The Second World War Research Paper

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1. The Second World War: A Narrative

World War II was an event of massive significance. For at least fifty years after its end in 1945 it continued to condition societies and ideas throughout the world. Much of the politics of the second half of the twentieth century can be read as occurring in an ‘after-war’ context. The war exacted a death toll of at least 60 million, and probably tens of millions more than that (figures for China and the rest of Asia are mere guesses and the USSR’s sacrifice has risen from seven to 20 to 29 or more million as time has passed, circumstances varied, and the requirements of history altered). A majority of the casualties were civilians, a drastic change from World War I when some 90 percent of deaths were still occasioned at the fronts. Moreover, the invention of the atom bomb during the war and its deployment by the USA at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9, 1945) suggested that, in any future nuclear conflict, civilians would compose 90 percent or more of the victims. When this apparent knowledge was added to the revelations of Nazi German barbarism on the eastern front and the Nazis’ massacre of European Jewry, either in pit killings or when deliberately transported to such death camps as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec, and Majdanek, another casualty of the war seemed to be optimism itself. Certainly at ‘Auschwitz’ and perhaps at Hiroshima, ‘civilization,’ the modernity of the Enlightenment, the belief in the perfectibility of humankind, had led not to hope and life but instead to degradation and death.

This more or less open fearfulness, with its automatic resultant linking of a pessimism of the intellect to any optimism of the will among postwar social reformers, may be the grandest generalization that can be made about the meaning of World War II. Big history, however, should not lose sight of microhistory. Actually World War II was fought on many fronts, at different times, for different reasons, and with different effects. In this sense, there was a multiplicity of World War II’s.

In September 1939, a war broke out between Nazi Germany and authoritarian Poland. The liberal democratic leadership of Britain and France intervened saying that they would defend Poland, although in practice they made do with ‘phoney war’ until the Nazi forces took the military initiative, first in Denmark and Norway, and then in the Low Countries and France in April–May 1940. In June 1940, Fascist Italy entered the war as had been envisaged in the ‘Pact of Steel’ signed with its Nazi ally in May 1939. War now spread to the Italian empire in North and East Africa and, from October 1940, to the Balkans. Italian forces botched what they had hoped would be a successful Blitzkrieg against Greece and the effect over the next year was to bring most of the other Balkan states into the conflict. Often these fragile states dissolved into multiple civil wars, the most complicated and the one of most lasting significance began in Yugoslavia from March–April 1941.

On June 22, 1941, the Nazi Germans invaded the Soviet Union, commencing what was, in some eyes, the ‘real’ World War II, and certainly the one that was inspired by the most direct ideological impulse and which unleashed the most horrendous brutality. In the course of the campaign in the east it is estimated that the Germans sacked 1,710 towns and 70,000 villages. During the epic siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, a million or so of the city’s inhabitants starved to death. In their invasion, the Germans were joined by an assortment of anticommunist allies and friends, including military forces from authoritarian Romania and Fascist Italy. Many Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, and quite a few anti-Soviet elements within the USSR (Ukrainian nationalists, people from the Caucasus, and others) acted an auxiliaries of Nazi power. The Nazis were even embarrassed by a ‘Russian’ army under General A. A. Vlasov, willing to fight on their side against Stalin and his system. Volunteers also came from pro-fascist circles in France, and from Spain and Portugal, states ruled by clerical and reactionary dictators who hated communists but were not fully reconciled to the radical thrust of much Nazi-fascist rhetoric and some Nazifascist policy.

On December 7, 1941, the war widened again when the Japanese airforce attacked the American Pacific fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In the following weeks, the Japanese army and navy thrust south and east, dislodging the British from Singapore by January 15, 1942. They went on to seize the Philippines and Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia) and were in striking distance of Australia before being checked at the Battle of the Coral Sea in June 1942. They simultaneously continued the terrible campaign that they had been waging in China since 1937 (or rather since 1931, when they had attacked Manchukuo or Manchuria). In their special wars, the militarist Japanese leadership tried to throw off what they called the imperialist yoke of US capitalism and the older ‘white’ metropolitan empires. The purity of their antiimperial motives was damaged, however, by their own commitment to empire and by their merciless killing of Asians. Moreover, as in Europe, their invasions often touched off varieties of civil war provoked by the highly complex stratification of society in the region. At the forefront of such campaigns were often local nationalists who imagined communities subservient neither to European powers nor the Japanese.

