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The Storm of War and the Battle for Truth: A Conversation with Historian Andrew Roberts

Interview with Andrew Roberts

Thinking in Public

September 6, 2011

(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line

theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your

host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mohler: The 20th century is just behind us; it is almost as if it is still here with us. Historical perspectives on events so massive as the Second World War and the history of the 20th century are still issues that are, well, very close to our modern consciousness, but essential to our current understanding. That’s the focus today for Thinking in Public.

Dr. Andrew Roberts was born in 1963. He is a graduate from Cambridge University from which he received his doctor of philosophy. Many Americans already know him by his writings, and in the English-speaking world, he is known as one of the preeminent historians in terms of his writings including most recently the best- selling book, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.

Dr. Andrew Roberts, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Roberts: Thank you very much indeed.

Mohler: You wrote this book, and it in some ways a trajectory that can be noted in other of your writings. You have arrived at the Second World War writing this particular book. What led you to write this book at this time?

Roberts: Well, I have been really been studying the Second World War for the last quarter of a century or so, back in the late 1980’s I started working on a book about Lord Halifax, and Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, foreign secretary, and so off and on I have been writing about and thinking about this period for a long time; decided really that it was time to try to bring all my thoughts together.

Mohler: Well, indeed you have, and I will argue that your new volume The Storm of War is the finest one-volume history of World War II I have ever read. And it’s a particular interest of mine, and so I was anticipating the volume and thrilled to read it. Those of us who have read a lot in the area often think there is not too much that can surprise us. And indeed you cover a lot of familiar territory, but I have to tell you one of the things I most appreciate about the way you approach the Second World War and other of the topics of your writing, is that you make a point that I think many historians do not often make so clearly and that is, it did not have to happen this way. It could have happened in very different ways and with very different historical consequences.

Roberts: Well, that’s absolutely right. Yes, it really did take the particular fanatisicism of the Nazi creed to send the whole of the world into what was actually a second European Civil War, and it was five years after the First World War. And for that to happen took such a catastrophe to overcome civilization so soon after the first World War, was something that I think has deep moral implications for the world as well as obviously military and ones.

Mohler: When you look at World War II coming with the sense of inevitability that we do from our position now in the 21st century, and then you look back to that period between those two world wars, and there are many historians who are arguing that it was one great world conflict, one great European conflict, with at a false peace there in the middle. When you look at that, how is it that you now from this distance explain how something so catastrophic could happen, so soon after the catastrophe after the First World War?

Roberts: Well, I think it isn’t a false peace, to do that I think would be to condemn the German people to be seen purely as absolute monsters who no sooner than losing the First World War in 1918, that they set about to try to plan for the next one; that is not what the German people are about as we have seen since 1945. They are cultured and even a pacific people that we have seen, a rather peace-loving people, a democratic people since 1945. No what actually happened was Nazism, pure and simple. It wasn’t the German people themselves have anything inherent in their DNA, in their psychological make-up as it were that they wanted to unleash a terrible war again. It was the fact that they were lead by a mantic whose views were impossible to strip away from war. They meant war not to equal war; fascism indeed equals war, so there was no way really that the world could have escaped by the 1930’s.

Mohler: Well, as we’ve said, you’ve now made the point once again that it did not have to happen this way; that there could have been incredible alternatives. What could have happened between the wars in Germany, in particular to have prevented this? And in other words, what could have prevented the rise of Nazism? Or to the contrary, why did it happen?

Roberts: Well, of course actually if one is to look at the true reason for the rise of Nazism you have to look here in New York, where I am at the moment, and Wall Street and the great Wall Street crash, and The Great Depression, and the inflation that hit Germany even harder than it hit your country. And that of course was the dynamic by which Hitler, who until 1923 was really only winning about 2.3% of the German popular vote, but by 1932 he was in a position to grant power, which of course he did, when he became Chancellor in January 1933. So it is very deeply concerned with the unemployment problem, and lots of economic factors which are pretty rarely and properly given their due. Many people talk about anti-Semitism, quite rightly of course. Many people talk about the Versailles Treaty, but one has to remember that on their own these would not have brought the Fuhrer to power, really also took this after sense of utter desperation, a feeling of hatred towards capitalism and of course also Bolshevikism in Russian, was much more reason, to make ordinary Germans feel that this maniac Adolf Hitler was their savior.

