The Opening Stages of the War


As we begin class five, I offer these questions to consider as we think about where we have come so far, and how we will be proceeding from here  – and please note, these are the sort of questions that I will be thinking about when formulating exam questions. By the way, in every case, I would expect you to be drawing illustrative materials from the documents in the Hynes Reporting WW2 book


All the following questions refer to the war as it progresses from 1939 through the early months of 1941:


Based on what we have read and talked about so far, what have we seen that really runs against the standard stereotypes of WW2? What surprises you about what I say, what Keegan says, what we read in the documents in the Hynes Reporting WW2 book, etc? What themes does that stereotype – what I rudely call the ŇHistory Channel versionÓ – omit, or overstress?


Where can we see the heritage of WW1 in the second world war? In what ways do the lessons of 1939-41 support and/or contradict the lessons supposedly learned in the First World War? In what ways is the second war shaped by memories and stereotypes of the first war?


Why is Germany so successful in the opening stages of the war? Is it due to overwhelming long-term advantage or short term ad hoc decisions and actions? Why do German armed forces seem to have such a decisive advantage, especially in the ground war?


What does the progress of the war to date suggest about the importance of air power?


Do the Germans win in 1940, or do the allies lose?


Why does France collapse in 1940? Should we see this as an immediate response to military defeat, or can we see signs of underlying social crisis?


What are the biggest mistakes that the Germans make in this period? Why donŐt the Allies make a better job of exploiting them?


If you were an American at the time, how would you view the events so far, up to the start of 1941, say? What would you expect to happen next? How likely do you think it is that your country would get involved?


Historians generally donŐt like to understand great events through personalities, so this may be an unpopular and controversial question – how far can we see the victories and losses to date in terms of personalities? Do some people play a special role in winning or losing? What are the strengths or weaknesses of the leading individuals? Should this make us see it after all as HitlerŐs War?


What does Hitler seek to achieve by war? How far are his ambitions and wishes the same as those of his associates and his generals? Are his goals realistic? How far do German aims and goals change with shifting circumstances, eg as they win more rapidly than they think they are going to?


How far is the war at this stage shaped by what Russia does or does not do?


Why do Italian armed forces perform so atrociously through most of this period? What importance does this have for the progress and outcome of the war?


By early 1941, do the Germans have any potential weaknesses that the Allies can exploit? Looking at the balance of forces at this point, does the Allied side – ie, mainly the British Empire – have any hope of victory? Is geography on the side of the Allies or the Axis?


Look at the readings found in the Hynes Reporting book. Which of these are particularly valuable as sources? Which are particularly misleading? Which tell us things from a contemporary viewpoint that later historians tend to miss? How do they succeed in outing a human face on war?  What impact do you think these reports would have on their audiences, chiefly in the United States? How far were these writers working for their own political agendas, eg for or against US intervention? Are accounts left or right wing? How do these assumptions affect their reporting, especially before the US entry into war?


How does KeeganŐs account of the war strike us? Are there things that you think he is over- or under-playing?


Through their history, European nations in the early twentieth century approach war with radically different expectations than the United States. In what ways? How are Americans likely to fight wars differently from Europeans? What different expectations and constraints do Americans face?