The method in history’s madness

From The Guardian (in 2007):

As with all good ideas, one wonders why this one had not been thought of before. Despite countless books about the second world war, [Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-41 is] the first to examine the key decision-making processes during this crucial early period in sequence, and how fortunate that it is Ian Kershaw bringing his immense knowledge and clarity of thought to the task.

Major wartime decisions often appear either inevitable or idiotic, but that is because we view them in retrospect and often in isolation. Kershaw’s great strength is to explain the emotions as well as the circumstances that framed the choices. And he then shows how one decision affects the next. History may be “one damn thing after another”, but cause and effect is everything.

Kershaw begins with Churchill’s war cabinet in May 1940. French resistance had virtually collapsed and the British army, retreating towards Dunkirk, seemed to be doomed to destruction. French leaders wanted to approach Mussolini to discover what Hitler’s terms would be. The British war cabinet came close to following down that track, mainly influenced by the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, but Churchill and others realised the danger just in time. Even to ask about conditions would undermine any attempt to fight if the terms were unacceptable. Churchill called it “the slippery slope of negotiations”.

Britain’s decision to fight on was crucial to the fate of western Europe. Only America had the power to reverse Nazi conquest, and Britain provided the only base to fight back. Hitler, whose main objective was the total subjugation of the Soviet Union, faced a quandary. Should he attack Britain directly with Operation Sealion? That was too dangerous with the Royal Navy and RAF intact. Should he follow the so-called “peripheral strategy”, of crushing British power in the Mediterranean and Middle East, although it would be impossible to reconcile the conflicting expectations of Mussolini, General Franco and Marshal Pétain? Or should he ignore the Bismarckian taboo of fighting a war on two fronts, and invade the Soviet Union before the United States could intervene? A rapid defeat of the Red Army, he argued, would force Britain to capitulate before Roosevelt could coax a reluctant Congress into all-out support. “It was madness,” concludes Kershaw, “but there was method in it.”

Roosevelt had to keep Britain in the war. The United States, he declared, should be the “great arsenal of democracy”. The first symbolic step was to hand over 50 antiquated destroyers. The next, and incomparably greater one, was Lend-Lease, providing the money and the weapons for the war. FDR suspected he could not carry the country until one of the Axis powers attacked the United States. Churchill was privately exasperated, but it is hard to fault Roosevelt’s instincts and his handling of events.

Mussolini showed the opposite of caution. Feeling patronised by Hitler, he launched a hopelessly inept attack on Greece from Albania without warning Berlin. Hitler was furious that the Balkans should be stirred up at the worst moment. The Wehrmacht then invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in the spring of 1941, which at least secured the southern flank for the invasion of the Soviet Union and protected Romanian oil reserves. Hitler, who remained sceptical of the airborne invasion of Crete in May, was reassured that the Allies could not use it later as a bomber base to attack the Ploesti oilfields. Hitler later claimed that this diversion southwards delayed the opening of Operation Barbarossa with fatal consequences, because the Wehrmacht was unable to reach Moscow before the winter. But Kershaw rightly discounts this. The heavy rains in central Europe that spring prevented the Luftwaffe from deploying to forward airfields.

Stalin, meanwhile, had persuaded himself that Hitler would never invade the Soviet Union before defeating Britain. The Nazi leader played cleverly on this idea, claiming that the troops massing on the border were being concealed there from the RAF while he prepared his assault on southern England. The Soviet dictator did not dare face the truth, because the Red Army was still in such a pitiful state after the purges and the neglect of his own crony, Marshal Voroshilov. He instinctively viewed British warnings of a Nazi attack as a deliberate “provokatsia” to force the Soviet Union to help an imperilled British Empire. Hitler, however, suffered from his own blind spot. He had failed to see any lessons in Japan’s cruel war in China launched in 1937. The vastness of China meant that the imperial army was overstretched, and its conspicuous brutality was counterproductive. It provoked resistance, not submission.