On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy, loyal to the terms of the anti-Comintern pact, had also declared war on the USA, somewhat ironically so, given that Japan, checked by military defeats in an unofficial war against the USSR at Khalkin Gol and Nomonhan in 1938–9, had now engaged with other enemies. The Italians would find out the implications in North Africa, the Germans after the Allied invasion of France on ‘D-Day’ (June 6, 1944), as well as in Italy from September 8, 1943 (the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, overthrown on July 25, was thereafter restored as a sort of German puppet in northern Italy; allied forces moved slowly up the peninsula from the south, liberating Rome on June 4, 1944 but only reaching Milan at the end of the war in late April 1945). Of the participants in the war, the USA, once fully mobilized, possessed the biggest and most productive economy, and was therefore of crucial importance in the eventual defeat of the anti-Comintern powers. The campaign the Americans fought with the most passion, and with an evident racism of their own, was the war against Japan. In another sense, the USA had a relatively soft war, not disputed on its own territory and not requiring the sort of physical or spiritual sacrifice obligatory from most other combatants. The USA’s special World War II was not really a visceral one.

If the war was fought in many different ways, it is equally true that the variety of conflicts did not all end at the same time and in the same way. The Nazi armies surrendered on May 8, 1945, the Japanese on August 15. But matters were more complicated than that. France’s special World War II would commemorate ‘victory’ from the date of the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944 (and General Charles De Gaulle would firmly proclaim that Paris and France had liberated themselves). In most of Nazi-fascist occupied Europe and in parts of Asia, partisan movements had never altogether accepted defeat. Communists were invariably prominent in such resistance, even if quite a few still envisaged themselves as fighting as much for the Soviet revolution as for the liberty of their own nation state. Every successive ‘liberation,’ in Europe most frequently coming after the military victory of the Red Army, and in the Pacific that of the USA, had its own special character. Yugoslavia and China were two especially complicated places where the resistance was very strong but where it was contested, not only by the Nazi-fascists and the Japanese but also by local anticommunist and nationalist or particularist forces. The effects and memory of their wars were by definition to be very different from such societies as the USA, Australia, and the UK which did not endure foreign occupation, though the last, with its severe experience of bombing, was itself different from the other two.

In sum, World War II was not just an enormously influential event but also an extraordinarily complicated one. Its complexity has in turn stimulated many passionate and long-lasting debates about its historical meaning.

2. The Causes Of War

For many years it was customary to argue that World War II as compared to World War I had a simple cause. This was ‘Hitler’s war.’ Mainstream analysis continues to ascribe to the Nazi dictator great responsibility for the invasion of Poland and for the spreading of the war thereafter, and especially for the launching of Operation Barbarossa against the USSR. Nonetheless, from the 1960s, the course of historiography, especially as exemplified in the rise of social history, did not favor a ‘Great Man’ view of the past and tended to urge that even dictators had limits to their free will. As early as 1964, English radical historian A. J. P. Taylor (1964) argued in a book entitled The Origins of the Second World War that the several crises which led up to September 1939 and what he sardonically called the ‘War for Danzig’ needed to be understood in a variety of contexts, including the peace settlements at the end of World War I, the course of German political and social history, the institutionalization of the Russian revolution, with its victorious but feared and paranoid communist and then Stalinist regime, and the lights and shadows of democratic liberalism in Western Europe.

Taylor wrote with a flaunted stylistic brilliance and practiced a brittle historical cleverness. He was destined to be misunderstood and often gloried in the misunderstanding. His book thus produced an enormous controversy, the first of many to be sparked by attempts to define the meaning of World War II. At the same time, Taylor’s idiosyncrasies ensured that his work could easily enough be dismissed by those mainstream historians who liked to feel the weight of their commitment to Rankean principles and to make their liking evident.

Nonetheless the issues raised by Taylor did not go away. In West Germany, the so-called ‘Fischer controversy,’ sparked by the Hamburg liberal historian Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht, a massively documented study of German aims during World War I and also published in 1961, raged through the decade. Although Fischer, then and thereafter, wrote almost exclusively about World War I and about imperial Germany, he was read as commenting on World War II and, indeed, on Germany’s divided fate in its aftermath. Two issues were prominent. Was imperial Germany an aggressive power in a way that bore comparison with the Nazi regime during the 1930s? Was the motive of the German leadership as much domestic as foreign—did they seek foreign adventure and even world war in order to divert the pressure building for social democracy? Was the appalling conflict from 1939 to 1945 caused by the ‘German problem,’ which may have begun as early as 1848 and may have continued after 1945?

Fischer’s work was more directly influential than Taylor’s and the issue of the relationship between Innenpolitik and Aussenpolitik fitted neatly into the preoccupations of new social historians who, by the 1970s, were scornfully dismissing the work of ‘old fashioned diplomatic historians.’ For all that, specialist works on the causation of World War II continued to privilege the power of Hitler and acknowledge the ideological thrust of Nazism. English independent Marxist, Tim Mason, may have tried to pursue a Fischerian line in asking how much the diplomatic crises of 1938–9 were prompted by the contradictions of Nazi economic and social policy, but his essays remained at the periphery of most analysis. Rather such firmly Rankean historians as Gerhard Weinberg and Donald Watt assembled evidence which, in their eyes, only confirmed that the war was caused by Hitler. The newest and most authoritative Englishlanguage biographer of the Fuhrer, Ian Kershaw, despite his background in social history, does not disagree. Hitler may have been erratic as an executive. Nazi totalitarian state and society, contrary to its propaganda about militant efficiency and a people cheerfully bound into a Volksgemeinschaft, may in practice have often been ramshackle. But the dictator, Kershaw argued, did possess power. Indeed, so allembracing was his will that Germans strove to ‘work towards’ their Fuhrer, to accept his ideas and implement his policies before he had fully formulated them. For a generation in the wake of the Fischer controversy, scholarship on Nazism had separated into ‘intentionalists’ (advocates of Great Man history) and ‘functionalists’ (those who preferred to emphasize the role of structures and contexts and who were especially alert to the ‘institutional darwinism’ of the Nazi regime). Now Kershaw, often a historian of the golden mean, seemed to have found a way to resolve and end that conflict.

The only major variants on this reaffirmation that Hitler had provoked the war came from certain conservative viewpoints. Some anticommunist historians focused on the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact (August 23, 1939), placing responsibility for the war on ‘Stalin’ and the Russian revolution in what seemed to others a highly tendentious effort to blame the victim. More common was the view expressed most succinctly by Zionist historian Lucy Dawidowicz that the whole conflict was in essence a ‘war against the Jews.’ In this interpretation, German nationalism, German anticommunism, German racism towards Slavs, Nazi repression of the socialist and communist left, none in any sense equated with Hitlerian anti-Semitism. Hitler (or, in the variant recently made notorious by Daniel Goldhagen, the Germans) wanted to kill Jews; that was the purpose of the Nazi regime; that was the aim of its wars.

In other ex-combatant societies, further examples of local focus are evident. In England, fans of appeasement still existed, the most prominent being John Charmley. For him, the problem with the war lay simply in Britain’s engagement in it. As far as the British empire was concerned, Nazism did not need to be fought and the USSR should never have been an ally. Worst of all was the fact that the USA had dominated the post war world. Charmley has never quite said so, but implication of his work is that the ‘real’ World War II for Britain, and the one it most dramatically lost, was implicitly fought against its American ‘cousins.’

