The end of empires
BBC History Magazine|October 2021
RICHARD J EVANS lauds an innovative work that re-examines the Second World War in the context of global imperial ambitions
RICHARD J EVANS

In this ambitious new book, Richard Overy seeks to reshape our understanding of the Second World War. It was, he says, a single global conflict that began not, as conventionally narrated, with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, but far earlier, with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Many previous histories of the war have treated the European and Asian theatres of conflict separately. In Total War (1972), Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint each looked at one of the two theatres. Gerhard L Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994) made a valiant effort to fulfil the promise of its subtitle but focused above all on the conflict in Europe, incorporating Japan only because it was an “associate” of Hitler’s Germany. By contrast, Blood and Ruins integrates both aspects far more coherently into a single interpretative framework.

Overy manages to pull off this feat because he recasts the war as “the last imperial war”, fought not between rival nation states or ideologies but between global, multinational of the war have treated the European and Asian theatres of conflict separately. In Total War (1972), Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint each looked at one of the two theatres. Gerhard L Weinberg’s A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994) made a valiant effort to fulfil the promise of its subtitle but focused above all on the conflict in Europe, incorporating Japan only because it was an “associate” of Hitler’s Germany. By contrast, Blood and Ruins integrates both aspects far more coherently into a single interpretative framework.

Overy manages to pull off this feat because he recasts the war as “the last imperial war”, fought not between rival nation states or ideologies but between global, multinational empires. These were the “haves”, principally Britain and France along with the Netherlands, and the “have-nots”, above all Germany, Italy and Japan, who sought to create empires of their own – Germany on the European continent, Italy in the Mediterranean Japan in the Pacific.

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