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.

The Second World War, part one

A few historians suggest that the two world wars were, in reality, one war of roughly thirty years, with a treaty separating the earlier hostilities from the final stage of the war. Their model for this suggestion is the Hundred Years War between England and France. That war began in 1337 and extended until 1453, but it consisted of three stages of fighting and two truces—one of roughly ten years and the other of nearly twenty-five years.

Both at the time and in retrospect, one could defend the proposition that the Second World War picked up where the first World War ended. But unlike the Hundred Years War, in which the governments of England and France both remained stable (even as kings died and were replaced), the governments that brought about the Second World War were largely different from those that had fought in the Great War. Hitler and the Nazis had little connection to the Kaiser’s government in Germany or that of the Emperor of Austria. The Italy of Mussolini was far different from Italy of the Great War, an Italy which joined the Allies to battle against Germany and Austria. The Czar of the Soviet Union had been displaced by Stalin and the Communists. Even Japan—which, for the most part, sat out the Great War—was changed. At the height of the Victorian Era, Japan consciously imitated the most successful policies they saw in Europe and North America. During the Great Depression, Japanese leaders saw more hope in imitating (and joining with) Hitler and Mussolini. All these nations embraced totalitarianism, and a totalitarian government needs continual enemies to battle, or the nation’s people will rise up against their government and overthrow it.

Therefore, Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists first invaded their neighbor, Albania, and then set out to colonize Ethiopia. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Italy quit the League of Nations. Japan provoked an incident in China, using it as an excuse to invade and colonize northeastern China. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Japan quit the League of Nations. With help from Stalin’s Soviet government, Hitler rebuilt Germany’s armed forces. He expanded German national power by absorbing Austria in the Anschluss, a union which many Austrians welcomed. Hitler then moved to claim a section of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that German-speaking people lived there. The British government was ready to challenge this expansion; instead, negotiators decided to appease Hitler, assuming that giving him what he wanted would keep him quiet. (Try this sort of appeasement with a five-year-old child in the grocery store!) Hitler then concluded that the rest of Czechoslovakia was too weak to survive, so he placed that land under German control as well.

Meanwhile, the League of Nations was also too weak to prevent civil war in Spain. The Spanish government first was overthrown by Communist forces, supported by the Soviet Union, who declared Spain a Republic. But, with help from Germany and Italy, General Franco struck back at the Republic, invading his own country from north Africa. Most other countries, including the United States, remained officially neutral, although some American volunteers did serve in Spain—helping the Communist Republic defend itself against Franco’s Nationalist forces. The war in Spain allowed both sides of the coming World War to test new technology that had not existed in 1918. Franco eventually won the war, and his Fascist government remained in power until his death in 1975.

Where and when did the Second World War begin? European historians point to the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the incursion of German troops into Poland on September 1, 1939. But, since the war ended with the surrender of Japan, historians increasingly look to the Japanese invasion of China in 1936 to identify the beginning of the war. As Japan sought to increase its power at the expense of China, it changed a set of regional conflicts into a world-wide conflict. Germany’s successes in Europe enabled Japan to seize British and French colonies in eastern Asia. Even though the largest empire in history, counting only dry land, was the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan around 1225, if one includes control over ocean regions the Japanese Empire in 1942 was marginally larger than the Mongolian Empire.

Germany’s invasion of Poland caused France and the United Kingdom to declare war. The next year, Denmark and Norway both fell under German control, and the Germans then repeated their effort of 1914 to strike France quickly through the Netherlands and Belgium. This time, German forces made it to Paris. Motorized military vehicles overcame the risk of trench warfare which had happened in 1914. Germany’s Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War,” seemed effective in overwhelming the opposition. In fact, Blitzkrieg was the only kind of fighting Germany could afford; a protracted bout of fighting would have driven the nation into insolvency and defeat. The United Kingdom managed to survive the Battle of Britain, and if Hitler had been satisfied with his gains in the early stages of the war, the course of history from that time until the present might have been far different.

Two things changed the course of the war. First, Hitler turned against his ally to the east and invaded the Soviet Union. He thought that the Blitzkrieg would work as well in eastern Europe as it had worked in Poland and in France. Hitler also hoped that Japan would invade the Soviet Union from the Pacific, forcing the Russians to fight on two fronts. Japan elected to wait and see before committing itself to battle the Soviets. Instead, six months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Japanese forces bombed American positions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan hoped to prevent American interference in its Pacific empire. Instead, by bringing both the Soviet Union and the United States into the World War, Germany and Japan guaranteed their eventual defeat. J.

The Great Depression

The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.

The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.

But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.

Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism.  After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.

Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.

In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.

People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.

Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.

Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.