Recorded on October 23, 2017
How were the Axis powers able to instigate the most lethal conflict in human history? Find out in part one of this episode as military historian, editor of Strategika, and Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow, Victor Davis Hanson, joins Peter Robinson to discuss his latest book, The Second World Wars.
Victor Davis Hanson explains how World War II initially began in 1939 as a multitude of isolated border blitzkriegs that Germany continued to win. In 1941, everything changed when Germany invaded their ally, the Soviet Union, and brought Japan into the war. He argues that because of the disparate nature of World War II, it’s much harder to think about as a monolithic conflict.
World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history with approximately sixty million people killed. Victor Davis Hanson argues that World War II and the many lives lost was preventable, but due to a series of missteps by the Allied forces, Germany believed they were stronger and their enemies weaker than the reality. He argues “it took Soviet collusion, American indifference or isolation, and British or French appeasement in the 30s” to convince Germany that they had the military capabilities to invade western Europe. In the aftermath of World War I, the allies believed the cost of the Great War had been too high, while Germany bragged about their defeat as no enemy soldiers had set foot on German soil. Great Britain and France both chose appeasement over deterrence, which encouraged rather than discouraged Hitler and Germany from moving forward with their plans.
Watch the full episode to learn more about the history of World War II.
About the Guest:
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno; a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services; host of the Classicist podcast; and the editor of the military history journal, Strategika. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches courses in military history and classical culture every fall semester. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian, and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited twenty-four books, the latest of which is The Second World Wars. Read more about Victor Davis Hanson here.
- The Year That Changed History
- Victor Davis Hanson’s Website
- An Avoidable Great War
- The Deadly Cost of Mutual Misunderstanding
- The Axis Was Outmatched From The Start
Peter Robinson: He farms 40 acres in the small town of Selma, California. He's just published what may be the best history of the Second World War that you will ever read. Victor Davis Hanson joining us today. Uncommon Knowledge, now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. A classicist and historian, Victor Davis Hanson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford where he serves as Editor of Strategika, a journal of military history and contemporary conflict. Dr. Hanson is the author of many books, including the classic study of the Peloponnesian War, A War Like No Other. Dr. Hanson's newest book, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. Victor, welcome.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Peter Robinson: All right. Let's begin at the beginning. This “S”, “The Second World Wars”. Why is there a plural in the title?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think for two reasons. One is that from 1939, when Germany divided up Poland with the Soviet Union, until April of '41, there was a Polish war, there was Norwegian war, there was a Danish war, there was a low country war, there was a French war, there was The Blitz, there was the Yugoslavian War, there was a Greek war. All of those together really weren't called the Second World Wars or World War II. They were seen as isolated, border blitzkriegs in which Germany, with the exception of The Blitz, won every one of them. Then something weird happened. In 1941, Germany preempted and invaded its de facto ally the Soviet Union on June 22nd of 1941. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and Malaysia and Singapore on the next day and brought Japan in the war, not just against us, but against Britain too. Then nobody thought on December 11th, Italy and Germany would declare war on us. Suddenly, these border wars that nobody really knew what they were, were renamed the Second World War, and because it really was in Asia and North Africa, even in the Americas, in the sense of off the coast of South America and it was a submarine campaign. Suddenly, they were plural. Then the other thing was, of course, nobody had ever fought a war where it was so disparate. Disparate, I mean, you're fighting in the desert in armor. You're under 500 feet of water in the North Atlantic. You're 20,000 feet above Germany in a British Bomber. You're fighting in Burma. You're one of the 15 million people that were probably killed in China. It was so disconnected. What did somebody that was fighting in Bulgaria have to do with the Japanese fighting in China, yet nominally they were on the same Axis side. It was trying to capture that ambiguity. It's not a monolithic, easily comprehended war.
Peter Robinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How it began. I'm quoting again from The Second World Wars. "The Axis powers were completely ill-prepared to win the war." That's your quotation. By the way, I have to say, one of the pleasures, pleasures is too small a word. One of the important aspects of the book is that even somebody who’s read a fair amount of the second ... I'm no military historian, but I've read a fair amount. There's an insight or a fresh perspective on every page. I come to this. I'm giving you a little more set up for this first question because it's so striking to me that if you've read what I've read and you're of my generation, you grew up thinking that the Germans were a military machine. They were much to be feared. You say the Axis powers were completely ill-prepared to win the war. Hitler, from the get go, didn't know quite what he was doing. What's the argument there?
