A World at Arms – Gerhard L Weinberg

This is the book I quoted from previously while in the midst of reading it, and have now finished. Up front, I have to say it’s not a book I could review in any meaningful way – it’s way too much of a solid tome of hard, historical information – but I wanted to record some brief thoughts and opinions.

First, to confirm, it’s a single volume history of World War 2. Not just Europe and the Pacific; a global history. For example, events in Iran and Iraq (which Weinberg argues were more significant than normally presented) are described with a clear connection to the conflict as a whole. As another example, Weinberg’s narrative never loses sight of the interaction of (in particular) the German and Japanese war efforts, military and political. The Japanese, it appears, had a better insight as to the capability of the Soviets. But their pleas to the Germans to change their approach, though backed up by solid reasoning and good strategic vision, were ignored. The Germans went where Hitler pointed, and no ally was allowed to materially interfere with that master plan.

There is surely some symbolic significance in the fact that the most voluminous secret file of the German embassy in Rome is the one on the “purchase” in Italy of art objects for Hitler and Goring. [Page 212]

Second, while Weinberg’s narrative is steady, without being boring, it is reinforced in its quality in two ways: the breadth of the narrative, and the seasoning of the facts with his sharp and incisive commentary. In other words, not only does Weinberg ensure he covers the whole story, but he adds valuable insight.

For a month the approximately 20,000 Japanese in the city [Manila] fought the Americans, who had to batter their way forward block by block and house by house…

MacArthur refused to allow air support so that the Americans relied on artillery; whether this saved civilian lives as MacArthur intended is doubtful. At the end of the fighting over 12,000 American soldiers and over 16,000 Japanese soldiers had died in the street fighting. The Japanese massacres and the battle had cost over 100,000 Filipinos their lives and left Manila the most damaged Allied capital after Warsaw. [Pages 862-863]

The book’s last chapter is ‘Conclusions: the cost and impact of war’. It is a masterpiece and if you want to take a shortcut, read only that!

During the fighting, reports on Nazi atrocities had led the Allies to announce that those responsible would be held to account. Repeatedly grisly news stories of new outrages had rebuilt interest in this subject, but nothing so placed the horrors committed by the Third Reich in front of the public in the Western allied nations as clearly as the arrival of their troops at concentration and labor camps in 1945. The Red Army had overrun some of the great murder factories earlier, and pictures had been printed in the United States and Great Britain; but somehow these places seemed far away, even if the numbers murdered in them were vastly greater than in the camps in western and central Germany. No one had to convince the Russians of the awful nature of the Nazi regime; now the American and British peoples received a lesson on the reality of what they had been fighting against that was far more dramatic than the worst reports they had heard or read. [Page 834]

The book, of course, is full to the brim with Weinberg’s sources; there are in-depth notes, a reasonable index and a chunky bibliographic essay. The maps are the weakest part of the book and barely fall into the serviceable category.

I took my time reading this, and enjoyed it the more because of that. Sometimes it was heavy going, but the effort was worthwhile. It’s not for a casual reader, but I would recommend it for anyone with a serious interest in history.

As a history book, it stands out from the crowd. As a history of WW2, it may be the best.

A World at ArmsGerhard L Weinberg; Cambridge University Press. Second edition – ISBN 978-0-521-61826-7