James Holland. The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941: The War in the West, Volume 1. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2015. 512 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8021-2397-8.
Reviewed by Stephen Bourque
Published on H-War (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
James Holland’s The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941 provides us a classic example of why one should not judge a book by its cover, or even its title. With its red cover showing a German soldier in the center and "Germany" spelled out in large letters, one would assume it was about the rise of the Nazi state. I had visions of an updated version of William L. Shirer’s classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959) or other works on Hitler’s Germany in the tradition of Ian Kershaw, Mark Mazower, or Richard Overy. I anticipated a moderately modified interpretation of well-known events, colored by recently released or discovered documents, that change our understanding of how the Nazis were able to overturn the Versailles-imposed restrictions and crush Poland, the Low Countries, and France in the space of only a few years. What emerged, however, was a book full of surprises. Holland has crafted a narrative that is about far more than Germany’s reemergence and temporary domination, while utilizing the same books and documents that writers have had available for years, and challenges traditional orthodoxy about the war. While doing this, he provides an extremely enjoyable experience for the reader.
The first surprise is that the book’s title gives little indication of its actual content. Holland begins his narrative in the summer of 1939, long after Germany has begun its rearmament, seized the Rhineland and Austria, and cowed British and French political leaders at Munich. In forty-eight short chapters, his story covers the preparations for war among all of the associated powers, including the United States, to the weeks before Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. Along the way, the author covers the standard events including the invasions of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, and France. He discusses the early U-boat operations in the Atlantic, Hermann Goring’s attempts to bomb England into submission, the sea-saw battles in North Africa, and the less-studied details of operations in Greece and East Africa. While Hitler’s state remains at the center of the narrative, Holland skillfully weaves in perspectives from many of the affected states and organizations. How did the Italian government operate with the irrational Mussolini at its head in the shadow of Hitler? What problems did the German submarine leader Karl Dönitz have in taking the war to the British enemy? What role did British industrialists play in keeping the United Kingdom in the war? Discussions of these and other issues provide the reader with different perspectives on the early stages of the conflict. It is an interesting collage of military, social, political, and economic narrative.
A second surprise is the absence of new material. With the exception of interviews done by the author, scholars have known about most of the book’s sources. His comprehensive bibliography is impressive, as is the skill in which he integrates this extensive material into the narrative. Primarily an author of novels and popular histories, Holland has spent more than fifteen years seeking the biographies, diaries, and memoirs that add depth and interest to the standard chronological accounts. His collection is impressive, from the obvious political personalities such as Winston Churchill and George C. Marshall, to junior soldiers and sailors and the civilians who watched the war from a distance or up close in the battle area or under air attack. For example, the diary of Galaezzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son in law, has been available in print since 1947. Holland uses it early in his narrative to illustrate the diplomatic dance taking place between the Italian dictator and Hitler. At another level, he incorporates the memoirs of Helmut Mahlke, a German Stuka pilot, to gain his perspective on the battle over France during the 1940 campaign. Moreover, he continues throughout the book with perspectives from citizens, U-boat captains, and even Roosevelt’s advisor Harry Hopkins. Once-famous characters reappear in his narrative, such as the French actress Corinne Luchaire, who socialized with the Fascists and partied the war away in Paris. However, all of this material has been long available. What is significant is the skillful manner that Holland incorporates these personal accounts into his overarching story. As he argues in his introduction, these personnel accounts are the “spine that I hope will hold the narrative together” (p. 5) He succeeds in this task quite well.
A third, refreshing, aspect of the book is his challenge to traditional narratives and inclusion of aspects of the conflict that many authors have ignored. Holland believes that modern interpretations of the war are “steeped in perceptions and myth, rather than fact” (p. 1). For example, he reminds us that Germany was not a powerhouse but still, in most regards, a second-rate power when it came to mechanization. Not only were its tanks inferior to most British and French models, but also the nation was seriously deficient in trucks and automobiles. He points out that in spite of equipment shortcomings and the Allies’ superior strength, German forces had the advantage during the 1940 campaign. Having practiced in several peaceful operations in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, as well as the recently completed campaign in Poland, the Germans fielded a veteran contingent. Proficient, battle-trained officers commanded this expanding force. The French conscript army commanded by old generals and harnessed to an outmoded bureaucracy was simply incapable of reacting. In addition, the author spends time examining issues not always covered in traditional surveys, such as food production, and comparing the value different kinds of agricultural products. His discussion of comparative economies is interesting and informative. While experts know these issues, it is interesting to read them woven into the war’s narrative.
Although Holland writes with an obvious English bias, he seeks to present the conflict’s incidents from a variety of perspectives. The book’s international character breaks down many of the war’s stereotypes, indirectly alluding to the senselessness of the conflict in its early stages. The Rise of Germany is not the first book someone should read on the Second World War in Europe. The author presumes an understanding of the fundamental causes of the war, Hitler’s rise to power, and the difficulties the Western democracies, and the Soviet Union, had adjusting to resurgent German power. A minor annoyance is the abrupt manner the author ends this book, obviously in anticipation of the next volume. Summarizing the situation on the eve of Operation Barbarossa would have been an excellent way to end this volume and set the stage for the next. However, for those familiar with the standard narrative, Holland has provided us with an interesting and thought-provoking commentary of the early stages of the conflict. This reader looks forward to his subsequent volume.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Stephen Bourque. Review of Holland, James, The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941: The War in the West, Volume 1.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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