Published by EH.NET (July 1999)
Mark Harrison, editor, The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in
International Comparison. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge University Press, 1998.
xiii + 307 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-620465.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Geofrey T. Mills, College of Business, University of
Scholars and students of World War II will find this collection of essays an
extremely useful addition to their libraries. The essays cover the six major
antagonists of the war: Germany, Japan, Italy, the Soviet Union, the UK and
the US. The editor succeeds in achieving a major goal of the book which is to
“provide a text of statistical reference for students and researchers
interested in international and comparative economic history,
the history of WWII, the history of economic policy, and comparative economic
systems.” While this is an ambitious goal, these essays provide insight into
these issues, and, where possible, answers to important questions.
Mark Harris on has organized this book around three key questions. What
contribution did economies make to war preparedness and to winning or losing
the war? What was the effect of wartime experiences on post war fortunes? Did
those who won the war then lose the peace? Given these questions, economic
growth as effected by military mobilization becomes a central theme of the
book. In general all six authors devote space not only to the economics of the
war economy, but also to the periods before the war, and to the consequences
of World War II on long-run economic fortunes.
In the introduction, Harrison provides an extensive overview of the book.
This essay is essentially an extended quantitative discussion of the economic
and military elements of the war. In essence
, this section outlines the stark economic realities of conducting an extended
large scale war and concludes that a major reason, if not the prime reason, the
allies were victorious was due to their overwhelming advantage in the material
and logistic aspects of the conflict. Harrison also penned the article on the
Soviet economy. This piece is an impressive statistical analysis of the Soviet
war effort and its impact on post-war growth. Harrison does not conclude that
the collapse of the Soviet economy in
the 1980’s was a result of its success against Germany, but he does indicate
that success in World War II entrenched an inefficient production system and
extended credibility to a generation of leaders positively associated with the
result may well have been a first world military set upon a third world
economic system, and this arrangement could not be sustained indefinitely.
Hugh Rockoff’s article on the United States fills a gap in the literature on
the World War II years, especially the 1939-1943 period. Rockoff concentrates,
not unexpectedly, on the conversion from civilian consumption to war production
and the trade-offs necessary in this transition. Compared to the other
countries detailed in this volume, the US was afforded
the most leisurely approach to rearming as its frontiers were not threatened.
While he looks at a large array of statistics Rockoff tends to focus his
analysis on a total factor productivity model, and concludes that no single
factor accounts for the rise in output. Success came from an across-the-board
effort to mobilize resources. One major contribution which Rockoff offers has
to do with the source of America’s post-war prosperity.
He concludes that while war economics certainly played some role in post-WWII
growth, the most likely explanation for the prosperity was a change in the
macroeconomic regime. The Great Depression and World War II effectively
converted the economics profession to a Keynesian viewpoint whereby the
government was seen as a positive force in the economic affairs of the nation.
He concludes that the most long lasting legacy of the war was this Keynesian
viewpoint which reshaped the intellectual and institutional operations of
macroeconomics and relied upon monetary and fiscal policy tools for the
prevention of inflation and unemployment.
Stephen Broadberry and Peter Howlett offer an essay on the UK entitled
“Victory at all Costs.” The title is indicative of the economic effort which
Britain bent to the war effort. Their analysis indicates the huge scale of
mobilization which the Brits undertook–some 55.3% of GDP of 1943.
This section takes into consideration all aspects of the British economy and is
refreshing in its completeness and attention to close economic analysis. They
conclude that, not unsurprisingly, the war effort in Britain was dominated by a
Keynesian outlook, one which placed great faith in government controls.
One of the main virtues of this volume is its attention, in a single location,
to the totalitarian states. The essays on Germany by Werner Abelshauser;
Italy, by Vera Zamagni; Japan, by Akira Hara; and Russia, by Harrison, all
stand in stark contrast to those on the US and UK. The articles on Japan and
Italy are especially welcome because material on these countries is relatively
unavailable in English, and the comparative approach here makes these essays
both significant and enlightening. All four of these pieces deal with the
problems of managing a huge war effort with a totalitarian mechanism.
Decision making was in the hands of a small set of people, but there was,
in all cases, a surprisingly large amount of input. Hara points out that the
Japanese had an especially difficult time managing their far flung empire with
limited natural resources. And especially interesting in all cases is the
respective discussion of the long run impact of the war given the mass levels
of destruction, occupation and/or defeat which the war wrought on these
Harrison has put together an extremely useful book
on comparative economic history. The six essays are all very well done, and all
conclude with sections outlining the impact of the war on post-war growth. This
book adds to our understanding of war economics and the shape of the world
economy in the second half of the twentieth century.
Geofrey Mills is author (with Hugh Rockoff) of The Sinews of War: Essays on
the Economic History of World War II (Ames, IA: Iowa State University
Press, 1993) plus other articles and essays involving war economics.