Truly global view of World War II

Richard Overy has done a signal service with this compellingly written, impressively researched book


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Imagine there’s no Hitler. It’s not that easy, even if you try, at least if you’re a westerner thinking about the Second World War. But for millions of Asians, those years of conflict had little to do with the horrors of Nazi invasion and genocide, and it is their experience that frames Richard Overy’s account of a seemingly familiar conflict. For most non-Europeans, the war was not a struggle for democracy, but a conflict between empires, and in this book, that imperial struggle begins not with the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 but the occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese in 1931.

Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945 by Richard Overy, (Penguin, £40)

Blood and Ruins is really two books in one. The first is perhaps the single most comprehensive account of the Second World War yet to appear in one volume. You might think that by reading extensively, you could construct a book like this one. You could not — unless you have Overy’s control over a staggering range of World War II scholarship, much of it drawn from his own decades of research on the economics of total warfare, the development of technology, from radar to aerial bombing, and the idea of the “emotional geography” of war, encompassing morale, hope, and despair. Then you’d need to go back and cover all those categories for each of the major Allied and Axis belligerents: Britain, the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and China among them.

The second book is an argument about what kind of conflict the Second World War really was. Overy is clear: on a global as opposed to European scale, it was not (just) a war about democracy, but about empires and their fate, although “the starting point in explaining the pursuit of territorial empire is, paradoxically, the nation.”

Overy points out what is generally lost to view when the European war is placed at the centre of the historiography: both Britain and France were undertaking an “awkward double standard” in their defence of democratic values, as their Asian and African possessions “rested on a denial of those liberties and the repression of any protest against the undemocratic nature of colonial rule”. While this argument has been made before (not least by figures such as Nehru and Gandhi in India at the time), Overy does something unusual and revealing: he compares the western empires with Japan’s justification for its own imperial project in the early twentieth century.

The book is scrupulously careful not to endorse or excuse the worldview of Tokyo’s imperialists, and gives full weight to the voices of the Chinese nationalists and communists who were bitterly opposed to Japan’s expansion on the Asian mainland. Still, the comparison of Japan’s pre-war and wartime empire to those of the western powers provides an important and original broadening of a contemporary debate.

The comparison of Japan’s pre-war and wartime empire to those of the western powers provides an important and original broadening of a contemporary debate

There is ongoing public British (and to some extent French) argument about whether empire was a “good” or “bad” thing. Yet neither attackers nor defenders of the British empire tend to analyse it alongside the Japanese equivalent that lasted nearly half a century. Britain committed colonial massacres (Amritsar) and deadly repression (Mau Mau). So did Japan (the rape of Nanjing, invasion of Manchuria).

Britain’s empire also created an aspirational middle class full of cosmopolitan nationalists, and drew on ideas of loyalty to recruit its subjects to fight in world wars. All these things are also true of Japan, which like Britain was a multi-party democracy for much of its period as an overseas empire (between 1898 and 1932), and whose capital city was an intellectual hub for political activists from across Asia.

As a colony of Japan between 1895-1945, Taiwan developed a middle class that was Japanese-speaking and keen to draw on new economic opportunities brought by empire: Lee Teng-hui, the first democratically elected president of the Republic of China on Taiwan, always thought of Japanese as his mother tongue. Park Chung-hee, the American-sponsored dictator of Cold War South Korea, learned his political craft as an army officer in the Japanese Manchukuo Army that occupied Manchuria.

Naturally, there are also plenty of differences between Britain’s experience as a wartime empire and Japan’s. But relatively few people have tried to demonstrate them. Overy opens up that discussion: by starting the story of the war in 1931, he forces readers to remember that Asia’s experience was not a simple add-on to a war whose centre of gravity was in Europe: certainly not if you were Japanese, Chinese, or Southeast Asian.

One profound difference between empires emerges not between the Allies and Axis, but rather between Nazi Germany and its partners. Both Italy and Japan had been on the Allied side in the Great War, and their territorial empires were not in peril in 1918. In contrast, Germany was stripped of its possessions at the Paris Peace Conference, and the ascendancy of Hitler saw Germany embark on a very different sort of imperial venture that saw him annexe most of Germany’s neighbours.

“The imperial character of these annexations is evident,” Overy notes, “though it was a different kind of imperialism from … the traditional dynastic empires that had ruled the region only twenty years before.” What made Nazi conquest so jarring to many was that the fascists acted in ways uncomfortably similar to the tactics used by democratic Europeans to colonize regions outside Europe itself. In 1939, he points out, “Czech resistance was crushed savagely with the same lack of restraint practised by Italy in Ethiopia or Japan in China.”

This new form of empire, essentially bringing colonial conquest to Europe, ultimately undermined any Axis “order” as an alternative either to democracy or Bolshevism. That order destabilized itself because of one of the most distinctive, and loathsome elements in the German model: “Hitler, like Himmler or Eichmann, could not in the end envisage either a territorial empire in the East, nor a larger Grossraum, as an area inhabited by millions of Jews.”

Overy points out that the Nazi regime did its empire-building, genocide included, “narrowly concentrated in time”. Nazi racial theories and murderous instincts prevented any kind of meaningful collaboration with many of the populations they conquered. If Slavs were inferiors to be made into slaves, and Jews were alien elements to be murdered, both tasks had to be achieved swiftly. That left little room for imperial collaboration that marked the long stability of other empires, notably the British and French.

In comparison, the Japanese drive for empire was murderous and brutal, but not genocidal. It was Japan, rather than Germany, that was the more conventional empire-builder: other factors brought it to grief, including the unwinnable war in China that drew in ever more troops, and then, the ultimate overwhelming strength of the United States.

As the chapter on war economies argues, once the Japanese lost their merchant shipping, a primarily maritime war in the Pacific was near-impossible to win. Having a large empire was of little use if Japan was no longer able to bring commodities from the Asian mainland to the Japanese home islands.

Overy notes that “most general histories of the war” concentrate a great deal on ideology, and the clash of two different sorts of authoritarianism, communism and Nazism, plays a less prominent role in his interpretation.

Was Britain’s desire to keep Hong Kong and Malaya qualitatively different from Japan’s desire to take them? If so, why?

Instead, he substitutes the idea of violence as a motivating force in its own right over the laws of war, which operated fitfully in western Europe and not at all elsewhere. As he declares starkly, “In the Soviet-German war and the war in Asia, the wounded were routinely butchered where they fell.” Ideological wrangling may have occupied the minds of the wartime leaders, but “geography, ideology and propaganda, military culture” all fell by the wayside when, in the words of one American engineer in the Pacific, it was time to “KILL, KILL, KILL.”

Using imperial competition as the lens to understand the Second World War is not the same as a claim that all empires are as bad as one another. Nor is it equivalent to an absurd argument that the aims of the Allies were in some way comparable to those of the Axis.

Rather, it is to raise awkward questions about the major wartime goal of preserving empire, which has too often been treated as secondary to the language of democracy and freedom. Was Britain’s desire to keep Hong Kong and Malaya qualitatively different from Japan’s desire to take them? If so, why?

There are answers: one might argue that Britain’s tradition of liberalism within imperialism provided more opportunities for political resistance than did Japan’s (as seen with Nehru or Kenyatta). But the argument has to be made, not assumed. Richard Overy has done a signal service with this compellingly written, impressively researched book.

Rather than assuming the moral basis of the Allied cause, he shines a light on the dark side of their record, including hypocrisy over race and economic exploitation. And with those flaws fully acknowledged, he triumphantly makes the case that, to cite the title of one of his earlier works, there were nonetheless excellent reasons Why The Allies Won

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