To the victors, the obloquy

Armagedon - Germany, Hitler and World War II
January 5, 1996

Armageddon, it will be recalled, was the site of the last battle between the whore of Babylon and her earthly allies and the seven angels of vengeance sent down to mete out the wrath of God (Revelations 16). It was a struggle, so St John wrote, without its equal: a mighty earthquake, the cities of the nations collapsed, the mountains levelled, men struck down by hail stones the weight of a talent each, and much more of the same. Out of the ultimate chaos of the battle of Good and Evil came a new heaven and a new earth.

As a metaphor this works well enough for the second world war, but it is a singularly inappropriate title for Clive Ponting's passionless and pointless book. Not only does the flat, factually dense prose offer us no sense at all of a struggle of this proportion and intensity, no sense of the drama and depth of experience inherent in the conflict, but Ponting himself is keen to overturn any comfortable idea that the war was a contest between good and evil, or that any New Jerusalem emerged at its end. Ponting's approach to the war is that of the modern relativist: who won seems to matter little (let alone how they won); there are varieties of evil on both sides; the war settled nothing, but simply produced the cold war, and more posturing and hypocrisy from the winners of the hot one.

There is, of course, a good deal to be said for revisiting the cosy myths of the war experience. Historians have for years been peeling away the established image of the war. Ponting is right to stress that the war was won on the eastern front, or at least the land war; he is right to be sceptical about British fighting qualities, and to recognise that even in the face of defeat the German forces, like the Japanese, fought with astonishing, often fanatical determination. He is following a well-trodden path in exploring the tensions between the three major Allies. He is censorious, as we all can be now, about the Stalinist regime.

That is about the extent of the virtues. They are greatly outweighed by Ponting's vices as an historian. The book has no footnotes, and a paltry bibliography, so that it is impossible for the critical or curious reader to know what bolsters his statistics or contentious assertions, with which the text is littered. The chapters, dealing with the war thematically (if that is the right word), offer a long series of often unconnected descriptions of aspects of the war, linked together by passages that suggest all too clearly that Pointing has little idea about the questions to ask of his material, or of the questions that other historians have found it worthwhile to discuss. There is almost no analysis. Assertion takes the place of explanation; the book is a list of effects, not causes. This makes for a glum read at best, and it will leave any reader with an abiding sense that almost every question has been begged.

These are harsh judgements, but any one of Ponting's chapters will bear them out. The most telling is the chapter on "Combat". There is in fact very little on combat at all. Throughout the book the way in which the war was fought, and the reasons why one side prevailed over the other get almost no attention. Nor is the nature of the combat experience, the sort of work done very well by John Keegan or John Ellis, explored in any serious way. When Ponting pauses to discuss tank warfare it is to blame the British and Americans for not massing their tanks together in 1944 and battering the enemy into submission. This misses entirely the slow evolution during the war of the multi-arm division, which both sides came to recognise as a better combat unit than one made up of tanks alone. Nor does it take account of the great improvement in antitank technology, or of defensive tactics (which certainly helped the Soviet forces to win Kursk, and made the Germans in France in 1944 a much more formidable threat than Ponting realises). When he discusses losses he observes that the Americans took few prisoners in the Pacific, without explaining why the military ethos in Japan made surrender almost impossible. He dismisses the Red Army ("inept and self-defeating Soviet tactics"), but never stops to explore the very great improvement in both tactical and operational performance during the war. These tactics were not only not "self-defeating", but defeated the best army in the world.