The Asian-Pacific conflict has similarly been subject to historical revision. In the 1960s Gabriel Kolko and other American ‘new leftists’ applied a Marxian model to their nation’s foreign policy, being very critical of the gap between its idealistic and liberal theory and its realist and capitalist practice. They were in their turn duly subjected to withering fire from more patriotic and traditional historians. Nonetheless a consensus grew that, at least in regard to the onset of the American–Japanese war, US policy makers carried some responsibility. By the 1980s, liberal historian John Dower was even urging that the two rivals had been ‘enemies of a kind,’ neither of them guiltless of racism and brutality.

In Japan, by contrast, an officially sponsored silence long hung over everything to do with the war. The Ministry of Education was particularly anxious that schoolchildren not be exposed to worrying facts about such terrible events as the massacre in Nanking in 1937, the practice of germ warfare, the exploitation of ‘comfort women,’ and the many other examples of Japanese murder, rape, and pillage in Asia and the Pacific. Nonetheless, a stubborn undercurrent of opinion exemplified in the work of historian Ienaga Saburo continued to contest the Ministry line and, by the 1990s, the Japanese leadership had gone further than ever before in admitting some of the misdeeds of its militarist predecessors. Fully critical history may still not be especially appreciated in Tokyo. But, by the end of the 1990s, Japan was not the only society to behave that way in that world in which the ideology of economic rationalism had achieved unparalleled hegemony backed by what American democratic historian Peter Novick has called ‘bumper sticker’ lessons from the past.

3. The Course Of The War

In the preceding paragraphs it has not always been possible to keep fully separate discussions about the coming of World War II from what happened after hostilities commenced. In any case, military history in the pure sense, just like diplomatic history, after 1945 soon lost ground professionally. To most eyes, the military history of the war can swiftly enough be told. Of the anti-Comintern states, Germany and Japan but not Italy, won rapid initial victories, exulting in their respective Blitzkriegs. But their triumphs were always brittle. Germany and its allies may have been good at getting into wars, but their ideologies made it difficult for them thereafter to contemplate any policy except the complete liquidation of the enemy. Hitler and the Japanese imperial and military leadership thus made no attempts to offer compromise from a position of strength, and Mussolini’s occasional flirtation with the idea always involved Nazi sacrifice in their wars, especially that in the east, rather than Italian loss.

Nor did the anti-Comintern states make the most of the huge territories, which they had conquered, and the immense material resources that they therefore controlled. Nazi Germany is something of a case study in this regard. In the West, where the war was always gentler, the Nazis found plenty of direct and indirect collaborators. They were thus, for example, able to harness a very considerable proportion of the French economy to their cause. They also started to construct a new economic order that was not utterly unlike some of the developments, which would occur in Western Europe after Nazi-fascism had been defeated. With extraordinary contradiction for a state built on an utter commitment to racial purity, Nazi Germany, already before 1939, needed immigrants to staff its economy. Once the war began, this requirement became still more pressing. One partial solution was to import workers by agreement with its ally Italy and by arrangement with the friendly Vichy regime in France. Not all such French ‘guest-workers’ came unwillingly and not all had especially bad wars. In Germany they joined other, more reluctant, immigrants from the east, who were often little more than slave laborers. Poles and Soviet prisoners of war constituted the majority of these; at first they were frequently worked to death. However, as the Nazi armies turned back and the war settled into one of attrition and retreat, as symbolized by the great defeat at Stalingrad (November 1942–January 1943), the Germans began to treat even laborers from the east in a way that allowed some minimum chance of their survival and which also permitted some tolerable productivity from their labor.

The exception was, of course, the Jews, who, from September–October 1941, became the objects of the ‘Final Solution,’ a devotion to murder confirmed by officials who attended the Wannsee conference in January 1942. In terms of fighting a war, the adoption of the policy of extermination was, of course, counter- productive in many senses, among which was the economic. In staffing and fueling the trains, which transported the Jews to the death camps, in the low productivity of these and the other camps, the Nazis wasted resources needed at the front. It is worth noting in this segment, however, that each combatant society has argued about its particular experience of being visited by the Nazi war machine and therefore of being exposed to collaboration with it. Two important examples occurred in France and the USSR.

