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11-08-2015, 18:45


The Second World War has been regarded as a reaction or a sequel to the Great War of 1914-1918, but it was also profoundly different. More than any other, it upholds Gaston Bouthoul's theory that war is 'the most spectacular form ofsocial violence . . . marking a turning point in history'. The Second World War was fought over a much vaster area than the First. Battles raged nearly everywhere in the world, on the glacial seas near Spitsbergen, in the heat of the Sahara, in the Alps, in the jungles of Burma, in Montevideo Harbour, in the Pacific atolls, on the banks of the Volga and of the Yellow River. For the first time in history social upheaval drew the whole of humanity into a single tragic struggle. The Second World War also came nearer than the First to being a total war. Every country involved in the war, whatever its political and social system, made its best efforts to mobilise its entire population and economy. Not only were vast armies mustered - more than sixty million men were engaged in fighting - but all noncombatants, including women and young people, were liable to be called up to work in factories, arsenals or shipyards or to do other work of national importance. In America alone, the civilian work force totalled fifty million. The war effort also mobilised ideas. Intensive propaganda campaigns were so effective in Germany and Japan as to maintain morale until the eve of surrender, while in occupied territories propaganda spurred the people to fight for liberation even after they had been disarmed. Even science was mobilised. There was no historical precedent for the combined effort in Xlll which scientists from all over the world assembled die first atomic bomb in the United States. The Second World War was both a military and a diplomatic conflict, but it was above all .in economic and ideological conflict which raged on even in the Nazi concentration camps. The world-wide character of this conflict, the vast improvements in armaments and the dogmas which whipped up fanaticism partially explain why the war was so immensely destructive. Aerial bombing was five times as effective by the end of the war as it had been five years earlier when the war began. The first atomic bomb detonated on 6 August 1945 was as powerful as 20,000 tons of ordinary explosives. Dresden burned and melted into the ground in a single night; Hiroshima in a few seconds. Millions of lives were lost in group executions, mass exterminations, and other hideous crimes which often had no bearing on the outcome of the war. The material and moral destruction, the lives and wealth lost were out ofall proportion to the root causes which gave rise to the war. Three separate theatres of war were fought over a six-year period. They were fought in parallel rather than in combination. As in the First World War, continental Europe assembled the largest armies and suffered the heaviest casualties, and was permanently and severely weakened as a result. The Far East was another theatre of operations in the war. Fighting here was the first to begin and the last to end, and remained relatively isolated from fighting in Europe. The war in the Far East was of a different type, fought mainly by ships and aeroplanes working in close collaboration. Only the Americans and, to a lesser degree, the Russians fought in both theatres. This fact alone sheds light on the roles each of these nations played in the war. The third war was a completely new phenomenon. The populations which had been temporarily conquered in Europe and China hit back at their new masters in an underground war. They fought regardless of conventional rules of combat with the assistance, or sometimes despite the presence, of professional soldiers. The outcome of the war was unpredictable to the eleventh hour. Pitched battles were fought up to the last moments ol the war. Even the composition of the two camps and thepurposes for which they were fighting underwent dramatic reversals, [tar) and Soviet Russia started as Germany's allies, or friendly neut rals, and became her enemies. France, who was the first to declare war on Germany, nearly wound up in the German camp. War was originally declared to defend or restore the frontiers and the independence of Poland and China, but the English and Americans were eventually forced to jettison these goals in order to preserve their alliance with Soviet Russia. The ultimate paradox was America's attempt to dismantle the colonial empires of her allies, France and Britain, while assenting to political and social regimes in eastern and central Europe which were the antithesis of the ideals for which she had taken up arms. Because of the widely divergent ideals for which the war was waged, it was bound to end ambiguously. No peace treaty was ever drafted. The defeated countries surrendered unconditionally as their conquerers demanded. This should have simplified problems. Other unforeseen problems cropped up requiring immediate and complex solutions, which some thought could only be found in a third world war between the Great