“Blood and Ruins,” a revelatory history

Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945, by British historian Richard Overy. That’s the book that has transformed my mind.

So much so, every day I find myself absorbing news about our world and events within it with such a radically altered perspective, I have in a sense become a different person.

As you can tell from the subtitle, Blood and Ruins is a history of World War II by an historian whose special concentration is war. It is densely detailed; each of its almost 900 pages of print is jam-packed with his factually saturated storytelling; the margins are implausibly narrow.

Professor Overy does not break up paragraphs into edible morsels (as I just did, here). For the most part, his vocabulary seems not to possess heightened pejoratives. His writing is cool, nearly clinical. He seems to be able to maintain a wall between any emotional response he must have to the events he writes about and his purpose.

One big thing about reading this book is how frequently the events Overy relates seem to refer to the moments and events I read in my newspapers today, even when — such as Putin’s invasion and assault upon Ukraine — it seems like a sort of upside down or backward déja vu.

Yet how many times reading Blood and Ruins have I murmured to myself, “That couldn’t happen today because of NATO”? And how many times when reading current news, shimmering fearfully over the borders of sovereign nations, have I murmured at the news, “That isn’t going to happen today, because of NATO”?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949. It’s been a part of my awareness for almost that long. But not until Blood and Ruins, and Putin’s stated threat to NATO, did I realize how brilliant its conception and its development has been, and how successful.

Here is NATO’s own description of the organization:

The North Atlantic Alliance was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its purpose was to secure peace in Europe, to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom – all of this in the context of countering the threat posed at the time by the Soviet Union. The Alliance’s founding treaty was signed in Washington in 1949 by a dozen European and North American countries. It commits the Allies to democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, as well as to peaceful resolution of disputes. Importantly, the treaty sets out the idea of collective defence, meaning that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization – or NATO – ensures that the security of its European member countries is inseparably linked to that of its North American member countries. The Organization also provides a unique forum for dialogue and cooperation across the Atlantic.

The idea for such a mutual treaty started where it had to, in Europe, where the absence of a meaningful, applicable treaty after World War I led to blood and ruins. And post-war Europe then was facing Stalin’s Soviet Union which had gobbled up eastern European nations, thus stretching the menace of Soviet invasion across a massive area of Europe.

I’d never considered, though, how crucial and even counterintuitive was the United States to NATO. Here we sat, along with Canada, relatively territorially untouched by the war and with a superpower military. How much easier would it have been for American strategists and eventually Truman to decide to abjure from any such organization dedicated to “collective defence,” when most of the “collective” was at least 3000 miles across the ocean?

Really, it took a kind of geopolitical revolution for the U.S. to join NATO.

How astounding is NATO? Take out your world map and look at the size of the NATO countries. Then look at the size of Russia, a land mass which defeated Napoleon and Hitler.

Yet, as the three tiny Baltic states, all NATO members, realize, albeit nervously, Russia is not going to cross their borders or fire on them. Because of NATO.

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