The spring of 1940 brought disaster to the Third French Republic. Now was the time of what Marc Bloch, one of the founders of the great structuralist historical school of the Annales, a patriotic Frenchman and a Jew, called the ‘strange defeat.’ Military historians have demonstrated that France was not especially inferior in armament to the invading Germans. Rather, France lost for reasons to do with morale and the domestic divisions of French society. As a result, by June 1940 the French state and empire had collapsed. During the next four years, the inheritance of the Third Republic was disputed between the Vichy regime headed by Marshal Petain within the rump of French metropolitan territories, the ‘Free French’ under General Charles De Gaulle, resident in London, and there, however reluctantly and churlishly, dependent on Allied goodwill and finance, and a partisan movement which gradually became more active in the occupied zones. This last was typically divided between communists and other forces, some of which disliked communists as much as they hated the invaders. The years of Axis occupation were thus also the time of the ‘Franco-French civil war,’ with killings and purge trials extending well beyond liberation.

The meaning of war, occupation, and liberation in France has been much disputed after 1945. It took a film maker, Marcel Ophuls in Le Chagrin et la pitie (1971), and an American historian, Robert Paxton, to break a generation of silence about the troubling implications of this period of national history, although Socialist President Francois Mitterrand (1981–95), with his own equivocal experience of Vichy, was scarcely an unalloyed advocate of openness during his term in office. Historian Henry Rousso has brilliantly examined the ‘Vichy syndrome’ and done much to expose some of the obfuscations favored by many different leadership groups in post-1945 French politics. Perhaps his work does not go far enough, however. With its fall, and then with decolonization after 1945, France had lost its political empire, promising to become just another European state. However, this loss was curiously compensated by the rise and affirmation of French culture. In almost every area of the humanities, such French intellectuals as De Beauvoir, Braudel, Barthes, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Nora, charted the way to postmodernity. They did so sometimes invoking the pro-Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger and almost always without much reckoning of the collapse of the French nation state in 1940. The intellectuals of France were much given to forgetting their nation’s fall, the better to affirm their own rights to cultural imperium.

If France provides a case study of the transmutation of defeat into victory, the USSR offers the reverse example of a victor whose people would eventually learn that ‘actually’ they had lost. The nature of the Soviet war effort is still in need of research. Sheila Fitzpatrick, a historian of Soviet social history, has depicted a population by 1939 brutalized and depressed by the tyranny, incompetence, and contradictions of Stalinism. Her work does not really explain, however, how that same populace fought so stubbornly ‘for the motherland, for Stalin.’ No doubt the absurd murderousness of Nazi policies gave them little alternative. No doubt the aid which eventually flowed through from the USA was of great significance. But something does remain unexplained about how ‘Stalin’s Russia’ won its ‘Great Patriotic War.’

4. The Consequences Of The War

By now very clear, however, are the consequences of the war for the USSR. In the short term the war made the Soviet state the second superpower, the global rival to the USA, and gave Stalin, until his death in 1953, an almost deified status. However, as the postwar decades passed, it became clear that the USSR and its expanded sphere of influence in Eastern Europe were not recovering from the war with the speed being dramatically exemplified in Western Europe and Japan. Indeed, the history of the USSR, at least until Gorbachev’s accession to the party secretaryship in 1985 and, arguably, until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism (1989–91), should best be read as that of a generation who had fought and won its wars (including the terrible domestic campaigns for collectivization as well as the purges of the 1930s). Leaders and people were unwilling or unable to move beyond that visceral experience. After 1945, the USSR became the archetypal place ‘where old soldiers did not die nor even fade away.’ Brezhnev, Chernenko, and their many imitators further down the power structure were frozen into a past that hAdvan ever-diminishing connection with a world facing a new technological and economic revolution.