Mohler: You mentioned so many things about Hitler and drawing insights to the man, the personality, historical figure. But one of the things you make clear in your book is for instance he actually had this maniacal belief that he had been put on earth to do what he did.

Roberts: That’s right, and also, when on the 20th of July 1944 the Thumb Plot failed, he drew the assumption from the fact that he was so nearly killed, but actually only scratched and bruised, the astonishing sense that Providence was on his side, wanted him to survive and therefore …his enemies and destroyed the allies. He actually felt (there are plenty of people who feel that God is on their side) but he actually thought that he could change the will of God, effectively, that he could force Satan’s providence to go down his route through the act of his willpower and this really is very, very deeply psychologically disturbed, as we can all understand, but nonetheless it was something that drove him.

Mohler: Now you had previously written a book entitled, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership that was also the basis for the BBC documentary series. So you have had an interest in Hitler as well as in Churchill for some time, but I want to stay on Hitler for just a moment, even as you make that point so importantly that here was a man who did have his own strange, weird demented understanding of the Providence, and even a Providence that he could change by the force of his will. This is a man who in fairly recent years had been the subject of a lot of historical revisionism with a good many people arguing; surprisingly, that he was indeed what he thoughthe was, a military genius. You actually, perhaps better than anyone that I have seen, in a very deft way, demonstrate that this was no military genius.

Roberts: Well, no, I mean his early victories in the west and in obviously in Scandinavia, and over Poland in 1939 and 1940, really also if you count Yugoslavia and Greece which fell in seven weeks in 1941. These were an astonishing series of tremendously oppressive victories. But what I try to point out in The Storm of War as you kindly say, they weren’t his. The Sickle Cup Maneuver that Erik Malenstein produced which won the battle of France was very much Malenstein. The plan to attack Poland was very much dependent on Munstead.. What Hitler was doing was what a politician should do, was to oversee the generals and to double check their plans and to support them when they needed support. Only in 1941 did he start believing Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda minister’s statements that he was the greatest warlord of all time, and all of these victories came as a result of his willpower, as you mentioned. And so he suffered from the classic hubris of the Great Commander once he, one with the great obviously with Napoleon before one he was with his attach on Russia 129 years previously, where he believes that he can do anything. And so he stopped listening to his generals, he would go to meetings with them, and would spend hours with them, at the end of the meeting he would do exactly what he originally intended.

Mohler: And he would pontificate to them.

Roberts: Yes, he was a great one for showing off his knowledge of railway gauges and tank calibers and how many tons his warships displaced and how fast his planes could go and things. He was (I don’t know if you have the same expression in America) he was what you would call a “train spotter.” And he would be very good in this kind of thing but when it actually came to the logistics for fighting a massive campaign, instead of leaving it up to men who were far greater strategists than he, men like, as I mentioned, Manstein and Wanstead, and Vodarian and others. Instead of actually trusting these people who had actually been soldiers and officers in the First World War, when he had only been a corporal, he again and again knew that he knew best.

Mohler: One of the most difficult things about reading your book, or any honest assessment about the Second World War, is just the sheer scale of the carnage. And the horrible decisions, and failures that produced this, the abominable ego, and you would have to make that plural, egos behind this. But as I read through, it becomes very clear, and this is the sense of inevitability that just doesn’t come soon enough, that it eventually becomes clear that the German general staff knows the war is lost. Eventually, the German soldier begins to pretty much know that the war is lost, but when did Hitler know that the war was lost?

Roberts: Oh, he didn’t really know until the failure of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945, so he only discovered an awful lot later. As you say, the generals knew a lot earlier, they tried to kill him of course, early in July of 1944 because they knew that he was losing the war. They never would have done that if he was winning it, and it’s really not until this amazing, surprise attack – 39 Divisional Attack, to try to get to the river Muse, in fact it almost reaches the Muse, because it once tried to get to the channel. It turned back by the British and American armies and at that point he starts to make arrangements for the last part of the war, which is all about Scorched Earth Policy and destroying what remains of German civilization of that state.