Victor Davis Hanson: The argument was, if you're Japan and you've modernized and rearmed in the 1930s, then you're very powerful vis-à-vis Southeast Asia or Indonesia or China, or if you're Italy, maybe you have more power than Somalia. Or if you're Germany and you have good roads and you have source of supplies, you can run over your neighbors, if you preempt. All of these were surprise attacks. If you want to fight a global war, which, as I said, 1941, that's what their arrogance led them into. It's going to be an existential war. That's a fancy term for just saying you have to destroy the enemy, not have an armistice like World War I, then you have to be able to reach the homeland of the enemy. Once the Soviets moved most of their industry across the world, Germany had no ability to get to them. From the very get go, neither Japan nor Germany could reach Detroit. Even during The Blitz of late 1940 ...
Peter Robinson: The Blitz is the bombing attack over London.
Victor Davis Hanson: Bombing of London. There was greater Spitfire production, their signature fighter plane, then there was Bf 109, Germany's best fighter plane. What I'm getting at is if you want to start a global war, and they started it and attacked these countries, then you better have four engine bombers, or if you're Germany, you better have an aircraft carrier fleet. They had neither. Japan did not have a ... Where did they spend their money on? The V-2 and the V-1, which in terms of how many marks were necessary to deliver a pound of explosive, were about 30 times more expensive than not only conventional bombing, which the Allies had four engine bombers when the war started, both Britain and the United ... Even the B-29 program or the atomic bomb, they were as expensive or more expensive, and yet the latter really paid dividends. They didn't spend their money wisely. They lived in a world of fantasy and romance. After 1941, it caught up to them.
Peter Robinson: All right. I want to return to that fantasy and romance. That's the Axis powers. Here are the Allies. "Why the Western World chose to tear itself apart in 1939 is not a story so much of accidents, miscalculations, and overreactions as of the carefully considered decisions to ignore, appease, or collaborate with Nazi Germany by nations that had the resources and knowledge to do otherwise." Close quote. Explain that.
Victor Davis Hanson: United States in World War I, had delivered two million troops within 18 months to the soil of France and didn't lose one. They had that ability, believe it or not, in 1941, but even '40, if they had rearmed a bit in the '30s. Britain started to rearm in 1938 and '39. They really got going. It was so successful that when the war started, Germany didn't realize that they were almost comparable in fighter production. The deterrence doesn't do you any good unless the enemy knows that. Germany still thought that this was Britain of 1935 and not '39. In the case of the Soviet Union, Hitler himself said had they told me they have already two thousand T-34 tanks, which were better than every class of German tank, I wouldn't have invaded. What I'm getting at is something shouldn't have happened. By that, I mean, if you take the assets of Britain and France alone in 1940, they were greater than Germany's. When Germany invaded France, they had less tanks. Their air forces were no better and they had less, fewer men than the democracy. Had the United States had a nonaggression pact or even an alliance with France and delivered soldiers there, Germany would have never invaded. Had Britain rearmed a little bit earlier and France a little bit earlier, they wouldn't have invaded. If the Soviet Union had not signed a nonaggression pact with Germany and assured it, there would be no Eastern front, as was true in World War I. Germany would have never gone west. It took Soviet collusion, American indifference or isolation, and British and French appeasement in the '30s to convince Germany of something that should have never been convinced of, i.e., that they thought they were stronger militarily in terms of manpower and in terms of industrial capacity. They were not only not stronger than the eventual Allies of the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain, they weren't even stronger than the two original Allies of Britain and France. They had one thing going for them and that is they looked at World War I as a tragedy that could be replayed with different results. In other words, if you were growing up in Germany in the 1920s and the word Great War came, it was, "We should have won that. We were on their soil. We were stabbed in the back," so the myth went. "We were on the offensive. No Allied soldier ever set foot in Deutschland." If you were in the Allies, it was, "We never want the Somme. We can't ever get back to the Verdun."
Peter Robinson: We won, but the price was too much.
Victor Davis Hanson: We won. It was just so terrible. They were the brilliant war poets. If you were in the Netherlands, they renamed destroyers, they didn't use that term, to fleet leaders. They thought it was too bellicose. If you were in France, you couldn't talk about they shall not pass at Verdun. The Germany bragging on their defeat and the Allies were ashamed of victory.
Peter Robinson: You quote Churchill, quote, this is Churchill now, "Germany rearmament could have been prevented without the loss of a single life. It was not time that was lacking." Meaning it was will that was lacking, right?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, it was will. I mean ...
Peter Robinson: What is so, in the early chapters, as you describe how it began, it's so chilling and so hard to believe, but you argue it so compellingly, that the Second World War was a result of fantasy, willful fantasy, on both sides.
