Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
15 October 2012
Review by James D. Perry, Reston, VA
From Axis Victories to the Turn of the Tide: World War II, 1939–1943
By Alan Levine
Washington: Potomac Books, 2012. Pp. 339. ISBN 978–1–59797–795–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

Although Alan Levine has written many works of military history, including the outstanding Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945,[1] and teaches at the Borough of Manhattan Junior College, he is not an academic historian in the usual sense: he writes for the general reader and cites only secondary sources. In his latest book, he divides World War II into theaters—Western Europe, the Atlantic, the USSR, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the Pacific—and proceeds through them chronologically. Unfortunately, the book lacks an introduction stating the author's purpose, instead plunging directly into a narrative of events. Its thesis, as such, found only in the conclusion, is that the Axis probably could never have won the war.

The most glaring omission in the book is any discussion of national strategy. The belligerents seem to have had no political vision of the postwar world and to have fought only for military victory. This is an odd oversight: presumably, the argument in Levine's doctoral dissertation (NYU, 1977), entitled "British, American and Soviet Political Aims and Military Strategies, 1941–1945," was not that the Allied nations had no strategy! In any event, Levine here contends that Hitler's primary motivation was ideology, not any real strategic calculation; he also represents the Allies primarily as reacting to German and Japanese initiatives.

Thus, we never learn what the British hoped to achieve, beyond mere survival, in any of the critical periods: September 1939 to May 1940, the Fall of France to Pearl Harbor, and after Pearl Harbor. Levine ignores the crucial relationship between events on the Eastern Front and the deterioration in Japanese-American relations from June to December 1941.[2] Nor does he describe Franklin Roosevelt's vision of a postwar world order based on US-Soviet cooperation and the liberation of the European colonial empires, which profoundly influenced American decisions even in 1942. Last but not least, Levine does not examine Stalin's strategy at any point between August 1939 and February 1943, apparently believing he had no positive goals of his own, but simply responded to Hitler's actions. This was far from the actual case. In keeping with the idea that the Germans acted and the Soviets only reacted, the chapters on the Eastern Front are written almost entirely from the German perspective.

The inattention to strategy perhaps results from Levine's belief that the enormous material superiority of the Allies left the Axis little chance to win the war:

One of the most remarkable ideas about World War II is that the Axis powers nearly won it. The idea seems to be far more common in the former Allied countries than in Germany or Japan. It is strange that the heirs of what was, on the face of things, an enormously superior and victorious coalition seem to feel compelled to "scare themselves" by reflecting on how close they came to disaster.
      But the chances of a complete Axis triumph in the war that broke out in 1939 were probably nonexistent. It may be impossible to prove a negative—that Nazi Germany and Japan could never have won the war—but that conclusion is strongly indicated. (287)

If this is true, then Axis political goals and the strategy adopted to achieve them scarcely merit consideration. Indeed, one is reduced to agreeing with Levine that the Axis nations were irrational and ideologically deluded in starting the war to begin with. If the Allies' victory was inevitable and their sole objective was winning the war, they needed no strategy beyond the relentless application of overwhelming resources. Other scholars have debunked such economic determinism.[3] Certainly, neither the British, nor the Americans, nor the Soviets thought victory over the Axis was preordained on economic grounds between 1939 and 1943. Nor, for that matter, did the Axis powers think their own defeat was inevitable.

Levine sometimes contradicts his own claim that Germany had no prospect of winning: he writes, for example, that "after France fell, Germany had a military position and sufficient freedom of action to make Britain's defeat inevitable" (290), but later asserts that Germany could not possibly have invaded Britain, starved it by U-boat operations, or forced it to submit by conquering the Mediterranean. How then was Germany to defeat Britain? He argues that a Nazi "quick victory" over the Soviet Union "was never possible" (295), while pointing out that Germany left "fifty-four divisions and fifteen hundred planes" (291) to defend Western Europe in 1941: "had these forces been released for the operation against the Soviets, Germany would have defeated them" (292). By this logic, a quick victory in 1941 was possible in the East if only Germany had committed more of its available forces.

Many authors have held that events on the Eastern Front decided the war. Levine denies that Germany would have won the war by defeating the Soviets—which he thinks was impossible in any case—because it could not have successfully exploited a Soviet collapse: had the Reich defeated the USSR, the Western powers would still have destroyed the German economy by strategic bombing. Further, "the development of atomic weapons gave the Western powers an advantage that ultimately would have won the war, whatever happened on the battlefields of Russia and the Mediterranean" (289). Such speculation is, of course, beside the point. In reality, the Axis as a whole suffered 90 percent of its casualties on the Eastern Front in 1939–43. Yet Levine's book is decidedly Anglo-American and Eurocentric in orientation. Of its 286 pages, 183 discuss Western Europe, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, while 58 treat the Eastern Front and 43 the Pacific. Titanic battles in the Soviet Union get less attention than, for instance, the all-too-familiar struggles of a handful of divisions in the Western Desert. The Sino-Japanese struggle is barely mentioned.

Why does Levine end his account in early 1943 rather than 1945? His previous works include a book on the Anglo-American European campaign and another on the Pacific War.[4] He could easily have summarized operations in these theaters and added an account of the later stages of the war in the East from Stalingrad to the fall of Berlin.

In sum, this is a competently written military history of events from 1939 to 1943, but the author privileges the Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters at the expense of the Eastern Front and the Pacific. There are no major errors in the narrative, though the analysis is sometimes questionable. However, the market is glutted with recent, competently written histories of World War II, including many that cover the entire war.[5] By comparison, Levine's book offers little that is new to general readers, let alone scholars of the war. Its neglect of race, gender, labor, and other social issues is especially disappointing. National strategy during the war remains a poorly understood subject. Had Levine chosen to examine it in more depth and detail, From Axis Victories to the Turn of the Tide would be a far more valuable book.

[1] Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

[2] He cites but has not learned from Waldo Heinrichs's brilliant Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1988).

[3] See, e.g., Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (NY: Norton, 1996).

[4] Respectively, From the Normandy Beaches to the Baltic Sea: The Northwest Europe Campaign, 1944-1945 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000) and The Pacific War: Japan versus the Allies (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000).

[5] E.g., Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945 (NY: Knopf, 2011), Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (NY: Harper, 2011), Anthony Beevor, The Second World War (NY: Little, Brown, 2012), and Gordon Corrigan, The Second World War: A Military History (NY: Thomas Dunne, 2012).

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