weinberg discusses the debate over use of the atomic bomb but does not go into detail about the deliberations. He seems to feel that the decision was justified by Japanese refusal to respond to calls for surrender combined with assurance of Imperial government continuity. (P. 889) He agrees with the view that dropping the atom bomb was justified by the belief that “the invasion of Japan was expected to be horrendously costly.” (p. 872)

He concludes with a discussion of the costs and impact of the war. The war caused 60 million deaths, including 25 million in the Soviet Union, 15 million in China, 6 million in Poland, 6 million Jews, 4 million Germans, and 2 million Japanese. Britain had 400,000 deaths, and the US had 300,000.


Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Weinberg provides an extensive account of WW II linking events in all theaters and showing how they were interrelated. He uses extensive primary sources, while pointing out that much archival material from the Soviet Union remains unavailable. He does a remarkable job in explaining the motives and ambitions of world leaders. While nearly 1000 pages long, the book avoids too much mind-numbing detail.

In several areas Weinberg breaks new ground by challenging traditional historical positions, For example, he opposes the view that WW II was brought on by excessively harsh treatment of Germany after WW I, finding instead that Germany either ignored or found ways to alleviate sanctions and emerged stronger in 1919 relative to other European countries than she was in 1913. (p. 14-16) He also points out that far from being a mistake the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was always part of Hitler’s plan, although he vastly underestimated the abilities and willingness to fight of the Soviet armed forces. (p.264-267) Stalin never understood that the extension of German living space to include much of the Soviet Union was a basic Nazi goal. According to Weinberg, Stalin’s views were dictated by Marxist-Leninist analysis, which generated “the stereotypical Marxist perception of Hitler as the tool of monopoly capitalists.” (p. 165) His misassessment of German intentions led to his lack of preparation for the attack.

Weinberg provides a penetrating analysis of German attitudes toward the US. The US played a major part in the final outcome of WW I in retrieving the desperate situation of Britain and France in the spring and summer of 1918 and leading to victory in the fall. However, the Germans came to believe that America’s role in that conflict was a myth. As Weinberg states, “German belief in the stab-in-the-back legend – with its implication for underrating the importance of American involvement in the war – would lead to a grotesque underestimation of United States military potential.” (p. 83) Hitler felt he had nothing to fear from the US. As Weinberg says, “Hitler’s view of the United States was based on an assessment that this was a weak country, incapable because of its racial mixture and feeble democratic government of organizing and maintaining strong military forces.” (p. 86) At the same time, Americans had become persuaded that entry into the war had been a mistake, and they were resolved to stay out of any future European conflicts. As Weinberg describes the initial reaction in the US to the outbreak of war in Europe, “The overwhelming majority blamed Germany for starting the war; the overwhelming majority hoped that Britain and France would win; the overwhelming majority wanted to stay out of the war.” (p. 84)

Weinberg refers in numerous places to the racialist measures adopted by the German government from 1933 on. These began with compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and those with incurable diseases and rapidly progressed to the propagation of “the idea that the incurable should be killed, not cared for.” (p. 97) Weinberg finds that the program of mass murder was carried out “{w}ith the cooperation of important segments of the SS and the German medical professions,” and further finds that “these measures involved not random but systematic violence, not occasional murder but the systematic, bureaucratic selection of categories of people to be killed as a matter of routine.” (p. 96) These activities were only a prelude to the mass murders of Jews, Gypsies, and POW’s that occurred throughout the war. In the campaign against the Soviet Union, the Germans implemented plans to kill POW’s through execution, starvation, exposure, and disease. Weinberg relates, “By February 1942, of the 3.9 million Soviet soldiers captured up to then by the Germans, the vast majority, some 2.8 million were dead.” (p. 300) Weinberg disputes the view that only rabid Nazis participated in the slaughter, stating, “careful scrutiny of the contemporary evidence makes it clear that this atrocity of vast proportions was carried out with the willing, even enthusiastic, participation of German army, police, and civilian authorities.” (p. 300) Mass shootings, gas vans, and eventually extermination camps characterized the German treatment of POW’s and racial groups deemed unfit to live in a German world ruled by the “master race.” Discovery of the death camps in 1945 confirmed the worst rumors of Nazi atrocities.

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