Victor Davis Hanson: It was. The Allies didn't realize their own capabilities. They were talking in 1941, the United States, of maybe building a four-engine bomber, a B-17, which had been in production maybe once every two days. They didn't realize that within three years it could build a better B-24 in one an hour. They built more airframes than all of the other Allies and enemies combined. Their GDP at the end of the year, the American GDP, was larger than anybody else in the war put together. They didn't understand fully their capability and their potential. They underestimated their power and they Axis always overestimated their capability. War is a laboratory. What it does is it says these are realities. You have impressions about realities that are often false. War is unnecessary, because if everybody just had to turn and they knew exactly what everybody in this room, their relative capability is, you wouldn't fight. Fights take place ...
Peter Robinson: To discover.
Victor Davis Hanson: ... to discover who's fine. After 65 million people are killed, we come to the conclusion in 1945, wow, the Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain were much stronger than the Axis, which was clearly discoverable in 1939 and even '41.
Peter Robinson: Got it. You make the point, the Axis is dominant right up through 1941 or so and tides shift. The Second World Wars, "At the beginning of the War, the Axis powers appeared resolute, determined and calculating under the leadership of strongmen. But by an early 1943, the very opposite had proven true." Let's take briefly, you have a whole book here on it, but briefly, the first phase, how do the Germans do all that they do so quickly? There's a moment when they seem indomitable.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, yes, absolutely. We got to remember one thing, that the Allied coalition of very disparate Allies. I mean, British Imperialism, American Democracy and Soviet Communism, they all have one thing in common, they were either surprise attacked themselves or one of their allies, in the case of Poland and Britain, so that brings them in. What I'm getting at, is a lot of their victories were incumbent upon attacking, they, meaning the Axis, unarmed or poorly armed adversaries and they were surprise attacked.
Peter Robinson: This applies to Japan and Asia as well.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes. After 1941, there was no more opportunity for surprise attack. Everybody knew what the score was. Japan was in a war. It wouldn't do any good to surprise attack the United States. They didn't knock us out. Germany had surprise attacked the Soviet Union. It didn't work to knock them out. Now we were in a war where industrial capability and man power, in one year, the Axis had redefined the war. They had gone from having about 180 million people versus about 70-60 million left, maybe a few Allies if we count the Empire and Britain, to 400 million people against them. If you counted China and India, which had manpower that was used in various degrees on the Ally, you might have been up to a billion people. Then if you look at GDP, they had gone from having a greater GDP than Britain, to having a fraction of it the Axis. What was their race was, and they started to understand this, the race was superior morale. We're more ferocious. We're more savage. We believe in blood in soil. We've got a to knock these guys out before they can get going. They almost, for a moment, in late 1942, if you look at the map from the Arctic Circle in Norway to when they took Tobruk in the Summer of 1942 and from the Volga River in the early 1942, the Wehrmacht was in the Caucasus Mountains. They had climbed the highest peak and put their flag there, all the way to the British Channel. The Japanese controlled territory even larger from the Aleutians to the Indian Ocean and from Manchuria all the way to off Wake Island. Then it ran out of gas because finally the Soviets, the Lend-Lease, the cooperation between the three Allies, the industrial capacity of the United States, the overwhelming manpower, and the Soviet Union put 12.3 million people in uniform. We put 12.1. Britain put six. Germany only put seven. What you're seeing is, they were overwhelmed. Suddenly, let's just take some names. Guadalcanal, late 1942, the First Marine Division can fight the Japanese Veterans from China just as well, but they had much more support and logistics. El Alamein, it turns a tide. Stalingrad, turns a tide. After that ...
Peter Robinson: Kursk, isn't Kursk in ...
Victor Davis Hanson: 1943 turns a tide as well. After Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht will not be able to mount an offensive.
Peter Robinson: Stalingrad's the key.
Victor Davis Hanson: After Guadalcanal, the Japanese are not going to go on the offensive and Midway as well. Then it was a question, what was the two and a half years of the war? It was a question of the Allies, unlike the first time in World War I, no armistice, no negotiations, unconditional surrender. It was announced at Casablanca Conference. What that'd mean? It means it's pretty hard to go into those countries and kill, capture, disarm, 15 million Japanese, Italian, Eastern European and German soldiers, occupy or destroy their homelands and change their political system. That was what the last two years of the war were about. That's very hard to impose an unconditional surrender. Yet, we did it.
Peter Robinson: Right. In the end, there's something almost a little unsatisfying about it. This notion that the Axis expands by surprise, surprise, surprise. Suddenly, everybody's wide awake and then what finally permits the Allies to win the war is not better generalship, it's not higher morale, it's not superior or more noble systems of government. It's just industrial production. That's not quite right though, is it?
