I always knew that the trigger for Britain’s declaration of war was the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1 1939. So it was revealing to read Antony Beevor’s assertion in The Second World War that hostilities began a week earlier, with the Red Army defeat of the Japanese Kwantung Army in the puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol.
19th century rivalry between the Russian and Japanese empires culminated in Russia’s humiliating 1905 defeat in the often forgotten Russo-Japanese War of 1903-5. Beevor tells us that the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan alarmed Stalin, who feared that continued tensions on the Mongolian frontier could create a two-front scenario in a future war. The Kwantung Army was eager for a full-scale conflict with the Soviet Union, but the political and military leadership in Tokyo was not eager for war. The Kwantung Army took matters into their own hands by escalating an incident in May 1939 into a much bigger battle. In the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, the Red Army killed 61,000 Japanese troops for the loss of 8,000 Soviet troops. Stalin prudently agreed to Japanese requests for a ceasefire on August 31, by which time he had signed the Non-Aggression Treaty with Germany.
The significance of the Japanese defeat was that Japan’s “strike north” faction lost ground to the “strike south” faction. The focus of Japan’s imperial ambitions now turned to south-east Asia, the colonies of the western powers, and eventually the USA. Just weeks before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941 against Stalin, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Japan, even though it was helping the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese. By effectively neutralising the Japanese threat on his far eastern border, Stalin could move his experienced Siberian divisions from the Mongolian border when he needed their help in his battle against Germany.
The strength of Beevor’s book lies in its truly global reach. By focusing on the conflict in the Far East that predated WW2, Beevor presents a counter-balance to more Euro-centric and USA-centric accounts of other historians. He covers the familiar major battles like the Battle of Britain, France, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Pearl Harbour, Normandy, Italy, Midway and the U-Boat conflict, but also spotlights lesser war zones like Egypt, Greece, Burma and Finland.
Beevor takes no prisoners in his assessment of some of the iconic military and political leaders. He describes the cruelty of General George Patton and the stupidity of General Maurice Gamelin. He describes Monty (General Montgomery) as “a vertiginously over-promoted destroyer captain,” totally unsuited to the job of Supreme Commander in Southeast Asia in 1943. Commenting on General Mark Clark’s determination to take Rome in 1944, Beevor writes: “Clark’s obsession was so intense that one can assume that he had become slightly deranged.”
Beevor describes how most world leaders failed to believe Hitler’s stated plans to achieve European domination, to eradicate the Jews, and to create a slave empire in the east. Neville Chamberlain’s view of the world was largely shaped by his experience as a successful mayor of Birmingham. As Churchill’s ally Duff Cooper commented, Chamberlain “had never met anyone in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler . . . Nobody in Birmingham had ever broken his promises to the mayor.”
Chamberlain was not alone. Stalin too refused to believe that Hitler could betray him. In the face of incontrovertible evidence that the Germans were planning to invade, Stalin increased the deliveries to Germany of fuel, grain and metals. Both Chamberlain and Stalin failed to recognise that Nazi ideology had genocide at its core.