World War II: A New History

February 25, 2010

Author: Evan Mawdsley

Edition: First

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 498

Price: £50.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780521845922 and 1608435

Was the Second World War really a world war - and when and where did it start? Evan Mawdsley argues that the war began in China in the summer of 1937 and this underlines his determination to see both the war in Asia (and the Pacific) and the war in Europe as "a global whole, both in its causes and in the way in which it was fought". His overarching explanation of the war is that it was a clash between the powers representing the "old order" and those demanding a "new order".

The result is a book that gives equal coverage to the Asian and the European wars and is less dominated than most accounts by the "great dictators", Hitler and Stalin. Whether there was in fact one global conflict or two great wars, one fought in Europe and its periphery and the other in Asia and connected by the participation in both of Britain and the US, is debatable as Germany and Japan were allies in name but not in practice. The old order/new order interpretation works well in describing the origins of the war or wars in both hemispheres but there are problems and paradoxes when it comes to describing the eventual alliances and the outcome of the war: the Soviet Union became a member of the "Grand Alliance", and it is stretching things a bit to consider it as "a satisfied power" in the late 1930s; as the author notes, although the old-order powers may have been victorious, a new world order did emerge after the war. Whatever the reservations about these assumptions, this is a brilliant account and analysis of the military history of the Second World War that constitutes an important contribution to the study as well as to the teaching of the subject. Mawdsley manages to concisely and cogently describe complex campaigns, the achievements and mistakes of generals, and the relative economic and productive capacities of the participants.

A major debate among historians is the degree to which the outcome of the war was determined by the economic resources of the participants and the size and firepower of the forces that could be assembled or by the skills of generals and the calibre of armies. As Mawdsley demonstrates, professionalism, skill and a bit of luck enabled Germany to win the battle for France in 1940 but a quick victory over the Soviet Union was always beyond the resources that Germany was able to muster in 1941. Japan could mount a "wild show" after Pearl Harbor but never had the productive power to match the US. Mawdsley mentions, but probably wisely refrains from exploring, the counterfactual question as to whether things would have been different if Japan had chosen to go north against the Soviet Union instead of south in 1941.

Who is it for? Anyone interested in the military and strategic history of the Second World War and university students studying the subject.

Presentation: A really well-designed book with chapters both chronological and thematic and text punctuated with apposite illustrations, maps and boxes of ancillary information.

Would you recommend it? It should be on every reading list for courses, whether surveys or special subject modules, dealing with the Second World War.


Britain and the World in the Twentieth Century: Ever Decreasing Circles

Author: Michael J. Turner

Edition: First

Publisher: Continuum

Pages: 368

Price: £65.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9781441189837 and 11579

An excellent account of the problems that Britain experienced in adjusting and adapting to its decline as a world power in the second half of the 20th century. However, the book's title is somewhat misleading in that Britain's position in the world in the first half of the century is treated largely as a prologue.


The Second World War in Europe

Author: S.P. MacKenzie

Edition: Second revised

Publisher: Pearson Longman

Pages: 184

Price: £14.99

ISBN 9781405846998

A useful introduction to the subject: short, well organised and student friendly.

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