Ironically, the Wehrmacht’s overwhelming defeat of France had been the trigger for Japanese hopes, their “golden opportunity” to seize the French, Dutch and British colonies of southeast Asia. The hubris of the military-dominated Japanese government grew. Its leaders decided to strike south into the Pacific rather than attack the Soviet Union, partly because its army had received a bloody nose in 1939 at Khalkin-Gol from Red Army divisions commanded by General Georgi Zhukov. During the late summer and autumn of 1940, while Hitler began to plan his immense gamble, they considered attacking western colonies on the Pacific rim.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

It appears that PG has been in a Twentieth-Century military history frame of mind today.

While this will not be a permanent focus of TPV, as long-time visitors know, PG is of the opinion that the aftermath of World War II, which began over 80 years ago, continues to have a profound impact on the shape of the word today.

For one thing, the ending of the war divided Europe into two spheres of influence, the border of which was the approximate boundary between United States and Soviet Union’s armies at the time the war ended. The Western portion would be under the protection of the United States and Eastern Europe would lie in the Soviet sphere. Germany would be divided between areas controlled by Western and Soviet militaries. Berlin, the wartime capital which lay in East Germany, was similarly divided between Russia and West (US, Britain and France were each in charge of a portion of the West Berlin).

As one important and lasting economic change, in the aftermath of the war, the shattered economies of Western Europe received some important help from The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, enacted in 1948, under which the United States, which had not been subject to invasion or substantial land battles during the war, provided significant financial aid to help rebuild cities, industries and infrastructure in Western Europe.

In 1951, France and West Germany formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), integrating their coal and steel industries, began the process of removing long-standing trade barriers between the nations of Western Europe. In 1967, six European nations met in Rome to create what was then known as the European Economic Community, which would develop into the European Common Market which removed inter-European tariffs and other trade barriers. The accession of the United Kingdom to the European Communities was finalized in 1973.

This process was encouraged by the United States, which had not been subjected to the destruction of its homeland during the war. Additionally, the lack of trade barriers between the individual states in the United States provided an example of the economic benefits that open borders could provide.

13 thoughts on “The method in history’s madness”

  1. The outcome of WWII is still rippling around the Baltic. But the roots of their conflict are older still. And the partition of Europe wasn’t a simple land grab.
    Memories go back a long ways on that side of the atlantic *and* the pacific.
    And the geography of central eurasia hasn’t been kind to the tribes ’round tbose parts.
    Today Russia has lost the buffers it grabbed after WWII (some of which they first lost when their previous Empire collapsed) and now Ukraine and Finland are looking to line up with Germany and France.
    Russia’s paranoia doesn’t come out of nowhere: 1812, 1904, 1941.
    Unfortunately, their idea of defensible borders requires land inhabited by other tribes.
    Worse, while we live in a world run mostly by idiots, Putin is anything but.
    Not looking good.

    • Agreed, F.

      If you add the period when a lot of Central Europe was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, this part of the world has historic reasons to be paranoid.

    • My book club was reading 1946 (not that good, don’t waste your time). Some points that I’d not heard before:
      1/3 of all children had a dead father.
      Almost 1/2 of all men of fighting age were either dead or severely wounded.
      That absence of men/fathers goes a long way towards explaining the destruction of the German family after WWII.

      • Fighting age=prime productive working age.
        Explains the guest worker phenomenon and the followup mess they’re still sorting out.
        Immigration without assimilation = colonization.
        You’d think europeans would hsve thought that through.

  2. The recent change in trade treaties under the Trump administration was an attempt to get rid of the post WWII system designed to build the shattered economies of Europe. These protected European markets from US competition while opening the US markets to European goods.

    The system was successful. However, there is no reason to maintain it 70 years after it was created.

  3. Analysis of any historical event after the fact must always be approached with a great deal of suspicion.

    Take any of the Civilization style games (the turn based ones). They are easily “beaten” at any level of difficulty, so long as you can retreat to an earlier turn and play it out differently based on what you learned in later ones.

    The real world is, of course, quite a bit more complex – but if you could just rewind time, you could change outcomes however you wanted.

    • That is the rationale behind Counterfactual history analysis: picking a critical decision point and analyzing all the paths not taken.

