Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War 1931–1941

Roger Moorhouse on the race for military supremacy before the Second World War

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Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Joe Maiolo
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £12.99

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From the Dreadnoughts in the prelude to the First World War, to the countless SS-20s and Pershings of the Cold War, we are well aware of the insidious role that arms races can play in accelerating history. Such is the prominence of the subject, indeed, that one would almost imagine that the arms race is an essential strand in the history of every modern conflict.

Yet, surprisingly perhaps, this is an aspect that has not traditionally been part of the narrative of the 20th‑century’s greatest conflict – the Second World War. That may now change.

Cry Havoc fills that gap in the story, charting the arms race that developed between the various players – democracies and dictatorships alike – in the run-up to that conflict and analysing the baleful consequences that ensued. 

Maiolo, a historian at King’s College London, casts his net wide; bringing not only military and technological matters within his purview, but also examining the effects that the acceleration of rearmament had on the domestic societies, polities and economies concerned.

As the author explains, the hawkish logic held that the primary lesson of the First World War was that preparation for Total War, mobilisation of reserves and militarisation of the economy were the keys to national survival. 

The result was the emergence of what one might regard as the precursor to the ‘military-industrial complex’ – a vast agglomeration of specialists, technocrats and officials, whose tentacles spread into the political, academic and social spheres.

While the headlines spoke of disarmament for much of the 1930s, therefore, and agonised over the painful legacies of the Great War, that caste of technocrats was busy planning
for the next conflagration. 

Maiolo’s book is necessarily replete with statistics and comparisons, but achieves the feat of being both readable and thoroughgoing. A formidable work of research, it illuminates an important and little-known aspect of the history of the war.

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Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Bodley Head, 2010)