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Second World War: "No battle or weapon proved decisive".

Isabelle Corbier, President of the Studies & Perspectives Committee of the Association des cadres et auditeurs de l'Institut des hautes études de défense nationale (AA-IHEDN), followed the strategic debate on 18 March with historian Olivier Wieviorka, who put the history of the Second World War into perspective. Here are her impressions.
Image de représentation de la Seconde Guerre mondiale

Under the title "Absolute war? Putting the Second World War back into perspective", the IHEDN welcomed historian Olivier Wieviorka, author of a book on the Second World War. Total history of the Second World War (published by Perrin). This book is at once a synthesis inspired by the latest historiographical work, a reflection on the singularity of an era and a look into the past to help us better understand today's world. Olivier Wieviorka provides readers with a wealth of knowledge to help them understand the Second World War in all its dimensions, by placing it in a global context. A world war in our eyes, a war of territorial occupation, a war of experimentation with dictatorship and totalitarianism.

The concept of the Second World War deserves attention: it is true that the war took place everywhere in the world, but this fact alone does not justify the expression. The concept is not self-evident for all countries. It does not apply to all theatres of operation. The only power to have waged a "world war" is the United States. Is this a fight for universal values? Neither, since this war appears to be ideological, but against a backdrop of nationalism. Hence a memory that is primarily national, rather than universal.

Since military facts alone are incomprehensible and the history of battles too limited in interest, the historian has opted for the narrative (of facts, events and causalities), lively and embodied, accompanied by quotations, portraits and anecdotes. Thanks to the themes addressed in specific chapters (societies, states, military practices), he offers a double key to reading. The author addresses strategy, showing that no battle or weapon proved decisive and that alternative strategies had to be developed. In the end, logistics emerges as the essential and crucial element of warfare, so imperative is its effectiveness.


An analysis that puts current events into perspective and provides food for thought. Logistics remain just as fundamental in Ukraine today, as Olivier Wieviorka points out. And the historian questions the military institution's capacity to forget, pointing out that the infantry is on the front line in Ukraine, as it was in the First World War. A good teacher, however, the professor points out that the parallel drawn with the Munich agreements is irrelevant, since this was an event that preceded the war; referring to the Munich spirit was valid in 2014, not in 2024!

A more judicious parallel lies in understanding the rationality of the other and the difficulty of understanding him. Olivier Wieviorka notes that Western leaders were just as mistaken in the Second World War as current leaders are in understanding Putin's ideological character. Similarly, the question of the sacrifices that the French were prepared to make at the time - the pacifism of the inter-war period was based on a France battered and ruined by the First World War - can be asked of all citizens today: what are we prepared to do and what kind of commitment are we prepared to support?

In response to the questions posed, Olivier Wieviorka points out that each individual was confronted with moral dilemmas during the Second World War (which had not been the case during the First), that there were more civilian than non-civilian victims, not forgetting the Shoah and the genocides: an exceptionally brutal universe that tipped this war into a special dimension.

This is a fascinating, easy-to-read work, full of information and food for thought.