Book review: “Blood and Ruins”, by Richard Overy
Land über alles? Note that the goals of war expand after initial victories; they should not be equated with the underlying cause of the bloodshed. Greed must carry too much explanatory weight, though Overy insists that in the 1930s, “the critical factor for Japan, Italy and Germany was territory.” Considering the two world wars together, international political theorists emphasize factors that survive classical imperialism. The strongest is an old acquaintance. Thucydides argued 2,500 years ago that “the real reason” for the Peloponnesian War “was Athens’ rise to greatness and the fear it brought to Sparta”. And so in Europe, as the second Thirty Years’ War, 1914-1945, approached, there was a muscular upstart in play: rapidly growing Germany. And with wealth comes ambition; nations get rich, then rowdy – as the United States did around 1900. The Spanish-American War was for preeminence, not plantations. McKinley clung to the Philippines to edge out America’s big rivals in the Pacific.
Power politics is not the same as imperial greed. When the scales tip, states worry about their survival. The Pacific War was not about real estate as such. The real culprit was unchecked Japanese power, culminating in the assault on Pearl Harbor. California next? Nor did France and Britain declare war on the Third Reich for the sake of their overseas properties. The driving force was the existential angst after Hitler’s attack on Poland as a prelude to the conquest of Europe.
Thus, “imperial wars” should not be confused with “systemic wars”, which are fought for the balance of power and the survival of nations. The United States did not enter World War I to protect Samoa. The mortal threat was the Kaiser’s submarine war directed against the American Atlantic lifeline. Did the Soviets monopolize Eastern Europe after 1945 for its wheat fields? No. They wanted to bottle up American power in Western Europe. The post-war American “empire”, its vast (and expensive) system of alliances, was not intended to enrich the United States, but to repel the Soviets. The central game is usually about strategic competition, not arable land and cheap labor, though governments often invoke wealth to mobilize nations for war.
Fast forward to 2022. Putin did not cross into Ukraine to reclaim this legendary ‘breadbasket’. The quest was from a certified sphere of predominance from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea. Unopposed for years, it did it because it could, and it could because the West had cashed in its peace dividends after the suicide of the Soviet Union in 1991. The US Army in Europe , once at 300,000, had fallen to 65,000 before Putin surged. . The 3,000 German panzers had fallen to 360. Opportunity, not area, presented itself.
Alas, 1931-45 was not the “last imperial war”. The story never ends; it simply reappears in new forms. And the past is the prologue that reveals the dynamics of all power politics. “Blood and Ruins” dissects the sinews of war with the sharpest scalpel. With myriad facts, it’s not for the nightstand, where it has to compete with Netflix. But it’s history at its finest, down to the finest detail culled from a dozen archives around the world.
While watching the talking heads on CNN, keep this masterful work by your side. Ukraine gets more than 30 entries in the index. Regard Map 7, which depicts the Soviet-German war after 1941. To understand the bombardment of kyiv and the destruction of Mariupol, read the annihilationist sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad.