The Future of the Second World War

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The Future of the Second World War


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


NO historical topic has been more intensively studied during the last six decades than the Second World War which began just seventy years ago. It is almost certain that the 1939-45 conflict will continue to be a major focus of research and discussion during the next seventy years, though the main feature both of scholarly enquiry and presentation in the popular media will probably be the reinterpretation of what are already the key themes in the war's historiography. We can of course only speculate what these reinterpretations will be but they may well be along the following lines.

1. It has been the fashion in recent years to give more emphasis than hitherto to the Soviet contribution to the war. It is claimed that anything up to 80 per cent of Germany's military casualties were on the Eastern Front. But this leaves out of the account the hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers killed or made prisoners of war in Africa, Japanese losses prior to the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the million plus civilian fatalities resulting from air raids on German and Japanese cities, and the dependence of Soviet forces on supplies from Britain and especially the United States: the Red Army was, by and large, carried to Berlin in lorries sent half way round the world in American ships.

It should also be remembered that it was a hi-tech war. Much of the Red Army's native-designed equipment was excellent--captured stocks of their anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns were used on a large scale by the Germans, and when the celebrated automobile and tank designer Ferdinand Porsche was asked to design a tank as good as the Russian T-34 he recommended that it simply be copied--but there was no counterpart on the Eastern Front of the war of radar and radar-jamming fought in the night skies of western Europe, or the hi-tech battles between Germany's submarines and the Royal Navy in the Atlantic, or the interception and analysis of the German armed forces' machine-coded signals traffic ('Ultra'), or the development of the atom bomb in America or of the ballistic missile in Germany. The archetypal high-cost technology weapon of the period was the four-engined bomber. The Soviets built fewer than a hundred during the Second World War, whereas Britain and America built more than 49,000.

Even if the German army had not been bogged down in Russia, the interplay of geography and logistics would have prevented it from blocking the landing of the Western Allies in Italy, and would have made it difficult to stop the landings in Normandy. The advance from the Normandy beachheads would undoubtedly have been much slower if the Red Army had not been advancing from the opposite quarter but by this stage Germany's cities and factories and fuel supplies were completely at the mercy of the western Allies' overwhelming superiority in the air.

As post-Soviet Russia struggles to establish its role in the twenty-first century, the process of evaluating Soviet Russia's successes and failures will continue to occupy the attention of commentators, and Soviet Russia's contribution to the defeat of Germany and her allies will undoubtedly remain a key issue in any discussion of Soviet social and economic achievement. Assessment of the Soviet role in the Second World War also relates to assessment of Britain's contribution: the possible overvaluing of the Red Army's part in the war involves an undervaluing of what our own grandparents did. Since 1945 Britain has declined economically and militarily--perhaps also socially and intellectually--relative to many other countries and it does not help understanding of this decline, or attempts to remedy it, if we pretend that Britain was not, between 1763 and 1914, the dominant power, not only in Europe but in the world, and that in the Second World War the British people made a plausible bid--initially in opposition to Soviet policy--at reasserting their world leadership.

2.

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