How much more can possibly be written about World War II? A whole lot, as American historian Rick Atkinson said in a 2013 BookPage interview. (“There will be more to write about this [war] forever,” Atkinson told us.) James Holland’s The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941, the first of a planned three-volume series called The War in the West, is a great example of how a re-examination of historical accounts leads to new insights that urge us to reconsider the common wisdom about one of the most well-documented wars in history.
Holland, a best-selling British Gen-X military historian and novelist, and his publisher have promoted this book as a revisionist history of the war because it challenges the widely held view that at the outbreak of the war, Germany held all the cards in terms of the best trained and equipped military. Britain and its allies wandered about in a tactical desert, out-trained, out-armed, out-foxed and out-maneuvered until the slumbering British war machine and then the Americans awoke and mobilized, so the old story goes.
Examining the operational minutia of the war—the economies of scale in the production of uniforms and weaponry, for example—Holland complicates that earlier notion in fascinating ways. It’s obvious but has been largely unremarked, he notes, that to have a mechanized army (one of the supposed advantages of the German army) you also need to have the truck and tank mechanics and the supply chain to keep the machines running. To a surprising degree at the outbreak of the war, Germany still relied on the horse, and did not have the necessary infrastructure to sustain its supposed mechanical advantage.
Holland also argues that earlier views of the progress of the war follow Hitler’s own strategic biases in seeing World War II as a land-based operation in which the huge German army dwarfed the small British army. But this ignores the fact that in a global war the advantage lies with those who can protect their sources of raw materials, as the dominant British Navy could and did.
This, in very reduced form, is the provocative thesis of this book. Fortunately, Holland supports this thesis with riveting detail and a novelist’s narrative skill. Like Atkinson, he draws vividly on personal and official accounts, ranging easily between front-line experiences and high-level strategy to tell the gripping story of the war in Europe up until the German invasion of the U.S.S.R., a period when the U.S. had not yet entered the war. It’s a compelling account, one that readers with an abiding interest in World War II will want to add to their libraries.