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The Legacy of the Second World War
Yale University Press, 2010
208 pp., $40.00
When I teach a course on the history of World War II, I usually begin with a series of "Before and After" images, showing the technology available to combatants at the beginning and the end of hostilities. In 1939, for instance, the British still deployed a sturdy biplane called the Gloster Gladiator, which would not have looked wildly out of place over Flanders fields in 1917. By 1944, the Gloster firm was manufacturing a ferocious jet fighter called the Meteor, which was urgently needed to meet the rising generation of new German jets like the Me-262. The Germans, meanwhile, were working on even more stunningly radical craft like the Horten flying wing fighter-bomber, a science-fiction dream that unnervingly resembles contemporary U.S. stealth fighters. When we recall the phenomenal progress made in those years in electronic computing and rocketry, medicine and material science, to say nothing of nuclear weapons, we appreciate the scale of the technological, social, and cultural revolution triggered by the war.
John Lukacs has long argued for the central role of those years in shaping our contemporary reality, and The Legacy of the Second World War represents his most developed version of his argument to date. I emphasize this cumulative quality because Lukacs' works really all constitute components of one grand oeuvre, and Legacy is a series of brilliant meditations on themes that have stirred him for decades.
Specifically, he presents his agenda in the form of six key questions: "Was the Second World War inevitable? Was the division of Europe inevitable? Was Hitler inevitable? Was the making of atomic bombs inevitable? Was America's war against Germany inevitable? Was the Cold War inevitable?" In the hands of a lesser mortal, this thematic approach might have produced a series of self-contained case-studies. Legacy has something of this approach. Lukacs' nuclear discussion focuses strictly on the careers of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, while his account of American ...