I have begun reading Richard Overy, Blood and Ruins: the Great Imperial War 1931-45 (2021). This new comprehensive world history of World War Two renames, redates and rethinks that conflict that still dominates the mental world of world leaders, as we saw in Tony Blinken’s speech, “The Power and Purpose of American Diplomacy in a New Era”, and the institutional arrangements of world powers. The front page includes a comment by the distinguished historian, Richard Evans that this book is “a masterpiece that will change the way we talk about the war.”
I am only 140 pages into a 1000 page book (including notes), but I can attest to the truth of Evans’ claim. My reading does include the passage in which Overy reinterprets “appeasement” and the events of Munich 1938. These events have become a pivotal myth and crucial mental framework for interpreting every international crisis. For example, there have been many routine references to this story about the past during the conflict in Ukraine. In my online course on Mindful History, I referred to this myth as an example of the thinking traps we can fall into with some fixed stories of the past.
So, let me quote a key passage of this book that demonstrates how you can see the world more clearly and more mindfully with a little bit of quality world history.
“Given the widespread popular fear of a general war and the manifold problems of holding together global empires that were difficult to defend adequately against external threats and internal political protest, the reduction of risk became a central component of both British and French strategy in the 1930s.
The avoidance of risks is usually defined by the term ‘appeasement’, but it is an unfortunate term, as one of its proponenets, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamerlain, later remarked. Appeasement has become the lightning conductor for a long line of critical and hostile analysis of Western behaviour in the face of dictatorship, and a watchword for any current failure to act with firmness against any threat to Western security. Yet as a description of British and French strategy in the 1930s it is highly misleading.”
(Overy, Blood and Ruins, pp 72-73)
Overy’s book is important and crucial to understand the great imperial war of 1931-45, the world orders that followed, and the current crisis that our world leaders are recklessly navigating us through. I shall return to it on The Burning Archive.