The Second World War (part two)

The board game Risk was invented in 1957. Had it existed twenty years earlier, Hitler’s generals might have been able to use it to explain to the Fuhrer why his invasion of the Soviet Union was foolish—or, at best, premature. Hitler was no military genius. He and the Nazis rose to power because of blind self-confidence and illogical theories of racial superiority. They lost power and lost the world war for precisely the same reasons.

Totalitarian leaders survive by making citizens fear enemies, whether those enemies exist in the country or outside its borders. The shortcoming of leaders is less visible when the people being led are distracted by a common enemy, or at least by the appearance of an enemy. Hitler pushed himself overboard pursuing that strategy. Enemies within the borders of Germany included, according to Hitler, Jews and communists and gypsies (the Roma people). Enemies outside the borders included the Slavic people to the east, whom Hitler believed would easily be enslaved and forced to serve the interests of Germany. In both cases, he was wrong.

The Holocaust was, in once sense, about race, as Hitler imagined the Germans to represent a superior Aryan race and despised the Jews, Roma, and Slavs as inferior races. For two reasons, though, the Holocaust was not entirely about race. First, most Jews today would agree that Jewishness is neither a race nor a religion, but rather a common culture developed and passed down over many generations. Second, the victims of the Holocaust also included other groups: homosexuals, the mentally and emotionally ill, and political enemies of the Nazis—some of whom were Christian clergy. The Nazis denied civil rights to these groups. Then they imprisoned them in camps. Finally, they sentenced those millions of prisoners to death. Other nations, including the United States, knew about the Holocaust. Articles appeared in the New York Times and other newspapers. Letters were written to President Roosevelt and other leaders. Roosevelt’s answer to those letters was that the Holocaust could only be ended when Germany was defeated in the world war, and that the United States was doing everything possible to achieve that goal.

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, combined with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, drew the United States and the United Kingdom into an uneasy alliance with Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin was known to be as dangerous a totalitarian despot as Hitler and Mussolini. But, to defeat the combined powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the free nations of the world had to fight alongside the Soviet Union. Economic differences were set aside long enough to defeat a common enemy.

The leaders of the Great Powers—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Tehran, Iran, at the end of 1943. They met again at Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, in February 1945. The third meeting, at Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945, also included Stalin. Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S. Truman; Churchill had lost and election and been replaced by Clement Attlee. These three conferences were dedicated first to cooperation in defeating German and Japan, but second to planning a new world order following that victory. The United Nations would replace the impotent League of Nations. Germany and Japan would be weakened so they could not threaten the world again. Most significant, each government would be responsible for creating and supporting new governments in lands they had captured or liberated. This meant that eastern European countries, including Poland and Hungary and Romania, would have soviet-style governments imposed upon them. Finally, the Soviet Union agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after the fall of Germany. One consequence of the last two points was the eventual division of Korea into North Korea and South Korea.

The battle of Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. From August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943, German forces attacked the Russian city and Soviet forces defended the city. Both sides were committed to total victory. More than two million soldiers died in the conflict—in fact, the Soviet Union lost more soldiers in that one battle than the United States lost in the entire world war. The failure of the German army began a long, slow retreat across Europe that ended with the fall of Berlin in May 1945. Allied forces had taken north Africa, Italy, France, and parts of western Germany by that time. Rather than admit defeat, Hitler committed suicide. His Third Reich, promised to endure a thousand years, fell short by 988 years.

Meanwhile, Japan had instigated the Second World War by its attacks upon China in the 1930s. Japan already had control of Korea and Taiwan; in 1940, it added the French colonies of Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor near the end of 1941 coincided with invasions of Thailand and of British and Dutch territories in southeast Asia and the south Pacific. While these forays were initially successful, they brought the United States and the United Kingdom into the war against Japan. Naval and air forces from Alaska to Australia began to push back the Japanese Empire. By the summer of 1945, the Allies were prepared to invade the islands of Japan. President Truman authorized the use of newly-developed atomic bombs to shorten the war. This decision saved lives on both sides of the conflict (even compared to lives lost by Japan in the two bombings) and lessened the grasp of the Soviet Union that had just entered the war, already seizing Manchuria in China along with northern Korea. Japan surrendered, and the Second World War was finally at an end. This, of course, set the stage for the Cold War, involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and most other countries in the world. J.