      In the OP there is mention of 1940 Japan heading south instead of west while the painter moved east in response to Stalin’s moves. Both choices backfired but a case could be made that if the axis had coordinated Stalin would have been the one facing a two front war. Whether it would have made a difference in the end is questionable but it might have kept the US out of the war longer.

      Historians play with those scenarios for insights into the processes involved, writers for story fodder. Lots of room to play with “What if…”

      • Oh, that could keep several armies of historians (and writers) fully occupied – just for any sample century. I look at something like the 163x series that Eric Flint started. Just the amount of material that has been written to keep continuity in that, both in non-fiction essays and the Baen forum threads, would occupy just as many volumes as the fictional works themselves (if not more).

        • It’s amusing to think Flint had no idea the can of worms he opened–1632 was intended as a one and done–until David Weber suggested collaborating on a sequel. Even that might have been the end of it if not for the BAEN BAR.
          Odds are the series will still be going next century… 😀

          Most any time period is fertile soil for that kind of examination. What would WWII have looked like if Germany had decfeed a truce after Dunkirk? What if the sniper that had Washington in his sights pulled the trigger? Would the war be lost or would Benedict Arnold have ended up the father of the new country instrad of a disenchanted traitor?

          And that is just staying within range of documented events. In fiction there is room for exploring wilder divergences:
          – SPIDER ROBINSON wondered what if the black plague had killed 90% of europeans instead of 30%. What would a non-eurocentric world look like?
          – John Birmingham dropped a mid-21st century naval task force in the middle of the battle of Midway. Not just to make a fun techno thriller but also to examine the cultural shifts in a single century.
          – Harry Turtledove explored what might have followed if the Confederacy had made secession stick.

          It’s a game anybody can play: what if Alexander had lived longer, what if Rome had followed up on ancient Greek steam tech, would Gran Colombia be a world power today if Bolivar hadn’t been such a jerk, or what if Mohammed had died at birth?

          Counterfactual history can offer up context against which to evaluate actual history. Or fodder for lots of fun reads. Done right, the stuff sells, too.

          • “It’s a game anybody can play”

            I like the one where Frederick III of Prussia does not suffer from ill health and lives to a ripe old age like his father and his mother-in-law. The ramifications for the future of Europe are fascinating, but could well be too peaceful to make exciting fiction.

            • Interesting indeed.
              If he’d lasted another 34 years he’d have outlived WWI. If he’d managed to defang the Chancellorship and align Germany with England the Balkans crisis might have stayed an Austrian problem.

              Better than killing the painter in his crib, for a time-travelling meddler. There probably would still have been a war or two in 1940; Japan vs The Soviets, Italy vs Greece. Stalin would’ve been too busy in Siberia to go west. Without war in Europe, Japan wouldn’t have been able to go south. No nukes, probably. ICBM’s and space programs sooner. No EU. No US Global Police. No end to colonialism.

              Very different world. No world wars. But endless small ones.

              • But with no WW1 maybe no October revolution (certainly no Lenin in a sealed railway carriage) so no Stalin, and no Mussolini? But I doubt that any of this would stop the rise of Japanese nationalism, though with no world war maybe no Washington treaty so no end to the Anglo-Japanese alliance … plus those lovely 1920s battleship designs may actually get built. Or maybe not with no High Seas Fleet and no Anglo-German arms race?

                • Japan was expansionistic by 1904 and their target was Russia as well as China. If they were unable to overextend themselves they might have been able to hang on to Korea, Manchuria and Mongolia at a minimum.

                  Maybe they moved south in the 60’s. Into Vietnam. 😀

                  Also, I’m not sure a lack of a WWI would prevent the fall of tbe Czars. And even if the Balkan war didn’t draw in Germany it involved Serbia so Russia would be in it. Empire vs Empire. Maybe Russia would win or maybe Austria Hungary. Maybe they would make peace. Maybe both factured. Maybe tbe Ottomans tried to make hay and the Empires teamed up against them. They *were* the weakest of the empires in the great game.

                  Not the best of all worlds by any means but different enough to make for a fun read if somebody games it out.

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