The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

The Second World War

  • by John Keegan. New York: Viking, 1990, hardbound, 608 pages, photographs, maps, bibliography, index, $29.95. ISBN: 0-670-82359-7.

Reviewed by Arthur S. Ward

The latest book written by John Keegan, currently the most widely read military historian on both sides of the Atlantic, is a survey of the Second World War. Released in the U.K. on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Polish-German campaign, it made its U.S. debut this past Spring.

Keegan is undoubtedly a gifted writer who, in such earlier studies as The Face of Battle and The Price of Admiralty, succeeded in evoking the experience of warfare for his readers. The Second World War examines the people and events that stand out as most significant from the perspective of half a century.

The book is divided into six main sections. Each begins with an introductory essay that considers the strategic problems faced by a key decision maker: Hitler in 1941; Tojo from 1941-43; Churchill; Stalin in 1943; and Roosevelt. Keegan then provides a concise narrative of the war’s main events. The major sections include an analysis of a crucial battle, which are used to illustrate a distinctive kind of warfare; the airborne battle of Crete; the carrier battle of Midway; the tank battle of Falaise; the seige of the city of Berlin in 1945; and the amphibious battle of Okinawa.

This study represents a synthesis and is not a work based on original research. Those who are already well versed in the literature of the war will find little new herein. A number of Keegan’s observations will strike less advanced students of the conflict as striking, such as his contention that the Luftwaffe could have won the Battle of Britain if it had operated from the outset with a logical plan, as had the German Army when it attacked France in 1940.

In his discussion of “War Supply and the Battle of the Atlantic,” Keegan notes that by October of 1943 the Allies had replaced the amount of shipping lost since 1939 with new construction. He contends that the Germans might yet have turned the tide of the war at sea with their technically advanced U-boats (the schnorkel-equipped craft and the even more remarkable close hydrogen-peroxide-system-powered subs that they brought into service in 1945). The loss of their strategic Atlantic bases, which were captured by the U.S. Army in August 1944, prevented them from gaining full advantage from their technological breakthroughs.

To his disadvantage, the author points out, Hitler “clung to his dream of winning Britain’s cooperation rather than beating her into subjection,” as he might have done in 1940-41. Keegan goes on to explain just how fateful for the military fortunes of the Third Reich was the alliance with Mussolini: the Balkans and the Mediterranean theater diverted and subverted Hitler’s strategic purpose in 1940-41 and drained off men and material that could have provided the margin of victory over the Soviet Union in 1941-42.

Unlike many accounts of the war, Keegan is much more even-handed in his treatment of the Japanese. He goes to some length to explain that the Japanese did not see themselves, and were not necessarily viewed by other Asians, as brutal conquerors. Keegan remarks:

The idea of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” … clothed a genuine belief in the mission of Japan, as the first great Asian power, to lead other Asians to independence from foreign rule. Many in Asia were enthused and inspired by the Japanese triumph of 1942 and were ready, even eager, to co-operate with it.

Respecting General Tojo, Keegan writes:

Contrary to Allied wartime propaganda, Tojo was not a fascist…He did not seek revenge…He was strongly anti-communist and feared the growing power of Mao Zedong in China; but he harbored no scheme to exterminate Japan’s Chinese enemies or any other group who might stand in Japan’s way in Asia. On the contrary, his chauvinism was exclusively anti-Western … His vision was of an Asia liberated from the Western presence, in which Japan stood first among peoples who would recognize the extraordinary effort it had made to modernize itself

Keegan is at his best in Chapter 26, a survey of the role played by the Resistance and the relative value of espionage and intelligence. Here he punctures a number of cherished myths. Far from setting “Europe ablaze,” as Churchill instructed his Special Operations Executive in 1940, the various Allied-inspired uprisings

“all failed at the price of very great suffering to the brave patriots involved but at triffling cost to the German forces that put them down … They must be seen by any objective reckoning as irrelevant and pointless acts of bravado.”

The German system of control in Western Europe was both efficient and economical. In France, German security forces did not number more than 6,500 at any stage of the war. Likewise, the author dismisses Soviet boasting about the achievements of their Partisans. Anti-partisan sweeps “were extremely effective” and “the losses inflicted by Partisans, whether on the personnel or the material of the Wehrmacht, were a fraction of those claimed by Soviet authorities.”

Nor is Keegan convinced that the SOE and OSS did much of real consequence, dispite what he describes as the puffery of their “powerful lobby of historians, some of whom were its former officers.” His conclusion: “The 'indirect' offensive encouraged and sustained by the Allies against Hitler — military assistance to partisans, sabotage, and subversion — must therefore be judged to have contributed materially little to his defeat.”

While Keegan writes with objectivity and style on many aspects of the war, concerning the so-called “Holocaust,” he is regretably wide of the mark. Previous distinguished British histories of the war, notably those by Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller and Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart, simply ignored the “Jewish Question” altogether, rather than get bogged down in the “Final Solution” swamp. Indeed, for Liddel Hart, whose two-volume study was published in this country by Putnam’s in the mid-1970's, the Holocaust was not even a “detail” of the war: Nowhere are the Jews afforded even one mention by Sir Basil. In his treatment, Keegan devotes little more than a page, out of nearly 600 pages of text, to his discussion of “The Fate of the Jews.” But the former Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst surpasses charges made by some of the least responsible proponents of the Holocaust Thesis when he asserts that, “by the end of 1943, about 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population, some 6 million people, had been put to death.” He fails to hazard a guess as to how many more millions — or was it billions as in Old Testament times? — may have been Gassed” from late 1943 to the end of the war. Had Keegan followed the lead of Fuller and LiddelI Hart and simply dismissed the issue altogether, we would have understood. By exaggerating the human cost of the conflict, he has done a great disservice to history and undermined his own credibility. What is otherwise an admirable treatment of the war is made to serve the purposes of those for whom truth is not just an inconvenience, but a threat to their own particular objectives.

The previously published, solid accounts by Gen. Fuller and Liddell Hart cover the same territory, without compromising their authors' integrity. Both include material that may be considered “revisionist” It is to these volumes that one seeking an overview of the military operations of the war should turn.