Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War is a gripping new look at this enormously significant global conflict. The book’s author, historian P.M.H BELL, discusses the reasoning behind his choices, shedding light on the twelve unique turning points that determined the character and the ultimate outcome of the twentieth century’s most crucial conflict.
Article by P.M.H Bell
Why do we need another book about the Second World War? For two main reasons: first, there is still an intense interest in the war, as shown by a constant stream of books, TV programmes and films; and second, there is an equally keen desire to understand the conflict. This book sets out to bring these two focuses of attention together.
We are interested in the Second World War for all kinds of reasons. It was a vast struggle, affecting most of the world in one way or another, and encompassing almost every form of conflict known to man. Its cost in death and destruction was immense, and is still being felt in many countries – for example, the gaps in the population of the then Soviet Union caused by deaths on the one hand and lack of births on the other still mark the USSR’s successor states. Despite the appalling cost, there remains a strong sense that the Second World War was a ‘good war’, or at least a necessary one – strikingly, there has been no revulsion against the conflict like that which has often dominated feeling about the First World War. In all these ways the war exerts an almost magnetic attraction upon us. But at the same time its sheers size and complexity defy understanding. We are baffled as well as fascinated. We need a key to the puzzle, a guiding thread to help us to make sense of the mass of events.
Some observers can find no key, and conclude that the war was simply a dreadful, blood-soaked and senseless struggle, decided by attrition and exhaustion. Others see the war as a long, hard march to the inevitable Allied victory – along a rocky road, certainly, but one which led to an assured triumph. There is force in both these views. No-one will deny the blood, tears and suffering of the war; and the Allies did indeed win in the end. But this book argues that there was a pattern behind the mass of events, and that there were times when the result of the struggle was far from certain. There were in fact turning points which decided the shape and final outcome of the conflict.
These turning points differed widely in character. Most were battles lost and won – or not quite won, which could be equally important, as the Germans found in Russia in 1941. Some of these battles were short and sharp – Germany defeated France in a mere six weeks in 1940, and the Battle of Midway in 1942 was decided with almost surgical precision by ten bombs in ten minutes. Others were long drawn out – the Battle of the Atlantic swayed to and fro for three years before coming to a sudden climax in the space of a month, in May 1943. In the background, the crucial but largely hidden battle of the factories was a matter of mass production and economic power. Stalin himself said that the war would be won by the side which produced the most motors – which was true though not dramatic. Other turning points were political, and took shape at the great conferences at Teheran and Yalta.
The book examines twelve such turning points, starting with Hitler’s triumph in the west in 1940 and ending with the defeat of Japan in 1945. The choice is open to dispute, as became plain whenever I told people what I was writing about. But there are strong arguments for each of the twelve, and anyway the selection of two or three different turning points would not affect the main thrust of the book: that in the perspective provided by the turning points the war assumes a definite shape and pattern. This approach to the Second World War offers a fresh look at its main outlines and helps us to understand a conflict which was itself a turning point in world history.
P. M. H. Bell was Reader in History at the University of Liverpool and is the author of many books including The Origins of the Second World War in Europe. his latest book Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War is available now from Yale University Press.
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