Allies of the Second World War. Fortunately this did not come about, and measures were taken and organizations founded to insure against such a catastrophe. It is a further paradox that after spending millions of lives in demolishing their enemies the victorious nations should work so diligently to rehabilitate them, and that their diligence should be so quickly rewarded. The confused aftermath, however, must not obscure the importance of the war itself or its deep-seated causes. The two sides did not take up arms purely out of greed for spoils magnified into a programme of world domination. They were also fighting for the freedom of men and of nations, and in order to preserve their own ideals and values. The Second World War merits study not merely as an historical fact but because it produced a permanent twist in the evolution of human society and gave rise to grim speculations on the very nature of modern civilization. Our conclusions would have been very different if the outcome of the war had been different. And it might well have been. Our account of the war thus follows the shape of the events themselves. At first the Axis Powers - Germany, Japan, and to a lesser degree Italy - enjoyed unbroken success, while their enemies lagged behind them in preparations for war and in their conception of it. This was the phase of the 'lightning war', which began in 1931 in Manchuria and finished at the end of 1942 on XV the banks of the Volga. By this time the aggressors had reached the limit of their resources in all theatres of operation, but their ambitions carried them beyond their means. Their advances were checked in several places at almost the same time, at Midway Island, at Stalingrad and at El Alamein, while counter-offensives began in Soviet Russia, in Libya and in French North Africa. A world-wide war of attrition ensued. Both camps had large empires from which to draw resources. The winning side would not only have to amass the largest armies but also supply them with superior arms. The huge distance which had to be spanned in Soviet Russia and across the Pacific Ocean, combined with the almost limitless resources of the United States, tipped the balance in favour of the Allies. Their progress began slowlv m 1943, accelerated during the summer of 1944 and reached a hurtling pace by the spring and summer of 1945. First Italy, then Germany and finally Japan were invaded, defeated and occupied. Each had to admit defeat and submit to the law of the conqueror. 1 Whereas responsibility for starting the First World War appeared to be evenly distributed, initiatives were taken in Europe in September 1939, and in Asia in December 1941 unequivocally by one side and not the other. Hitler and the Japanese supreme command chose their time and their place and their enemies after careful preparation. A pre-war climate had prevailed for many years in Germany since the rise of Nazism, in Italy lor much longer under the fascists, and in Japan after government had devolved on a group of military commanders. Each ol the Axis Powers had compulsory savings programmes. Each had stockpiled arms and was making increased purchases of metals and chemicals. They had conscripted and equipped strong armies, navies and air forces. They had disciplined and indoctrinated their citizens and had fostered nationalistic sentiments. Detailed plans and strategies for winning a war had been drawn up. It was not difficult to find reasons for going to war. The Germans felt strongly about their humiliating defeat in 1918 and the loss of territories under the Versailles Treaty. The Japanese and the Italians, who had been on the winning side in 1918, had no such pretext, and by September 1939 most of Germany's grievances had been settled. But propaganda in all three countries claimed that their territories could not sustain their populations, that they needed 'living space' to make up for the lack ol colonial empires and to furnish food and raw materials. These daims appeared just to the Germans whose memory of the economic crises of the 1 930's was still fresh, although living conditions had more or less returned to normal before the outbreak of war. In all three countries the parties which held, or seized, power aspired to eolonizing imperialism. Their ambitions were ill-defined and excessive and could only be satisfied at the expense of other, wealthier, powers. To justify them, the fascist parties claimed to have created the ideal form of government. The future belonged to them, not to the decadent democracies which were condemned by their own imperfections. Germany and Japan boasted racial superiority. These aims were published openly for the world to accept willy-nilly. The powers threatened by them could not amass the solid opposition necessary to obstruct them. For a period of several years, each responded in his own way. The United States were not in immediate danger and chose to remain impartial; the majority of Americans were committed to isolationism. The European states, on the other hand, especiallv those countries which had colonies, -could not afford to be impartial. But each of