Victor Davis Hanson: No. I don't think so. It was industrial production. By that, I mean, 70% of the airframes were Allied. 90% of the aviation fuel was produced by the United States. The key is when you had the British expeditionary forces in North Africa or you had the First Marine Division or the Sixth Marine Division—They fought as well as the Axis soldier. They fought like Axis. They learned to fight like Axis but the Axis never learned how to produce like Allies. That was one thing.
Peter Robinson: I see.
Victor Davis Hanson: Then they had brilliant commanders, General Homma, Yamaguchi, von Manstein, Rommel of course, Guderian, but we had, when Patton and especially at the second, Nimitz, Halsey. These people were almost as good if not better, but at the Supreme Leader, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill compared to Mussolini, which was buffoonish and Hitler was delusional finally and Tojo was just sort of an unimaginative bureaucrat. They had no strategic sense. What that meant was the Allies did not get themselves into quagmires such as losing entire army in North Africa. That was bigger than Stalingrad. Or, going into the deep Ukraine and the Caucuses and losing the entire Sixth Army or having the entire Italian army destroyed in North Africa. When they had setbacks, they weren't ...
Peter Robinson: They were tactical mistakes.
Victor D Hanson: They were tactical mistakes. Things like Tobruk or A Bridge Too Far Campaign at Arnhem, or the bombing campaign in the first year. They were not elemental crises that proved fatal. They had so many greater margins of error. If they had have done something so stupid. It's very hard to fault Roosevelt and Churchill, because they made most of the big decisions of the war in a correct fashion.
Peter Robinson: All right. Russia, Victor. I'd like to spend a little time on Russia. You spend quite a lot of time on Russia. You make the point that Americans need to know about it. I'm quoting you. "As a result of the Cold War the Soviet war effort is often not given full credit in the west for its near virtuoso destruction of the German army." Near virtuoso destruction of the German army. Explain that.
Victor Davis Hanson: Three out of four German soldiers were killed on the Eastern front. The price, we lost total, about 450 thousand, depending on how we calibrate the losses. In Britain, about 420, and 50 thousand civilians. Russia lost, the Soviet Union, 27 million people, civilian and soldiers. They did kill three out of four Germans and they destroyed and army that was over three million people in strength. It was a very strange partnership. We said, essentially, I don't know if it was so explicit, but we said we will fight in Italy. We'll fight in North Africa. We'll fight in the Mediterranean. We will fly the skies of Europe and bomb. We will have four engine bombers. We will fight the Japanese alone, we being the British and the Americans. We'll go to Burma. We'll go to the Pacific. We'll have the B-29 program. We'll do all of these things. You don't have to build a blue-water neighbor. You don't have to have 400 bombers. We'll supply you with 20% of all your needs. However, you're going to tie down and destroy the best army in the world, which the German army was. They did that. After the war, Stalin, remember, cut a deal with every single person, every single party in that war. He had a nonaggression pact with Hitler. He had a nonaggression pact with the Japanese. He had a semi-one with Italy. He had an agreement with us and he had an agreement with the British. He tended to keep his word with the Axis and he didn't keep his word with us. What I'm getting at is that there's a lot of reasons to be very angry at the Soviet Union. The World War II would not have started had they not had the nonaggression pact with Germany. That being said, when today ...
Peter Robinson: We should explain. The nonaggression pact with Germany, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact ...
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, of August 23rd of 1939.
Peter Robinson: ... Which Hitler and Stalin agree they're going to leave each other alone and they divvy Poland up.
Victor Davis Hanson: They both hated, because of the Versailles Treaty, Poland. They carved it up. They made that deal seven days before the invasion.
Peter Robinson: Then astonishingly enough, what's your view on this by the way? The only man that Joseph Stalin ever seems to have trusted was Adolf Hitler. Stalin really was taken by surprise when Hitler invaded.
Victor Davis Hanson: Molotov said, famous quote, "We didn't deserve this," when he found out. Hitler in turn said if the war had been, if we had won, I would have hung Churchill, but I would have given a state to Stalin, because he was a genius. They had a mutual admiration. They were very alike, much alike in some ways.
Peter Robinson: Historians, I'm quoting you again, "Historians still seek to sort out the degree to which the Soviets' catastrophe," 27 million dead, civilian and military, "was a result of their own duplicity."
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: What do you mean by that and how do you weigh that in yourself?
Victor Davis Hanson: Just take one example for the sake of brevity, the Kiev pocket. They about 700 thousand people by no surrender, not one step back orders by Stalin. From June of 1941 to December, they intentionally ordered, I shouldn't say intentionally, they just ordered Soviet armies not to retreat.
