World War II: A New History

 Joe Maiolo is impressed with the scope of a concise book on the Second World War

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Reviewed by: Joe Maiolo
Author: Evan Mawdsley
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Price (RRP): £16.99

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To write a concise book about the biggest war in world history is no small task, but Evan Mawdsley has done it with masterful skill and insight. He casts a fresh light on the war. It began not in 1939, as most Europeans remember it, or in 1941, as most Americans do, but in 1937 with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war. The war arose not principally from ideological conflicts, but because Japan, Germany and Italy tried to overturn the old international order and establish their own regional hegemonies. To tell the full story of how Britain, the Soviet Union and the USA eventually locked arms to defeat the Axis challengers, the Asia-Pacific dimension of the war is as important as the European one. 

Mawdsley unashamedly focuses on high politics, grand strategy, military operations and macroeconomics. At its highest level, the Second World War was like a game of chess – a series of complex moves and counter moves. From this angle the coverage of this relatively short book is remarkable. Topics normally treated superficially or left out altogether, such as Poland’s fierce yet doomed war in 1939, or the war in China and Burma, get full treatment. A leading expert on the history of the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that many of Mawdsley’s most fascinating and thought-provoking passages examine Russia’s wars against Germany and Japan. According to him, for instance, historians have greatly exaggerated the significance of the famous tank battle at Kursk in 1943. 

Mawdsley does not employ any historical gimmicks to sustain his readers’ interest, but instead on wonderfully crisp prose and a deep understanding of the latest research. The absurd counterfactual that the Axis powers might have won the war is roundly dismissed. Once Germany and Japan’s blitzkriegs faltered in 1941, as they inevitably would, the long war of grinding attrition set in. The vast disparity in economic power between the two opposing coalitions guaranteed the eventual victory of the Allies. The only way the Axis powers might have prevented the Allies from using their economic superiority would have been to deny them use of the oceans, but the Axis fleets were too weak to do so. And although Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were only allies of convenience, all three understood that they had to coordinate their war efforts to win. 

What makes this a must-buy for anyone interested in the subject is the beautifully produced maps, illustrations and the 57 short boxes on topics ranging from “General Ludendorff and total war” to “The Katyn massacre”. This is a superb read for students and general readers alike, but also an authoritative work of reference.  

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Joe Maiolo is senior lecturer at King’s College London. His book Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War 1931–41 will be published by John Murray in March