Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931–1945 by Richard Overy

The Second World War was hailed by its winners as a triumph for justice, liberty and democracy. So it was, insofar as a rival victory of the dictatorships would have created a new Dark Age such as Churchill warned of. Yet the Allied cause was fraught with embarrassments and ironies, notable among them the determination of the old European empires to retain their own hegemony over half the world and its peoples.

Western assumptions of cultural and racial superiority remain unpalatable to those who suppose that only the Nazis and the Japanese treated conquered peoples as Untermenschen. As viceroy of India in 1900, Lord Curzon asserted, “The millions I have to manage are less than schoolchildren,” and in 1945 plenty of British, French, and Dutch people still clung to this view.

This book’s title is taken from a 1928 line by Leonard Woolf, among the most unjustly neglected of the Bloomsbury Group: “Imperialism, as it was known in the nineteenth century, is no longer possible, and the only question is whether it will be buried peacefully or in blood and ruins.”

The author notes that by the end of 1942, 66,000 Indian subjects of the Raj were held in detention for political reasons. Police had opened fire on dissidents in at least 538 recorded instances, killing more than 1,000 Indians. Permission was given for widespread floggings of militant nationalists, although the India Office in London strove to suppress publicity about them.

Power Plays

The foundation of this huge, dense work is Richard Overy’s contention that the conflict should be viewed as a clash between mature and aspiring imperial powers, which began not in 1939, but instead eight years earlier, when the Japanese launched murderously forth into China.

Overy, a veteran chronicler of this period, writes: “The critical factor for Japan, Italy and Germany was territory.” If the dictatorships, in their pursuit of empires, had confined themselves to limited objectives — Italy’s seizure of Ethiopia, Germany’s of the Czech lands, and Japan’s of Manchuria — they could probably have got away with them. It was the extravagant scale of their ambitions that undid them both politically and strategically.

“The avoidance of risk is usually defined by the term ‘appeasement’,” Overy writes in one of his more important statements, “… lightning conductor for a long line of critical and hostile analysis of Western behaviour in the face of dictatorship … Yet as a description of British and French strategy in the 1930s it is highly misleading.”

The author argues, surely rightly, that British and French policy was never “simply a spineless abdication of responsibility” but instead “a prolonged, if sometimes incoherent effort to square the circle of growing international instability and their own desire to protect the imperial status quo”. Britain’s First Sea Lord claimed in 1934: “We have got most of the world already, or the best parts of it, and we only want to … prevent others from taking it away from us.”

Beyond such political analysis, the book addresses many other aspects of the struggle in successive chapters: the campaigns; the fate of civilians and especially the atrocities they suffered, here graphically detailed; the means by which the war was fought and its economics. Page after page offers its own tidal wave of facts and statistics.

“Imperialism, as it was known in the nineteenth century, is no longer possible, and the only question is whether it will be buried peacefully or in blood and ruins.”

The first British soldier to be killed in action in France perished as late as December 9, 1939, by treading on a French mine. Although Americans were more hostile to the Japanese than to the Nazis, in 1941 their president anticipated that fear of the US navy would deter Japan from war. His rhetoric thus focused on the Germans, to whom he referred in speeches that year 152 times, against only five mentions of Japan.

“We should all get on much better,” Senator Arthur Vandenberg told the British Washington ambassador Lord Halifax, “if you British would stop talking about the British Empire.” Yet if Churchill’s people made themselves ridiculous in many American eyes by banging on about liberty when they sought to deny this to their imperial subjects, racial segregation was an equally ugly blot on US assertions of principle.

The US navy admitted Black recruits for the first time only in April 1942, and a year later 71 percent of its Black personnel served in the stewards branch, waiting on white officers’ tables. Only 1.9 percent of the US army’s officer corps was Black. By the end of 1944 just 1 percent of 138,000 Black recruits serving in the United States Army Air Forces had qualified to fly.

It was a contradiction that while the German army was professionally superior to its French, British or American counterparts, the Western Allies eventually made war more effectively, by exploiting “force multipliers” such as organization, equipment, intelligence, radio, radar, and air support, which Overy notes “made the difference in battlefield performance”.

He addresses the struggle in Asia in unusual detail, naming Chinese generals whom I feel a pang of guilt never to have heard of. I remain unconvinced that any Chinese or Japanese testimony on the fighting can be regarded as reliable, but it seems admirable that the author makes the attempt to render it coherent.

The US squandered $800 million in aid between 1945 and 1948 on the attempt to keep afloat the Chinese nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, more than it had spent on China during the struggle against the Japanese. Overy writes in his concluding peroration, “The long Second World War, from the 1930s to the violent post-war years, ended not only a particular form of empire, but discredited the longer history of the term.”

Overy’s publisher makes the bold claim that this vast tome is “a masterpiece”. It certainly brings together within a single volume more information about the struggle than any previous work, and it is hard to dissent from most of the author’s highly informed judgments: I would merely like to have been surprised more often.

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph