A Question For Historians: Anything New About WWII?

I have read a lot of books about the war. It seems to me, that just about every topic relevant to WWII has been endlessly examined (and re-examined). I am sure that when the old Soviet Union fell (and its archives were opened) that some new facts emerged-probably nothing earth-shaking, but significant.
But now, as we are more than 70 years from the end of the war, is it likely that any new facts will emerge? Almost all of the direct participants are dead (or extremely old), and the commanders are all gone. So, will future historians have much data to mine? Or will their books read pretty much the same as those already written?Or suppose some historian discovers a letter written by FDR, Churchill, Stalin, etc., that contradicts something accepted now? I think the likelyhood of this happening is pretty small.

Anything is possible, and there are likely some aspects of the war that remain largely unknown to the general public, but most of the secret stuff has been released, and the big picture of what happened is fairly well understood. I think some unknown atrocities will be uncovered in the future and the fate of missing planes, ships and subs will come to light, but I doubt anything earthshaking will be discovered that we don’t know about already.

BTW, my father fought in Germany in WWII and is still talking about it so not everyone associated with the war is gone.

One aspect that might change is the examination of Soviet papers : so far, Russian archives have only been released on a punctual basis, with much oversight.

But generally speaking, yeah, WW2 is a pretty well-trodden field, and since it was also one of the most documented wars in history there hardly ever was much “fog of war” going on about it, at least not when the broad strokes are concerned. What doubt there subsists would be along the lines of “was division X in this area on July 6, or 20 miles from there ?” ; that kind of thing.

ETA : however, at this point the real historian work that keeps being relevant is dispelling popular notions about the war, as vehicled by TV & Hollywood, political speeches etc… ; that will always remain relevant.

Historical revisionism is never-ending. Every generation of historians puts a new spin on the old data. Each new generation tries to correct the biases of their predecessors, and each generation has biases of its own.

You write what you believe to be the definitive account of the war.
Twenty years later, some punk grad student comes along and says, “You wrote a good book about X, but you neglected to consider the implications of Y.”
Twenty years later, another punk grad student comes along and says, “Yeah, but while you were obsessing about Y, you ignored Z.”

We are still doing armchair psychoanalysis on Caligula, two thousand years after his death. You think a measly seventy years is enough to exhaust the WWII inquiries? :slight_smile:

I am actually researching a book in my free time on the British Parliament in the Second World War :slight_smile: to my knowledge it hasn’t been done before.

The raid on Amiens prison to free resistance leaders has been debated, was the end justified by the means, and was it really worth the risk and loss of Picard. If this raid was so vital, then what information and which resistance leaders mattered so much?

There has been quite a lot of speculation on this.

There may well be covert assets that were still in place long into the cold war, and may have had a significant impact on how that was conducted - even now that might still be a source of tension. Imagine if very senior politicians, highly respected ones were compromised.

Just think of ours and Soviets greatest leaders and their retinue, or how about certain war criminals being given a pass to escape and remain at large by some very important and respected leaders - its not beyond the bounds of possibility. There may well have been serious spying by allies on each other and placements of high level operatives.

You also have to realise that social and political status cascades down through generations, lets imagine that the sons or daughters of very prominent and influential individuals are now also occupying positions of great power and responsibility, how would it be if their parents were either war criminals, spies, or had been involved in some unsavoury activity - you might imagine that it should not have an impact upon their children or even grandchildren, but don’t bet on that, there are plenty of countries where the sins of the parents may well visit upon their descendants.

It was only relatively recently that it became publicly wide knowledge that Rommel was not just an able commander, he had access to US information on the dispersal of British military assets - the Axis had broken the US Black Book code. The British had shared this information with the US in the hope of advice and support, but the returns back from the US ambassador to Washington contained way more detailed information that was wise.

That information on numbers, forces and positions was extremely useful to Rommel, and once the compromise had been understood and closed, Rommel never won another battle in North Africa again.

So , who really knows how much was known about Pearl Harbour, maybe nothing, the conspiracy theorists would have you believe otherwise?

Did we hold back at any point to enable the Axis to hurt Russia even more?

There may well be lots of whys and wherefores that could reveal serious incompetence of now respected leaders.

And yes, even now it may not be appropriate to reveal some of the back room or covert operations

I wonder how widely known are the facts about the Battle at Kursk, the reality is very different to the received material that forms the central part of many documentaries. Here, analysis shows that the purported losses of the Germans exceeded the number of armoured vehicle they had on the whole front by a factor of several times, turns out that much of the tank battle is largely fabricated - it was fought especially incompetently by the Russians - but that really would not have suited the Allies to make it known.

For many folk, the Battle at Kursk is a legend of tanks driving into each other at speed, but its a myth - in fact most of what most folk have received about this event is myth.

This was only revealed many decades after the event, when records were opened up and military dispositions were carefully correlated with supposed action on the ground - turns out that it was very different - although the result of Axis defeat was the same.

I wonder how many other battles were actually quite different to our received wisdom

It’s hard to say. Look at code-breaking as an example. You could have read a good solid history of the war written twenty-five years after it ended and there wouldn’t have been any mention of ULTRA and its importance in the war. The revelation of how thoroughly the allies had been breaking Axis codes didn’t emerge until the seventies. (And it wasn’t until the nineties that it was revealed how much the Soviets had broken the Axis codes.)

So who knows what other major secrets might still be hiding in classified files? In fifty years, it might be common knowledge that Himmler was behind the plots to assassinate Hitler or that Mao was a double agent working with the Japanese or that Churchill made a deal with the United States to break up the British Empire after the war in exchange for American aid.

That’s really not true; Ultra/Magic remained classified until 1973. If you read the relevant volume of the official history of the United States Army in WWII, there is no mention made whatsoever that the German counterattack at Mortain failed to achieve surprise because the Americans knew it was coming two days before it was launched:

So the question of “was the 35th Infantry Division and a combat command of the 3rd Armored Division properly located to backstop the German attack” wasn’t something at issue, but why they happened to be so located remained hidden in the fog of war until almost 30 years later as the actual answer was classified.

One thing that seems to keep coming up is how much of the Enigma Code was broken by military action and not pure deciphering technique. I saw a documentary from the late 70’s lauding the mathematical and intelligence analyzing genius of the British code breakers at Bletchley and how they did it with such determination. As the years went by, more and more details have emerged about the capture of various German code books occurred over the course of the war. It seems that this provided much of the real meat and potatoes of the code breakers success.

Also, WWII history that carried over into the Cold War is still being uncovered since some of it may still be relevant.

I’d imaginet that pretty much every US/UK/France battle vs. the Germans is pretty well and accurately documented, but the Soviets seem to have enjoyed putting political spins on their version of history; the Prohkorovka battle is one that always seemed a little dubious to me- if only because of the idea that there was this huge clash, hundreds of German tanks destroyed, and then the Russians emerge victorious… and yet the German armored divisions continued to fight effectively immediately and for months or years afterward.

In reality, the Russians managed to blunt the German armored spearhead at massive cost, and the Germans withdrew.

Personally, based on what else I’ve read about the Eastern Front fighting, I wouldn’t have been too surprised that the Russians employed a Zapp Brannigan strategy of sending so many tanks at the German armored forces that they ran out of ammo destroying them and had to withdraw as a result.

Yes, my mistake - I should have said “there was hardly any fog of war left by the time I was born”. But my point stands : ULTRA was thoroughly documented and the files were being kept (even though they weren’t public early on). Every picayune detail about WW2 left a paper trail. A lot of it was scrapped (particularly when it comes to the Holocaust), but even what was scrapped left a hole in the paperwork the borders of which can be ascertained and explored, so much so that by now we have a pretty decent idea of what used to be in the holes to begin with.
With the caveat that is the Eastern Front (it’s a tiny detail, really :)).

Compare and contrast with medieval history (my own field of predilection, I shouldn’t say expertise yet) or even modern history, which we generally approach by maybe one or two limited first hand sources, half a dozen second or third hand sources - if that - and whatever piecemeal inventories we can get our hands on for one pissant location of the whole front. It’s really night and day.
The antiquity is even more of a crapshoot - e.g. to this day we have no idea exactly where or how the battle of Salamis took place, how many people were involved, what they did or why… And that’s one of the most significant battles of the Vth century BC, in terms of PR if nothing else.

The initial code-breaking was done by the Poles. They first broke the Enigma code. When Poland was attacked and occupied by Germany, they sent their work to France. And then when France was attacked and occupied, it was sent on to Britain.

So while the British deserve credit for their ongoing code-breaking program, it must be acknowledged they were building on the work of others.

One of my favorite examples of this is the Rubicon River. Roman generals were forbidden to bring their troops south of the Rubicon because of fears they would attempt to overthrow the government. So it was a huge historical event when Julius Caesar “crossed the Rubicon” - from that point on Caesar had to either take over Rome or be executed as an outlaw.

And where exactly did this happen? Nobody knows. We don’t know exactly which river was or is the Rubicon. There’s a Rubicon River in modern Italy but it’s doubtful that it’s the same river that bore that name in Caesar’s time.

That acknowledgment has always been made. The programmable computer used at Bletchley Park was entirely British however.

Has there ever been a definitive answer on whether the USSR kept Americans as prisoners after WW2? As I recall there was some belief that aircrews that had crash landed in territories controlled by the USSR were never accounted for after the war ended.

Anthony Beevor commented a couple of years ago when his book “The Second World War” came out that if you think it’s difficult to gain access to Soviet archives, wait until you try to gain access to Japan’s. His book gave greater credit to Chiang Kai-shek’s armies than they traditionally received. Perhaps to whole debate in the 1950s over who lost China obscured that.
I suppose people looked at the whole Churchill and Roosevelt relationship more critically than they used to.

Documentation at the time was pretty clear that Generallismo Cash My Check armies pretty much got the credit they deserved. One obvious cite being Stillwell and the American Experience in China. i haven’t seen (nor looked very hard) at credible documentation to the contrary that wasn’t KMT propaganda. Willing to be convinced but think it’s pretty dang unlikely.

It seems from the tone of the thread, that most people interpret “World War II history” as largely the higher-level military history (e.g. decision making and strategy). I think there is still much lower-level military history that has yet to be published, as well as social and cultural history.

When I took a World War II history seminar in the late 1990s, the professor warned us not to rely on books that were more than a few years old, as a huge wave of new material - from Soviet archives and declassified UK and US sources had made much research from the 1980s and before obsolete.

One of the Japanese midget subs that attacked Pearl Harbor was just found a few years ago, answering some questions that had been a mystery for over 70 years, and raising new questions.

Based on where the sub was found, the fact that its torpedo tubes were empty, and analyzing photographs of the battle based on where the sub was believed to have gone, some historians think that this sub could have caused some significant damage during the Pearl Harbor attack. Prior to the sub’s discovery, it was thought that the midget subs hadn’t managed to do any significant damage during the battle (of the remaining four subs, one was grounded, one was damaged by depth charges before it could fire its torpedoes, one was sunk, and one missed its target and blew up a dock). Now it is believed that this last midget sub may have been partially responsible for the sinking the Oklahoma.

I wouldn’t say that the sub’s discovery caused a major re-write of history or anything, but there’s a few paragraphs in more than one history book that needed updating.

So you never know. There’s always stuff out there lurking, waiting to be discovered.

Really ? Huh. I would have thought all that stuff would have been seized (or at least microfiched) by the US during the occupation. What’s the point of taking over a country if you don’t let your historians run wild with it ?! :slight_smile:

I know Mao was none too happy with the KMD’s contribution to the war - his assessment was that Jiang was happy to build up his troops (with US supplies) and let the communists do most of the hard fighting, in preparation for the end of the war. I know, I know, Mao. And he said that after the war was over in a bid for popular approval of his takeover.
Still, considering it took a quasi-coup before Jiang would even consider fighting the Japanese in the first place, I think it’s a credible allegation.