Thomas R. Murphy

The title does not fit this book. John Lukacs has written a valuable account of the events of the period 1939 to 1945, particularly in Europe. But readers pondering how the world of 2010 actually bears the long-term influence of the war will not find much commentary on that issue beyond fears some issues could recur. The book remains valuable, however, for what it really is: a wise historian’s synthesis of his career work on World War II itself.

Lukacs is most insightful in analyzing Adolf Hitler’s decisions of 1941. The declarations of war on the Soviet Union and the United States were not irrational, but calculated. Hitler knew he could no longer win the war but also realized that he did not necessarily have to lose it. His hope was to force a negotiated peace by breaking up the alliance against him.

Hitler’s calculations were wrong. Britain would not agree to his domination of Europe in exchange for the preservation of its overseas empire. Germany could not force the British and Americans to terms by defeating the Soviet Union. Above all, Hitler never grasped the bedrock conviction of his enemies that his regime must be destroyed. Many conservative Germans, however, who were not themselves Nazis shared this blindness. Lukacs discusses a “two-war idea,” whose adherents regretted Germany’s conflict with Britain and the United States but advocated a crusade against the Communist Soviet Union. One such advocate was the recently beatified Clemens von Galen, bishop of Münster. Conservative scientists, like the nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg, dreamed of persuading the Americans and the British to switch sides and so sought to retain communications with their colleagues in the West. Lukacs speculates that Heisenberg evaluated the Danish physicist Niels Bohr as a potential conduit in that regard. However, while the Germans were not wrong to think the alliance against their country would eventually break up, they underestimated its capacity to outlast Hitler’s war.

Continuing his theme of Hitler as more calculating than irrational, Lukacs presents Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews as more complicated than appreciated. He prefers the word “Judeophobia” to “anti-Semitism,” believing that Hitler’s racism was always tempered by populism. His public rhetoric and his private comments on the Jews, while both unfailingly hateful, were often contradictory. For example, Hitler did not really believe that the Soviet government was under the influence of Jewish intellectuals. He consistently allowed scattered numbers of Jews to migrate to neutral countries when it served his goal of undermining the alliance against him. Basically, Hitler was an advocate of the German Volk—his extermination of the Jews was motivated not just by hatred but also by the thought that eliminating them would somehow help Germans.

In considering the origins of the cold war, Lukacs traces three reasons for Franklin Roosevelt’s relatively conciliatory attitude toward the Soviet Union: confidence in his ability to charm any adversary, an inclination to regard Winston Churchill as an outmoded imperialist and a belief that the Soviet system could mature into something genuinely egalitarian. Josef Stalin himself understood that Communism had little appeal beyond Russia and so sought to seal off Eastern Europe from Western influence, a motivation that the United States only slowly grasped because neither Roosevelt nor Harry Truman gave undivided attention to Eastern Europe until very late. It was Churchill who best understood Stalin’s essential continuity with tsarist nationalism.

Lukacs praises Rainbow Five, a strategic prewar plan of the United States that envisioned the defeat of Germany as a priority over the defeat of Japan. Lukacs discloses that the military reached this preference even before Roosevelt himself did. One wonders: How does this revelation illuminate the theory that the United States allowed the attack on Pearl Harbor so as to ignite the war with Japan?

The relatively brief discussion of the war in the Pacific points out that President Truman altered Roosevelt’s formula of unconditional surrender enough that Japan could stop fighting, in the assurance that its monarchy would endure. Lukacs rightly ranks this alteration alongside the atomic bomb as a reason for Japan’s surrender. Truman’s decision contrasts favorably with President Wilson’s unwise demand in 1918 that the Kaiser abdicate. Lukacs thinks that abolition of the German monarchy gave rise to Hitler, but does not adequately explain this judgment.

Fearing a resurgent coalition in Europe of nationalism and socialism, Lukacs states that the association of these two philosophies is much more potent than the Communist association of socialism with internationalism. His fear leads him to observe that had Hitler not tried to exterminate the Jews, his reputation might have proven capable of limited revision by now. Lukacs is especially worried about a national socialist revival in Europe. He distinguishes between “Nazism,” a uniquely Austro-German phenomenon, and a convergence of national and socialist feelings.

The United States, as Lukacs sees it, has a role in preventing that. However, he sees American attention as shifting to its south and west from its east, due to a demographic shift toward a more Latino and Asian population. Lukacs hopes that the deep affinity between American and European civilization will not be lost as a result. He fears that the United States is a nation with a natural bent toward its western frontier, away from Europe, and that its world war and cold war involvement in Europe may have been aberrant. Recent historical research, however, which shows that the United States has throughout its existence received influences from, and directed attention to, neighbors in all four directions would reassure him.

 

Thomas Murphy, S.J., is a professor of history at Seattle University, Seattle, Wash.

Comments

ROBERT OCONNELL | 4/30/2010 - 4:53pm
Fr. Murphy wrote such a fascinating review that I am going to blow my allowance and buy another book!