them gauged the danger differently and tried to evade it in its own way. Churchill and Eden saw the situation clearly, but the British government strove to maintain a balance in Europe, which seemed as likely to be toppled by French imperialism as by the German spirit of vengeance. The French, who tirelessly championed the Versailles Treaty, could not shrug the German threat off, but under the Popular Front government France was divided by political and social crisis. The mass of the population hoped for higher living standards, which could only be achieved with continued peace, while some of the middle-ranking leaders were as much, or more concerned about the dangers ofa popular revolution than by threats from across the border. The smaller states, Poland and the Little Entente, which had been created out of the French victory in 1 91 8, counted on a show of resistance by France to uphold their independence. Her hesitations and irresolution weakened their positions. Soviet Russia was theoretically in the greatest danger. The Nazis had openly declared their intention to wipe out communism and to annex eastern Europe for 'living space'. Relations between the liberal democracies and the socialist democracies XY11 were governed by mutual suspicion and long-nourished mutual hostility which made the necessary cooperation impossible to achieve. Only tentative overtures were made between 1935 and 1939. Torn between unrealistic isolationism and the formation of a block, which insurmountable obstacles prevented, each tried to save his own skin in the hope that when a storm broke it would strike someone else. This was a short-sighted strategy which gave rise to a succession of appeasements and humiliations. Mussolini, the first dictator, began the rule of force at home and conquest abroad. He had embarked on a policy ofeconomic expansion in central Europe, threatening to dismember Yugoslavia and to avenge the defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1895. His campaign to colonize Abyssinia in 1935 had seriously damaged the League of Nations, and after his victory in East Africa he revived territorial ambitions wThich brought the Italians into conflict with the French. Japan pursued the same incautious policv on a larger scale in the Far East. Her economic conquest of China began after 1930. China was already submerged incivil war when the Japanese army invaded from Korea conquering Manchuria, and capturing a number of key cities, and gaining control of the main channels of communication. But gravest provocation came from the victorious Nazis in Europe. A plebiscite restored the Saar to Germany. Then the left bank of the Rhine was remilitarized and Austria was annexed without drawing strong opposition. The settlement of the Sudeten question did arouse some opposition. France and Great Britain at first supported Czechoslovakia but later allowed her to be partitioned. In September 1938 at Munich, France and Britain signed a humiliating agreement from which Soviet Russia was excluded. Hitler's enemies were thus as disunited as they could possibly have been. There wras no knowing whom he would choose as his next victim, but it was obvious that the 'policy ol appeasement' had miscarried. When Adolf Hitler absorbed Bohemia in March 1939, after having given his word not to do so, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was finally convinced that Hitler 'was not a gentleman'. Great Britain took the lead in forming an anti- German coalition, offering guarantees to all states threatened by Germans, even though she was in no position effectively to honour such guarantees. Her approach to Soviet Russia for a political and military treaty was perhaps too half-hearted to succeed, but it produced an unexpected result. Stalin perceived the weakness of the Western democracies and did not wish to pay the cost ofanother Munich agreement. When Hitler made discreet soundings to find out whether Stalin was prepared to sign a non-aggression pact, Stalin quickly accepted. Perhaps he hoped to gain a breathing space for Soviet Russia. The real effect of the pact was to sign Poland's death warrant and to relieve Germany of any serious threat of a second front. England and France felt that it would now be impossible for them to go back on their guarantee to support Poland. They declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Europe's involvement in war left Japan free to act in the Far East. As the French and the British were already heavily engaged, Japan's real opponents were reduced to one -America. Colonial territories which could not be defended offered Japan the temptation of easy conquest. After shifting in several directions for nearlv two years, the Japanese leaders resolved on a policy of expansion along the valuable shores of southeast Asia. They had first to cancel out the possibility of interference from the the American fleet in the Pacific, and this they destroyed in its base at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 without declaring war on America. The Nazis in Germany and the military clique in Japan thus brought war to Europe and Asia.