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The untold war: Two books rethink how the world was shaped by the Second World War

Randall Hansen’s book provides an account of resistance inside Germany prior to surrender, which, for many cities, came without opposition.


Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Operation Valkyrie

By Randall Hansen, Doubleday Canada, 480 pages, $34.95

The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942

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By Nigel Hamilton, Mariner Books, 528 pages, $38

This is the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War and the flood of books on history's most destructive conflict continues. Two of the latest volumes in that river of retrospection are imaginative studies that substantially alter our view of a global conflict that continues to shape our world.

One of them, written by a Canadian, illuminates a culture of resistance to Nazism that made a "modest but nonetheless real effect" on the last year of the war and positioned West Germany for a robust revival in the post-war years. The other, aiming unusual attention to the wartime role and observations of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, gives us a new perspective on Franklin Delano Roosevelt as war president and military strategist. Together they remind us that a war that is now three-quarters of a century in the past is not yet a settled matter, at least among those many who study it.

The focus of Randall Hansen's Disobeying Hitler is German resistance in the months after the unsuccessful 1944 Operation Valkyrie effort to assassinate the Nazi dictator. As the Allies' penetration of Germany deepened and as Germany's prospects deteriorated, Nazi officers began to realize their vulnerability to charges of war crimes, an acknowledgement that led some to harden their efforts and others to recoil from the Nazi cause. At the same time, the despair that infected the German home front emboldened civilians to resistance measures of their own.

Hansen, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, paints a vivid and compelling portrait of the resistance in France to Hitler's instructions that Paris "is to become a heap of rubble." But what may be of equal interest is the lesser-known resistance to Hitler in the war's sunset months, and not only by Albert Speer, whom Hansen portrays as a conscientious objector to Hitler's orders to reduce his country to rubble and ruin. "Harried by Allied fighters and, on his trip to Silesia, within earshot of the guns in the front, Speer tried to convince [army officials, industrialists and politicians] not to destroy Germany," Hansen writes.

Resistance was difficult in a crumbling country where an order was issued to shoot all men in homes displaying white flags, and yet the sheer irrationality of Nazi Germany's last days, exceeding if possible the irrationality of Nazi Germany at its zenith of power and terror, provided the logic of resistance.

Resistance took real courage, whether it was the three girls who broke into a boathouse to secure a paddleboat that allowed officials to surrender Heidelberg; or the 20-year-old college student in Ansbach who distributed leaflets urging his neighbors to resist the "Nazi executioners" and then persuaded the mayor to surrender his city; or the mayor of Freiburg, who was given orders to mine the city's bridges and did so, with duds. To all these tales Hansen adds a spark of drama and a whisper of wisdom.

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"[T]he price of disobedience remained death," Hansen explains, "so action beyond mere enthusiasm required some bravery."

Above all, Hansen's book is a chilling look at Nazi Germany in collapse, a rudderless nation in upheaval, invaded from the east by an avenging army and from the west by Allies horrified by the factories of death they found.

In this charnel house – and in direct contravention to the Fuehrer's orders – half of Germany's cities surrendered without opposition. This came as hundreds, if not thousands, defied orders and displayed white flags or persuaded German soldiers to stand down. "There was," Hansen argues, "much more active opposition to the National Socialist regime in the last year of the war than much of the literature, transfixed by the horrifying and enchanting image of a Wehrmacht in its death throes, allows." It is Hansen's achievement to bring that opposition to life.

Nigel Hamilton's Mantle of Command is an achievement of an equal but different sort, clarifying FDR's presidency and his conduct of the war in a readable, approachable fashion.

As president and commander-in-chief, Roosevelt took an approach shaped, as so much of World War II was, by reaction to the war of 1914-1918. The control of the First World War by military officials led to the disaster of the trenches, and as a result Roosevelt – and Churchill and Hitler, too – took command into their own hands. FDR, Hamilton argues, "was unwilling to delegate something as important as world war to 'professionals.'" That was a departure from the Great War, and Hamilton's recognition of it is a great insight that by itself merits attention for his book. His emphasis, too, is on FDR as a master planner, not only of the war but also of the world it would build, with a vision for the defeated powers and also for the triumphant ones, especially Churchill's Britain, which he hoped to supplant as the world's democratic steward – without colonial aspirations.

Hamilton chooses 14 episodes – kind of a Rooseveltian version of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, you might think – to show FDR in action as war commander. From Pearl Harbor to Dieppe and North Africa – this volume only covers 1941 and 1942 – with stops at Singapore and Midway, among many others, Hamilton paints a world at war and an American president willing to countermand the strong objections of his principal ally, his secretary of war, and his military brass.

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The author of seven volumes on General Bernard Montgomery, Hamilton argues that FDR's "first priority" after Pearl Harbor was establishing "the moral basis for a coalition war," and though Churchill turned up in the White House in the first month of US involvement in the war, the president made it clear that the alliance against Germany and Japan was broad. The first name he mentioned was William Lyon Mackenzie King.

FDR's war-making style differed substantially from that of Churchill, and his line of strategic vision was broader. "Where Churchill relied on his reading of history and his abiding, romanticized Victorian vision of British arms," Hamilton writes, "the president liked to question every visitor, and every report." This was underlined by Mackenzie King: "Winston cowed his colleagues. He stifled discussion when it was critical and did not agree with his views." As a result, Hamilton argues, FDR eventually took the upper hand, regarding Churchill as a "junior partner, vested with poor military judgment but supreme courage." Hamilton identifies Feb. 15, 1942, when the Japanese overran the British outpost at Singapore, as one of the critical hinges of history. "The fact was, the British Dominions, the still-free nations of the world, and even the occupied and threatened nations, now looked to the United States, not to Great Britain, to liberate and protect them," he writes.

Roosevelt was a lifelong and ardent critic of the British Empire, which seemed to be crumbling under its own weight, militarily and morally, in these years. Mackenzie King, a constant presence in this volume, saw this vividly in a 1942 visit to the White House, remarking that whole swaths of the British Empire – including, he said, "to the amusement of some of us, British Columbians" – looked to Washington and not to London for leadership.

"Mackenzie King was not alarmed by that," Hamilton writes. "What struck him was how graciously and yet firmly Roosevelt was handling his enlarged role. Where Churchill had recently become somehow smaller, in both spirit as well as power, the president had seemed to grow larger." If one of the Hamilton theses is the eclipse of Great Britain, an important sub-theme is the rise of Canada (with its large contributions of food, arms, and troops to the Allied cause) and the growing role of Mackenzie King. "Canada, in fact, was now as important to the war effort as Great Britain," he argues.

There was, of course, a tragic element to that: the calamity at Dieppe, which rendered Mackenzie King "very sad at heart" and prompted him to reflect, later, "I keep asking myself was this venture justified, just at this time?" That question has been asked for centuries. In the spring of 1942, when all answers were tentative, Chester Nimitz, American commander-in-chief of Pacific Ocean operations, wrote a letter to his wife. "Some day," he said in that note, "the story of our activities will be written and it will be interesting." These two books prove that it was, and is.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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