Other ex-combatant societies were more open to change than the USSR but a certain sort of remembering and a certain sort of forgetting can readily enough be located in them, too. Memory proved most threatening in Yugoslavia. There the victorious partisans under Josip Broz Tito seemed for a time to have won a worthwhile victory. The special history of their campaigns against the Nazi-fascist occupiers of their country allowed them claims to independence from the USSR, which they duly exercised after 1948. At the same time the barbarity, during the war, of the collaborationist Croat fascist regime under Ante Pavelic, whose savagery embarrassed even the Germans, seemed to suggest that the region was indeed best administered by a unitary state. The fall of communism, however, also brought down a communist Yugoslavia in which such Serb leaders as Slobodan Milosevic, unable to believe in official ideals, increasingly recalled the nationalism of wartime Cetniks rather than the internationalist Marxism once espoused by the partisans. This memory of war and murder justified new wars and new murders, even if with the somewhat ironical result that, by the end of the 1990s, the (Serb) winners of the last war had become losers and the (Slovene, Croat, Bosnian Moslem, and Kosovar) losers had become winners.

In Italy, the country with the largest communist party in the West and a polity which had a ‘border idiosyncrasy,’ bearing some comparison with Yugoslavia’s role in the Eastern Bloc, the inheritance of war and fascism similarly possessed peculiar features. Postwar Italy began by renouncing fascism, empire, and war, in 1946 abandoning the monarchy that had tolerated the imposition of Mussolini’s dictatorship and, in 1947, adopting a constitution which made considerable claim that the new Republic would be based on labor. In practice, however, Italy took its place in the Cold War West. Its purging of ex-Fascists was soon abandoned and both the power elites and the legislative base of the new regime exhibited much continuity with their Fascist predecessors. Nonetheless, from the 1960s, an ideology of antifascism was accorded more prominence in a liberalizing society. From 1978 to 1985, Sandro Pertini, an independent socialist who had spent many years in a Fascist jail and been personally involved in the decision to execute Mussolini, became Italy’s president. Widely popular, he seemed an embodiment of the national rejection of the Fascist past.

Once again, however, the process of memory was taking a turn and a different useable past was beginning to emerge. Left terrorists in the 1970s had called themselves the new Resistance and declared that they were fighting a Fascist-style state—the governing Christian Democrats were thought to be merely a mask behind which lurked the Fascist beast. The murder of Aldo Moro in 1978 drove Italians decisively away from this sort of rhetoric and, in the 1980s and 1990s, Italians sought instead a ‘pacification’ with the past in which ex-Fascists had as much right to be heard as ex-partisans. Among historians, ‘anti-anti Fascists,’ led by Renzo De Felice, the biographer of Mussolini, provided evidence and moral justification for this cause. Media magnate and conservative politician Silvio Berlusconi joined those who agreed that Italy’s World War II had lost its ethical charge.

Among the Western European ex-combatants states perhaps the UK was the place where the official myth of the war survived with least challenge. A vast range of British society and behavior was influenced by Britain’s war. The Welfare State, as codified by the postwar Labor government under Clement Attlee, was explained and justified as a reward for the effort of the British people in the ‘people’s war.’ Wartime conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, despite his many evident limitations, remained a national icon. British comedies from the Goons in the 1950s to Dad’s Army in the 1970s and 1980s to Goodnight Sweetheart in the 1990s were obsessively set in the war. From the alleged acuteness of their secret service activities to the alleged idealism of their rejection of Nazism, the British have constantly sought to preserve the lion’s share of the positives of World War II for themselves. The suspicion of a common European currency and the many other examples of continuing British insularity in turn reflect the British cherishing of the fact that they fought alone against the Nazifascists from 1940 to 1941, and express their associated annoyed perplexity that somehow their wartime sacrifice entailed a slower route to postwar prosperity compared with that of their continental neighbors.

Memory after memory, history after history, World War IIs, in their appalling plenitude, still eddy around. As the millennium ended, another historian wrote a major book about the meaning of an aspect of the war, and about the construction of that meaning. Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999) daringly wondered whether the privileging of the Nazi killing of the Jews in contemporary Jewish and even gentile American discourse is altogether a positive. Being a historical victim at one time in the past, he argued cogently, can obscure as well as explain. His caution is timely. It is probably good that World War IIs are with us still; it will be better if the interpretation of so many drastic events can still occasion democratic debate, courteous, passionate, and humble debate, and if we can therefore avoid possessing a final solution to its many problems.


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