Mohler: You write a great deal about America, the way that Americans are probably not accustomed to reading, for instance, on page 214 of The Storm of War you write,

When the United States entered the war, she had the 17th largest army, numbering 269,02,3 smaller than that of Romania. She could only put 5 properly armed, full-strength divisions into the field, at a time when Germany welded 180. The Great Depression had taken a physical toll on American manhood, even though the army would accept just about anyone sane, over five feet tall, 105 pounds in weight, possessing 12 or more of his own teeth, and free of flat feet, venereal disease and hernias. No fewer than 40 percent of Americans failed those basic criteria.

Now I knew, and had read so much to know, that America was woefully unprepared to enter this war, but that tends to put it in terms that just about all of us can feel with a tremendous sense of alarm. How was America caught in this position by your reading?

Roberts: Well again, I mean with regard to the physical side of things, it was the Great Depression, again there was, not exactly wide malnutrition across the nation, but people were not at their physical best and as a result you did have 40 percent of the people being turned away. That wasn’t the case later on in the war. But you also did have this fabulous sense, which you do so often through American history, of optimism, of the can-do spirit, of the belief that you are going to win, not least by completely out-producing every other nation in the world. By the calendar year 1944, when the British had produced 28, 000 war planes and the Germans and Russians 40,000 war planes each, America produced no fewer than 98,000 war planes, as much as the world put together. And you see there, you have this sense in every area, and liberty ships that were coming out at the rate of one a week, one being made per week, this was an astonishing thing. Thousands were being made but it only took a week to make a Liberty ship; and of course, huge amounts of tanks and 51 million pairs of boots that you give to the Soviet Union in order to keep them still fighting. This incredible act of productivity is effectively something that arms the democracy.

Mohler: You make another point that I think many Americans, almost by, more than benign neglect but by an almost force of the will actually do not want to confront the contribution that Russia made to the war, and let’s just name it, the Soviet Union. Its life was on the line in a very different way. And it had historical culpability especially thru Stalin as to how it became one of Hitler’s victims. But at the end of the day, one of the most difficult parts of your book to read is just the carnage that takes place in Russian city, and Russian battle, one after another and you make the point very clearly that Hitler really bled out in the east, rather than in the west.

Roberts: Yes, I think the central statistic of the Second World War, or the one for me rather than anything else, for every five Germans killed in combat, I mean actually on the battlefield, not bombed from the air, for every five German soldiers killed, four of them die on the eastern front. And so you know what we the British view the Americans, Canadians, and others in the Western, is effectively killing the fifth German. The other four are being killed in these appalling battles, that you mentioned the ones on the eastern front, the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad of Kursk and of course in Leningrad where 1.1 million people, soldiers and civilians, died in the siege of Leningrad, in a single siege. That is twice as many as Britons and Americans who died in the entire war. So it has to be placed, very much had to be the Soviets leading the Americans, and of course the Germans leading the Soviets, to the extent that some 27 million Russians die in the Second World War.

Mohler: Yes in fact, toward the end of your book you write, “It was the Russians that provided the oceans of blood necessary to defeat Germany.” And it cannot be reiterated enough that for every five Germans killed in combat four died on the eastern front. You said again that that is the central statistic of the Second World War. Earlier you said, for every American who died the Japanese lost six people, the Germans eleven and the Russians 92. I just think that those of us in the United States need to hear that.

Roberts: They do, but at the same time, one has to remember that tanks and planes and ships win wars as well as people and that those statics would be almost reversed when it comes to ratios to be reversed when it come to the United States and the sheer production. At the same time of course, you are fighting a massive war in the Pacific which you win pretty much single-handedly with the help of 50 million Chinese, but none-the-less not much else. You are also bombing the German towns and cities with the USAA air, causing absolute destruction of German war production which is vital, because if