Peter Robinson: When withdrawing into the interior was the only reasonable thing to do.
Victor Davis Hanson: When you were dealing with people like von Bock or Guderian or Rundstedt who were masters encirclement. They lost an entire four-million-person army. They lost 50 ...
Peter Robinson: Because Stalin was a bonehead.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes. 50 million people. Their population went from 180 down to about 130. They lost a million square miles. They should have been knocked, anybody else would have been knocked out of the war. France would have been. They didn't that to France and France quit for six weeks. Stalin, the Russian people were a different type of people. They were used to adversity and worse than adversity. They rallied. Then the United States and Britain supplied them. Stalin began to do something that Hitler didn't do. He said to himself, "I've got brilliant commanders." Zhukov and Konev. Hitler never understood what Rommel was trying to do in North Africa or what Guderian wanted to do. He didn't trust his. He started to get more and more distrustful of his commanders. Stalin who had been like Hitler and trying to be a virtuoso, Supreme Leader, started to delegate and the tide started to change. What it was getting at too, is when we get angry at the Crimean, we should, or Ukraine, we in the west don't say, "Wait a minute, The Siege of Sevastopol cost the Russians 150 thousand people in World War II and the Ukrainian pocket was a 750 thousand." They do have claims, at least psychological, mystic, I don't know what they are, but they have claims on these territories that are a little bit different than us vis-à-vis, Puerto Rico. Yet, we're very defensive of the Caribbean. I think we have to keep that in mind, how they view the Second World War.
Peter Robinson: The Second World Wars, I'm quoting you one more time here on Russia, "Russia helped to save the Allied cause. Yet the Allied war effort saved communism."
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes. I think after the show trials and the Great Terror.
Peter Robinson: These are the '30s.
Victor Davis Hanson: Starvations in the '30s. Especially the liquidation of the Soviet officer class. They had so weakened themselves. They had so lost the international public opinion. The system was not working. That what happened in 1989, could have happened in the '40s without a war. Once the war has occurred, the Soviets took on the mantle of anti-fascism. They fought heroically. They united the people. They copied mass productive strategies of Washington and London and they retooled their economy and they were very successful. That gave them a cache that they otherwise didn't deserve.
Peter Robinson: I see.
Victor Davis Hanson: Especially after the war, because we had a terrible propaganda. We had to say to the world, "Yes, Japan, Germany and Italy were bad. They started World War II. They were fascists. Now they're the good guys." The Soviet's propaganda was, "The war's still going on. We're still liberating people from fascism." Whereas the United States and our imperialist enemies, Britain, have flipped and they've joined the Axis. That was very hard to combat in the late '40s and '50s.
Peter Robinson: One more, while we're on the late '40s. One more question about the late '40s and '50s. The Red Army sweeps into, as best I can tell, it's the biggest invasion from the East since Attila. They sweep in and Red Army is in place in much of Eastern Europe. Yalta, it doesn't matter. Is it true or is it not true that it really, Roosevelt surrendered Eastern Europe at Yalta or is it simply the case the Red Army was already in place throughout Eastern Europe?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. I think Roosevelt was very naïve, but if you actually look at the concessions he gave, he gave concessions out of naivety and Churchill gave the name number of concessions out of realism. The fact was ...
Peter Robinson: "We're not going to war again to push them back out."
Victor Davis Hanson: Not with 350 divisions with T-34 tanks, American boots, American ponchos, radios. Remember, they broke every agreement. One thing, the Germans call it the Silent Holocaust because they had no claim on anybody's sympathy, but 13 million Germans that had been in East Prussia, to take one example, or parts of what is now the Czech Republic, they walked home. They'd been there for four or five hundred years. 13 million walked home. Two million died.
Peter Robinson: Walked home meaning?
Victor Davis Hanson: Back into ...
Peter Robinson: Back into what we would think of as Germany proper.
Victor Davis Hanson: They lost 30% of their ... I mean Germany today has the same amount of people, 80 million, that they did in World War II, but nobody's talking about Lebensraum anymore. They lost 30% of their territory. That was ceded to pro-Soviet allies in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union was very careful that all of the land they stole when they were a partner of Hitler, the Baltic states and Eastern Poland, they kept and they said, "If you want to be nice to the Poles, then you take it out of Germany. You're not taking it out of what we stole." That was a tragedy that they came out a winner in geostrategic and geopolitical terms. They came out a loser in human terms because of the vast number of people who were killed.
Peter Robinson: Victor Davis Hanson, author of The Second World Wars. We'll continue this discussion in a second program, but for now, thank you.
VictorDavis Hanson: Thank you for having me.
Peter Robinson: I’m Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution, thank you.