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The Economics of the Second World War: Seventy-Five Years On

Editor(s):Broadberry, Stephen
Harrison, Mark
Reviewer(s):Sahari, Aaro

Published by EH.Net (August 2020)

Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison, editors, The Economics of the Second World War: Seventy-Five Years On. London: CEPR Press, 2020. vii + 122 pp. free ebook, ISBN: 978-1-912179-31-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aaro Sahari, Department of Philosophy, History and Arts, University of Helsinki.


The Economics of the Second World War is a concise overview on the economic history of the Second World War, or the “greatest conflict of an era of mass warfare” as editors Stephen Broadberry (Professor of Economic History, Oxford University) and Mark Harrison (Emeritus Professor, University of Warwick) define it. The book is divided into three sections and consists of sixteen short chapters written by a group of experienced historians of twentieth century economic, military and technology history. First, the origins of the war are discussed from European perspectives. Second, the conduct of war is analyzed. Third, the consequences of the conflict are examined. All chapters summarize earlier research findings. The book is a continuation to a 2019 work on the First World War by the same editors and also available from CEPR Press.

The first part, “Preparations for War,” re-evaluates the struggling German economy, Hitler’s rise to power, the Soviet economy and war preparations, and British economic management during the war. The role of the Great Depression in the NSDAP’s rise to power is a staple of historical literature but concrete economic evidence has been scarce. In the first chapter Hans-Joachim Voth (University of Zurich) presents recent econometric analyses on the linkages between the 1931 German banking crisis, failure of the Danat bank, regional historical antisemitism, and Nazi propaganda. The second chapter by Richard Overy (University of Exeter) continues on to re-evaluate the making of Germany’s war economy. Overy dismisses the myth of a blitzkrieg economy in favor of a transition onto war footing from 1936 onwards. The third chapter, by editor Mark Harrison, focuses on USSR before the war. Stalin’s Soviet Union was a warfare state in the 1930s, and the welfare of the people was sacrificed in favor of military development. Only this singular, brutal focus on external threats prepared USSR for the 1941 invasion. The last article on prewar developments, by editor Stephen Broadberry, analyses the fiscal and financial management of war in the UK. Together these four chapters point out the significance of the Great War in directing national economic policies of these three countries toward the Second World War.

In the second part, “Conduct of the War,” the discussion of war economics opens up to include United States, Japan, and various neutral and occupied countries. Eight articles provide a kaleidoscopic view of the Second World War using individual cases to highlight essential economic phenomena in the conduct of and survival in this global crisis. First, Phillips Payson O’Brien (University of St. Andrews) re-evaluates the vast literature on how the war was won through logistics, material attrition, and costly, novel military technologies in the air and at sea. David Edgerton (King’s College London) then reminds that a national economy isn’t a sufficient unit of study in the age globalization. The UK economy was better integrated to global trade networks than the German one, and thus more capable of shifting to a war-centric model. Price Fishback (University of Arizona) challenges the notion that the war raised the United States, “the arsenal of democracy,” out of depression. Long-term economic analysis provides quantitative proof that centrally directed war spending not only differs significantly from normal economic activities but also fails to explain changes in U.S. domestic economy. Mark Harrison (University of Warwick) uses economist Mancur Olson’s postwar research activities to analyze the impact of strategic bombing in the war to argue that supply-chain disruptions had limited, often indirect effects. Then, Tetsuji Okazaki (University of Tokyo) discusses the essential role of supplier networks in Japan’s wartime production of airplanes and the impact of extending production to new, inexperienced suppliers.

The last three articles in part II delve into the wider economic phenomena of the war. Hein Klemann (Erasmus University) revisits the strain of the German war effort on occupied European countries. He notes that poorer East European countries suffered more from the occupation than West European countries, and that the Nazi policy of “Germany first” led to production inefficiencies in all occupied territories. Eric Golson’s (University of Surrey) article on neutral countries’ economic activities is an essential, if unduly short, part of the overall story. Legal neutrality was typically maintained through economic concessions to offset military weakness. Finally, Alan Bollard (Victoria University) summarizes the essential role of economists to the war effort in key belligerent countries.

In the final part of the book, “Consequences of the War,” big societal phenomena are investigated. Cormac Ó Gráda (University College Dublin) summarizes the many, horrendous famines of the Second World War from a macro perspective. Walter Scheidel (Stanford University) discusses the impact of the war on lowering economic inequality globally and in leading to more equal economic regimes thereafter. Tamás Vonyó (Bocconi University) compares the role of population loss and migration patterns in East Germany, Eastern Europe and USSR to contextualize significant differences in postwar economic recovery. Finally, Pauline Grosjean (University of New South Wales) discusses differences in the societal impact of war – from institutional growth and increased resiliency to conflict traps and persistent public mistrust in institutions. These four articles provide a necessary social framework for the economic analysis of the Second World War.

The Economics of the Second World War provides a quick and convenient introduction into the topic of war and economy in the twentieth century. The book is a well written throughout, if a bit too short. Most of the discussed phenomena would have benefited from a more thorough examination. Fortunately, all authors have provided well curated lists of further reading for the inquisitive reader. A few omissions remain from the overall story. Essential trade networks remain abstract without a description of the logistics of war. Also, an economic foray into the global impact of the Second World War would have contextualized the articles well. Still, as it is The Economics of the Second World War provides a useful primer into the economic history of a complex, global conflict.


Aaro Sahari defended his PhD on Finnish industrial technopolitics (1918–1954) in 2018. He is a member of the editorial council for the Finnish Journal for the History of Technology — Tekniikan Waiheita — and the Finnish National Council for the History of Science and Technology. Sahari currently works on technology professionals’ tacit knowledge strategies and generational narratives.

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Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII