The Storm of War

A New History of the Second World War, Andrew Roberts, Harper.

“If Hitler had not been a National Socialist he would probably not have unleashed the Second World War, but equally he might possibly have won it,” contends Andrew Roberts in his new one-volume history of WWII, arguing that “[M]any of Hitler’s worst strategic blunders were the result of his ideological convictions rather than military necessity.”

It’s this thought-provoking question of whether Hitler could have emerged victorious that drives Roberts’ narrative, which paints a comprehensive picture of the war with an eye toward how events might have gone differently. For one, Roberts examines why Hitler consistently failed to learn from his mistakes, noting that his generals were loath to remind the Führer of past missteps, hardly surprising considering that he was their sole source of prestige and power.

According to the author, Hitler’s “cardinal error of the war” was launching Operation Barbossa (prematurely) in June 1941, offering that a better course of action would have been to take Cairo from the British first, thereby allowing for the capture of the oilfields of Iran and Iraq. Roberts also takes Hitler to task for failing to secure the collaboration of the Japanese against the Soviet Union, which would have forced the Russians to fight on two fronts, thereby drawing scores of defenders away from Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad to protect Siberia and assets in the east.

Less than six months later, Hitler exacerbated those errors by “unnecessarily declaring war on the uninvadable United States,” a “suicidal move,” says the author, one which compounded his failure to appreciate the enviable capacity of American industrial production and its impact on the Allied war effort.

At the same time, Roberts places considerable emphasis on how the Holocaust—apart from the moral issues involved—was a major military mistake, “denuding Germany of millions of potentially productive workers and potential soldiers.” Not to mention Hitler’s blatant disregard for human life (reflected in Nazi ideology), as well as his need for continuous forward momentum, which prevented him from sanctioning even tactically justifiable military retreats.

Of course, in hindsight we know that Hitler had almost no hope of winning WWII anyway, thanks to America’s successful development of atomic weaponry. But if nothing else, more rational pursuit of the war could have either ended or extended the conflict, saving or sacrificing many more lives.

“Analyses of Hitler’s defeat have tended to portray him as a strategic imbecile,” concludes Roberts. “The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi.”