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TCW Christmas Reads: Challenging the World War II orthodoxy


World War II: The First Culture War, by Robert Oulds; The Bruges Group (2023)

I’M OLD enough to remember when the Second World War was relived daily in the playground, with less popular kids deployed as Germans. Three decades after the conflict ended, the Battle of Britain and D-Day lingered in boys’ imagination, as they read jingoistic comics such as Victor and Warlord, and watched the epic films The Dam BustersThe Longest Day, and (last of the genre in the late 1970s) A Bridge too Far. But they were the last of the ‘baby boomers’, succeeded by Generation X. The war, as taught to children today, has changed from a British perspective to a moral narrative, with the main event the Holocaust and the perpetrators the most evil regime ever.

Robert Oulds’ critical account of World War Two is subtitled ‘The first culture war’. Prevailing history is laden with assumptions presented as indisputable facts, and popular historians tend not to challenge accepted truth too radically. A notable exception is Antony Beevor, whose thoroughly researched Stalingrad, for example, told the harrowing story of the siege from a balanced and human aspect (explaining the German generals’ decisions objectively, without virtue-signalling).  

Oulds, however, is more interested in the bigger picture: the battle between free-market liberalism and Teutonic orderliness. The Anglosphere triumphed, although this was reinforced as American geopolitical, economic and cultural hegemony. Winston Churchill, whom Oulds portrays as a national hero, won a lasting legacy for Great Britain as the only nation to resist the Third Reich as their tanks rolled across Europe.  The empire was in managed decline, but the British retained major global influence through ‘soft power’.

Hitler, according to Oulds, had no realistic plan to invade Britain. The German war machine was not as invincible as believed. The chapter entitled ‘Lightning Strikes’ describes the Blitzkrieg as a swift and successful tactic, but Panzer tanks often broke down and were expensive to repair; they ran out of fuel before they could stop the British Expeditionary Force from escaping across the English Channel. Tested in the Spanish Civil War, the Luftwaffe were a potent force, with advanced aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 109 fighter, but the initially terrifying ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber was obsolete, and the Battle of Britain showed the limitations of German air power. The German navy had warships that looked awesome, but were a liability needing safe harbours. Eventually the devastating U-boats were tamed by sonic detection. 

Certainly Britain stood in isolation, with neighbouring Ireland remaining neutral (and the IRA collaborating with the Nazis). Yet the tide was already turning before the US entered the war at the end of 1941, as the British were able to compete with Germany due to a solid manufacturing base, as Oulds explains:  

‘At the time Britain had the second biggest car industry in the world, its creative industrialists quickly adapted its factories to produce tanks for the war effort. As the war progressed Britain had enough spare capacity to send 3,000 tanks to Russia to help them in their desperate fight for survival. The United Kingdom was more than able to defend itself from attack. An attack that could not succeed because by 1942 Germany had built just five capital ships compared with the great shipbuilding island nation that was the UK, which had put 78 comparable vessels to sea.’

In conventional history, every action by Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese emperor is cast as folly and delusional hubris. But Oulds shows rational motives for the invasion of Russia and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, the Germans and Japanese paid a heavy price for picking a fight with the overwhelming might of the US and Stalin’s determined defenders of the Motherland. But at the time, there was method in such retrospectively defined madness.

I can assure the TCW readership of a stimulating read, with nuggets of fascinating information on every page. Nonetheless, some sceptics may think Oulds does not go far enough in challenging the orthodoxy. For me, two events at the end of the war in Europe come to mind. 

First is the suspected massacre of surrendered German troops. In March 1945 General Eisenhower designated German PoWs ‘disarmed enemy combatants’, thus bypassing international rules on their treatment. One and a half million uniformed soldiers were held in open fields, guarded by American troops. There was no food, no shelter and no medicine, and after a week the Rheinwiesenlager (Rhine meadow camps) were filled with corpses. The Swiss Red Cross was prevented from visiting the camps. Eisenhower, of Swedish-Jewish background, wrote in a letter to his wife ‘God, I hate the Germans.’ Patton, his counterpart but a magnanimous victor, was disgusted. Despite the intricate research of James Baxque in Other Losses (1989) the story is absent from official records, and Oulds told me that he doubts its veracity.

Then there was Potsdam, where for a fortnight in July 1945, Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman (US president since F D Roosevelt died in April) held a peace conference. The palace was out of bounds for journalists; only the formal declaration was reported. Details gradually emerged, but it was not until decades later that the transcripts were released. As Charles Mee described in Meeting at Potsdam (1975), although the victorious leaders were ostensibly planning peace, they ensured the beginning of the Cold War.

The Big Three were really the Big Two. Looming over the conference was a secret, divulged to Churchill but not the Russian delegation: the atomic bomb was about to be unleashed on Japan. But as Mee indicated, the most important meetings at Potsdam were the unofficial discussions between Stalin and Truman. Is it possible that a duplicitous deal was struck on the atom bomb that could explain why the USSR won such generous terms for controlling eastern Europe?

Conspiracy theories have proliferated in recent years, as almost any historical event, from the Titanic to the Twin Towers, is revised with backward logic based on putative power dynamics. Was the First World War an instrument of eugenics? For Oulds, the Second World War was a necessary fight for cultural supremacy, as a central European force threatened the Anglo-American socio-political paradigm. But nothing lasts for ever.

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