If there is one consistent pattern to the combat chapter, and to its companions, it is to be found in Ponting's apparent desire to show the Allied powers in as bad a light as historical imagination will allow. There are two-and-a-half pages devoted in the chapter to British and American racism in the armed forces, but only one and a half paragraphs to the Wehrmacht! The only atrocity described in gruesome detail is a Soviet one in East Prussia (there are more to come), but there is no attempt to describe what German soldiers and policemen were doing in the East earlier in the war. Throughout the book Ponting appears at pains to show Germany in particular in a rosier light - German rule in western Europe was not so bad (Oradour apart), the regime did not have too many in its concentration camps, German rule in Poland is shown to be relatively mild compared with the savage Bolshevik (and Ponting seems happy to go along with the German army's view that Warsaw, and later Rotterdam, were within the "zone of operations", and therefore legitimate bombing targets). During the war the British starved Indians, bamboozled their gullible and ill-informed population into fighting at all, used forced labour like the Germans, set up concentration camps, and so on, and on and on. The mystery is how Ponting's Allies, ill-led, demoralised, vicious and ignorant, prevailed at all. His conclusion is banal: "brute force".

The dismissive view of the Allies as little better than the Axis is consistent with Ponting's other published work on Churchill and Britain in 1940. The effort to paint the Germans as grey rather than black puts Ponting in some awkward company. He can hardly be prepared to argue that he could have lived with an Axis victory in 1945 as comfortably as he has lived with the Allied victory since. No one would suggest that Ponting is a potential fellow-traveller, or would have welcomed peace in 1940, or would have preferred there to be no war at all in 1939. But just where he does stand on these issues, as a committed relativist and indefatigable revisionist, is surely open to question.

I take the view that, warts and all, an Allied victory in 1945 was to be preferred to the racist imperialism of Germany and Japan. This may be the view of soft liberalism, but it is a view that seems to me to be both rational and just. St John would have understood. Gerhard Weinberg, in a new collection of his essays on Hitler and the second world war, understands too. He is harsh on the German army where Ponting is mild; he is clear about the extent of German responsibility - or rather Hitler's - and he has sensitive and informed things to say about the Jewish question. The collection suffers from some of the defects of the genre. There is a good deal of repetition. Some of the pieces are short transcripts of public speeches which have a rather bland and grand feel to them. There is a coherence based on the things that have always interested Weinberg, but his essays do not add very much to the two books on Hitler's foreign policy and the vast World at Arms, from which some of the essays here have been extracted.

Weinberg is a scrupulous scholar, with his feet firmly planted on an archival foundation. He is not much concerned with social or economic history, nor much with the culture or the mentalities of the age he writes about. There are things here to argue about. He imposes considerably more coherence on Hitler's strategy than most historians would be willing to accept; he is confident that Hitler wanted a war with Britain and France in 1939 as a preliminary to war with the USSR, though the evidence for this is at best ambiguous; finally, like Ponting, Weinberg insists that the Germans had a relatively easy war on the home front. This flies in the face of a great deal of recent scholarship on economic mobilisation or on social conditions. To take one example, the employment of women in Germany during the war. Germany mobilised throughout the conflict a larger proportion of its female population and a higher proportion of its workforce was female, than was the case in Britain or the United States. By the end of the war over 50 per cent of the native German labour force, in city and village, was female. German living standard (ie access to food and consumer goods) fell considerably faster and further than in Britain, even between 1939 and 1941. The so-called "Blitzkrieg economy" was a statistical illusion, invented by the American bombing survey in 1945.

These are quibbles. Weinberg's book is the fruit of a lifetime of serious scholarship, where Ponting's is opportunistic and ill-judged. I hope that Weinberg will forgive me if I add that the most absorbing essay in the whole collection was the last one, in which he gives a dire and timely warning that unless governments do something to preserve the poor quality paper of this century's archives, or to standardise material only available through electronic retrieval, the primary source for the historians of the future will once again be archaeology. This may well be overstating the case, but it is a case worth making with force. For anyone who has handled the Third Reich's crumbling potato paper, this is an immediate problem. Weinberg's solution is to put everything than can be on to non-deteriorating microfilm. This is urgent but expensive, and governments will no doubt respond in markedly different ways. In the long run the sheer survivability of records may distort the history of the second world war as surely as any piece of self-conscious revisionism.

Richard Overy is professor of modern history, King's College, London, and author of Why the Allies Won.

Armagedon: The Second World War

Author - Clive Ponting
ISBN - 1 85619 478 7
Publisher - Sinclair-Stevenson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 312

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