Top Five: Books on the Global March to War


1. By the end of 1941, Britain was both the largest empire in the world and a nation struggling for its survival. He ruled over a quarter of the earth’s surface of the world; his navy controlled the most critical sea lanes. Yet the resources on which its people depended for a living and its armed forces to fight came from distant colonies and, increasingly, from the United States. The fleet that carried these supplies was very vulnerable to German submarines. Unlike its enemies in Europe and its potential Japanese antagonist in Asia, Britain had to fight on two continents and two giant oceans. To understand the complex and precarious situation in which Great Britain found itself at the end of 1941, the first volume of “Britain’s War” by Daniel Todman is a must read. It stretches across the British Empire and is as attentive to social history and the lives of ordinary people as it is to high politics and grand strategy. As Mr. Todman explains, from 1939 to 1941, “British force determined, for the last time, the future of the world.” As the world descended into a “truly global war,” Britain, though still indispensable to the fight against the Axis, was forced to face its loss of world preeminence, not its enemies, but to his new superpower allies.

Japan 1941

By Eri Hotta (2013)

2. The prevailing view among Japanese leaders in 1941 was that, with its campaign in China stalled, the country could not afford another war. The conflict with America, whose industrial output was estimated to be 74 times that of Japan, was considered particularly perilous. Yet when the Imperial Conference met to decide on war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands, all of the Japanese leadership united in support. Eri Hotta helps us understand why. The proud national pride encouraged the Japanese rulers to believe that, despite the lack of natural resources, their nation was destined to dominate East Asia. While most hoped to achieve this goal through diplomacy, the rulers eventually became prisoners of their own belligerent rhetoric. None of them was willing to stop the escalation into war for fear of being responsible for Japan missing its moment of greatness. As the foremost Japanese sociologist, Masao Maruyama, said of the country’s leaders soon after their disastrous defeat: “Although they wanted war, they tried to avoid it; while wanting to avoid it, they deliberately chose the path that led to it.

Fateful choices

By Ian Kershaw (2007)

3. The war that engulfed almost the entire planet in 1942 was in part caused by great demographic and geoeconomic forces that created competition and conflict between the great powers. But it was also the consequence of specific policies carried out by individual leaders. Of the 10 decisions made in 1940-41 that Ian Kershaw talks about, one that has particularly puzzled historians is Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States Already bogged down in Russia, with no means of attacking the homeland the United States, and with Americans distracted by the new Pacific War, why would Hitler initiate formal hostilities against such a powerful enemy? Mr. Kershaw demonstrates that the decision was not as confusing as it first appears. As one of the Nazi dictator’s most insightful biographers, he provides new insight into the psychological dimensions that pushed Hitler to war with the United States and the propaganda calculations behind it. Yet, as he concludes, the imbalance of power between the two sides meant that Hitler’s declaration was “doomed from the start.”

December 1941

By Evan Mawdsley (2011)

4. A few fortnights transformed the world as profoundly as the first two weeks of December 1941. Evan Mawdsley’s strategic history of this period is particularly insightful on the struggle for Moscow, as befits a distinguished historian of Russia. On December 1, Hitler’s troops were out of town; the Soviet army appeared on the verge of collapse. Stalin could not expect much help from besieged Britain, which seemed unable to return its soldiers to mainland Europe. Nazi forces seemed poised to carry out Hitler’s boast that “never before has a gigantic empire been shattered and defeated in less time than the Soviet Union has been this time around.” By mid-December, however, the Red Army was reborn. The Germans were now being told by their leaders that they faced “a far superior enemy in terms of manpower and materiel” on “the longest front of all time.” Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s first campaign to eliminate the Soviets from the war, had failed.

A feeling of power

By John A. Thompson (2015)

5. Historians continue to debate whether, but for the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war, the United States would have entered either conflict on its own. John Thompson’s thought-provoking study argues that President Roosevelt, in rejecting isolationism and pledging to help the Allies, was motivated less by the need to protect America’s physical security or economic concerns than by the a feeling that with immense power came the responsibility to create a more favorable country. world. This broad conception of the national interest underpinned Roosevelt’s decision, supported by public opinion, to make the United States “the arsenal of democracy” and to wage an undeclared naval war in the Atlantic. . Yet Hitler’s dominance over Europe was insufficient to persuade the Americans to become a full belligerent. It was only after the direct assault on Japan and Hitler’s action four days later that the United States was decisively engaged in the war and its rulers were able to deploy the might of the nation. to create a new international order.

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