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War and politics

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST

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An erudite analysis of the Second World War drawing on a mass of archival material.

KARL VON CLAUSEWITZ, one of the greatest writers of all time on realpolitik, famously said: War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means ( On War (1832-4), book 8, chapter VIII). Like all famous quotes it is commonly misquoted as continuation of politics by other means. It is not pedantic to trace the correct version because it yields nuances which are lost in the popular version, as in this very case.

This is an erudite work by P.M.H. Bell, Emeritus Reader in History at the University of Liverpool. He won high praise for his work The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (1986). In a real sense the present book is a continuation of the narrative, as erudite and analytical.

The 12 carefully chosen turning points are the collapse of France (May-June 1940); the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940); Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941); Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour (December 7, 1941); the Battle of Midway Island (June 4, 1942), where the U.S. achieved a remarkable victory over the Japanese fleet; the Battle of Stalingrad (July 1942-February 1943); the Battle of the Atlantic (March-May 1943), in which Britain foiled German plans to cut off the seaborne supplies; the Battle of the Factories; The Big Three's Conference in Teheran (November 28-December 1, 1943), which marked the turning point for the grand alliance; the Allies invasion of Normandy (June-July 1944) to open a second front which Stalin had long pressed for; the fateful Yalta Conference (February 4-11, 1945); and the United States' criminal folly of dropping atomic bombs on a Japan which was on the verge of defeat.

To recall these turning points is to realise the reckless folly of Gandhi's adventure of August 8, 1942, called the Quit India campaign. The minutes of the Congress Working Committee's crucial meeting record both Nehru and Patel as reporting that Gandhi believed that Japan would win the war. He was careful to send Madeleine Slade to meet the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow. He had no time for her. The public was not taken into confidence by the Mahatma. By August 1942, it was obvious that Britain's isolation was over. The unsinkable aircraft carrier, the U.S., and the Soviet Union had become Britain's allies. The tide had begun to turn against the Axis. Within months, the folly of the Quit India call registered itself. In prison the leaders squabbled furiously over Gandhi's call. The ignorance of world affairs, typified by that episode, continues still.

Bell's work draws on the mass of archival material that has come to light over the years. In India, there are people writing of the war with China in 1962 wilfully ignorant of archival disclosures in China and elsewhere. Such is the demeaning spell of chauvinism. Bell's turning points span the full breadth of the war without sparing the war heroes sharp criticism for their strategic failures.

He writes: This review of turning points in the Second World War challenges two widely held impressions of the war: first, that the conflict followed a well-marked, if often rocky, road to an Allied victory which was in the long run inevitable; and second, that the war consisted only of a long and bloody slogging match, punctuated by heroic battles but decided by attrition rather than by any feats of leadership or decisive battles. When we look at turning points, on the contrary, it appears that, so far from an Allied victory being a certainty, there were stages, even as late as 1944, when the balance of the conflict might well have tilted in favour of the other side. And while there were indeed long and gruelling battles, with appalling casualties, notably on the Russian front, there were also distinct events (or sometimes series of events) that reveal a pattern in the war.

In both the World Wars, Europeans quarrelled over power only to yield supreme power to the U.S. In 1945, Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union suffered a lot. The Soviet Union lost 27 million lives. Only the United States emerged as a material victor from the war. The country had not been invaded or bombed. Military casualties were far smaller than those suffered by the Soviets 274,000 against at least ten million, probably more. The American economy thrived during the war, largely through the stimulus provided by the demands of war itself. The United States emerged as a great military power, and for a time the only possessor of nuclear weapons. It was all a new and somewhat heady experience. The inebriation persists still, but it is evaporating.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 23, 2011.)

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