Blood and Ruins: the great imperial war, 1931-1945

While many historians drill deeper into their sources and produce more detailed and specialist works, it is excellent to find one of Britain’s best Second World War historians doing the opposite. Blood and Ruins is a vast and encyclopaedic view of the war in its broadest possible context.

It is not military history told from the front trench or from the cockpit of a fighter plane. It is far removed from the James Holland approach to combat. Overy’s view is from the top down, from the chancellery balcony or from the planning office of a war department. It is a history that concentrates on strategic ideas, on geopolitical ambitions (or sometimes geopolitical fantasies), and on vast brushstrokes of military and economic activity.

It is a thrilling and fresh read, defined by a single overriding interpretation: that the Second World War was a great imperial conflict and not simply a war in which the Western democracies fought against fascism in Europe and militarism in Japan.

Overy begins in the late 19th century, and focuses not just on the imperialism of Britain, France, Belgium, and the established European nations. He shows how the ‘new’ nations of the 1860s and 1870s – including Japan, which began its dramatic process of modernisation in 1868 – also pursued imperial ventures with their ‘civilising missions’: Italy in East and then North Africa, Japan in China and Korea, Germany in Poland and western Russia. The word Lebensraum (‘living space’), it turns out, was coined by Friedrich Ratzel in 1897.

Overy sees the First World War as an imperial war. The Russians had designs on the eastern Mediterranean. The British occupied German colonies in Africa and conquered much of the Ottoman Middle East. The Japanese (an ally of Britain, France, and Russia) made ambitious demands on China. Germany occupied (briefly) parts of Russian Poland and the Baltic states. In the Versailles peace treaty, the victors declared that Germans were not humane colonisers and so none of its pre-war empire could be returned. Instead, the victors held on to it.

It is easy to forget the immense scale of the Japanese struggle against Manchuria and China during the 1930s. Italy, in the meantime, advanced its ambitions in Abyssinia and prepared for war in the Mediterranean. Germany continued to feel the need to look eastwards to supply the resources and ‘living space’ denied its people elsewhere.

BELOW A London tube station being used as a bomb shelter during the Blitz. The war blurred the conventional line between civilian and military participants.
A London tube station being used as a bomb shelter during the Blitz. The war blurred the conventional line between civilian and military participants. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

When war came in September 1939, the empires of Britain and France rallied to support the mother country. Although the Battle of Britain was vital for national survival, Britain’s imperial armies constantly lost out to the Germans for three years. Home Intelligence reported that the question repeatedly asked by many people was ‘Are the Germans always going to beat us whenever we meet them on land?’

Total war

There is more to Overy’s most- readable book, however, than the imperial interpretation of events. There is a chapter on the mobilisation for total war. That the principal participants mobilised their societies for war is commonplace. But the extent is not always realised: in 1944, 76% of Japanese national income was devoted to war, 70% of German (compared with 55% of British and 45% of American).

Overy examines how states managed this extraordinary level of centralised control, and why populations accepted it. In Britain and the United States, war workers in general enjoyed reasonable living conditions and many women workers felt a sense of well-paid independence. In the Soviet Union and Japan, on the other hand, workers worked appallingly long hours in dangerous workplaces day after day, living on the barest of rations.

In a chapter on fighting the war, Overy asks the very good question, how were the Allies able to win after the Axis had enjoyed so many victories in the first years of war? He talks about ‘force multipliers’, advances in operational organisation, equipment, tactics, and intelligence that in time built a huge advantage for the Allies. In armour, aircraft, and amphibians, as well as radio and radar, the Allies built up considerable margins of advantage that helped to carry later battles.

On the other hand, Overy is sceptical about the advantages gained from signals intelligence, code-breaking, and Ultra, which he feels has been overrated. Surprisingly, Overy ignores the great benefits that came from aerial intelligence on the Allied side, which developed into a sophisticated science in Britain but was neglected by the German military.

The discussion of ‘force multipliers’ is an interesting variation on the usual view that it was the industrial might of the Allies that led to victory. Overy does not ignore this, and sees America and Russia as having the two most successful wartime economies. By 1945, one third of Red Army vehicles were supplied by America, allowing Soviet factories to focus on the mass production of weapons and tanks.

Blood and Ruins includes chapters on the morality of the war and popular support for it among the different nations; on the blurring of the conventional line between civilian and military participants (in the Blitz, ten civilians were killed for every one British soldier); on the emotional trauma of war; and on the crimes and atrocities committed, some out of racial and ideological hatreds, some out of persistent male violence against women.

Like Daniel Todman’s brilliant recent Britain’s War, Overy does not end his narrative in 1945, but looks at the challenge of relocating millions of displaced persons, including 12 million Germans expelled from what had been eastern Germany, and up to 42 million Chinese who had fled war.

He concludes with the break-up of empires post-war, returning to his underlying theme. In Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the Second World War resulted in redrawing the political geography of entire continents.

Blood and Ruins is a magisterial attempt to place the Second World War in a new century-long context of empire-building and imperial collapse. It is full of insights from a distinguished historian who has spent decades studying the war. I doubt many will read this vast tome in one go, but it should join the bookcase of every serious student of the war.

Review by Taylor Downing
Blood and Ruins: the great imperial war, 1931-1945, Richard Overy, Allen Lane, hbk (£40), ISBN 978-0713995626.