World War II was the culmination of the greatest geo-political crisis in Western civilization--the rise of the totalitarians. Following World War I, three totalitarians groups seized controlled of some of the post important countries in the world. First the Communists seized control of Russia (1917). Then the Fascists seized control of Italy and subsequently German Fascists seized control of that country (1933). Japanese militarists a kind of Shinto Fascism seized control of Japan (1930s). The countries as a whole had enormous scientific, industrial, human, and natural resources. With the NAZI victories in Europe, especially the defeat of France (1940), the balance of world power swing to the totalitarian powers. The totalitarian powers in 1940 controlled almost all of Europe, wedding the industrial potential of Europe with the natural resources of the Soviet Union. The threat to the Western democracies was that the totalitarian powers, especially the NAZIS, had superior military weapons and tactical doctrines. The threat to the West was that the totalitarian powers rejected much of the basic tenets of Western civilization--the value and dignity of the individual and the rule of law. The NAZIs added a virulent racism that targeted whole peoples for genocide and other peoples for slavery. The tragedy of World War II is that by the time that the public had been awakened to the mortal danger, the only way to prevent defeat was an alliance with one of the totalitarian powers. Here Hitler made the decision for the Democracies when he launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union (1941).
World War II was the defining moment of the 20th century. The stakes of the War were enormous. Had the Germans and Japanese won, their virulent nationalistic policies and brutal treatment of conquered populations--including genocide and enslavement--would have brought about a new dark age in human history. NAZI policies in the occupied East showed what Hitler had in mind for the future. European colonial administrations have a dark history of their own. By the 1930s, however, the worst abuses of the Europeans had past. Colonial spokesmen seeking independence were hounded, but within limits allowed to speak and promote their goal of independence. Varying degrees of a free press were allowed. What the Germans and Japanese had in mind was very different. Along with World War I, World War II was the great watershed of 20th-century geopolitical history. Germany was devastated. France was reduced to an occupied country. Britain was bankrupted and unable to retain control of its colonies. The War marked the shift of world power from the states of Western Europe to the Soviet Union and America. The Soviet Union seized Eastern Europe. America rose as the dominate world power. It was the American industrial powerhouse and the massive Russian ground force on the Eastern front that crushed the Germans. After the German surrender (1945), it was American power that prevented the Russians from seizing Western Europe.
Some of the questions often asked about wars is were they necessary or avoidable. Here historians make various cases for the different wars and opinions vary widely. Some argues that all wars are wrong and unnecessary. European wars until recent times were dynastic in character and thus the case can be made that they were unnecessary. The Reformation brought a major change in this pattern. Some European wars became religious in nature and involved people fighting for their beliefs, such as the Wars for Dutch independence (17th century). The French Revolution further changed this calculation when nationalism and political ideology became important. Thus assessing modern wars is often more complicated. The American Civil War seems to have been both unavoidable and necessary. Most historians, on the other hand, see World War I as both necessary and avoidable. Historians tend to see World War II as both necessary an unavoidable. This is our opinion, primarily because the totalitarian powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union) had achieved a level of military power superior to that of the democracies (America, Britain and France). There are individuals who do not think the War was either necessary or unavoidable.
World War II was in many ways a continuation of World War I. It was also a result of the emergence of political parties, primarily Fascist parties, which idealized war. Despite the experience of World War I, the Fascists idealized war. The Fascists were willing to employ coercion in international affairs much as they employed as part of their policies domestically. This commitment to war was normally disguised in part propaganda. While not as committed ideologically to war, the Communist were quite willing to employ coercion both domestically and internationally. Fascism and Communism are often seen as opposite ends of the political spectrum. In fact there are many similarities. It was not accident that until June 1941, Hitler and Stalin were partners.
The Tripartite Pact was signed September 27, 1940. The agreement allied Germany and Italy (which were at war with Britain) and Japan (which was at war with China). Germany and Italy has since 1939-40 been at war with Britain. Japan since 1937 had been at war with China. The alliance did not require the partners to join these wars, but it did require them to come to each other's aid if attacked. The alliance became known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis alliance, or commonly the Axis. The three Axis partners German hegemony over most of Europe; Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean, and Japanese hegemony in East Asia. After the Axis agreement was signed, several German allies joined the Axis, notably Vichy France and Fascist Spain refused to do so. Japan had no Asian allies, except or the puppet state of Manchurian.
World War II historians do not commonly discuss how the leaders of the two countries (NAZI Germany and Soviet Union) conceived of national policies that covered on Eastern Europe in general and the Ukraine in particular. One historian has focused on this in the area he calls the Bloodlands, the region of Eastern Europe that runs from the Baltics, through Poland, Belarus, and south to the Ukraine and eastern Romania. [Snyder] World War II was an industrial war, but in large measure the agrarian policies of the Soviet Union and NAZI Germany lay at its heart. Here the Ukraine was especially important to both Hitler and Stalin and both decided to pursue agrarian policies premised on genocide. Agricultural policies were central to the plans formulated by both leaders. Stalin in his First 5 Year Plan launched the rapid industrialization of what was still a largely peasant country. His plan conceived of financing that industrialization by seizing the land of peasant farmers which would allow him to divert resources from the country side to the expanding industrial cities. The peasants would thus be allowed to keep less of the crops they harvested. Stalin combined this basic policy in the Ukraine. He was concerned about the Soviet Union's ability to hold out this vital region because of the Ukrainian nationalism and resistance to Soviet rule. He thus went even further in the Ukraine, creating a horrible famine to undermine Ukrainian nationalism and resistance to Soviet rule. Stalin never spelled out his intentions fully. Hitler was more frank in Mein Kampf where he enunciated Germany's need for Lebensraum. The killing plan was more clearly spelled out in Generalplan Ost. Hitler's agrarian policy was also central to the NAZI regime and it also focused on the Ukraine. Hitler conceived that the answer to Germany's dependence on foreign food imports was an agrarian policy based on seizing the East, murdering large numbers of the Slavic population, and finally exporting German farmers to rule over the enslaved Slavs that had been allowed to live. It is no accident that in large measure World War II was fought and decided in this area after the deaths of millions of civilians. A tragic accident of history is here the Jewish population of Europe was concentrated.
World War II was the culmination of the greatest geo-political crisis in Western civilization--first World war I and second the rise of the totalitarians. Following World War I, three totalitarians groups seized controlled of some of the most important countries in the world. First the Communists seized control of Russia (1917). Then the Fascists seized control of Italy (1924) and subsequently German Fascists seized control of that country (1933). Japanese militarists a kind of Shinto Fascism seized control of Japan (1930s). These countries as a whole had enormous scientific, industrial, human, and natural resources. With the NAZI victories in Europe, especially the defeat of France (1940), the balance of world power swung to the totalitarian powers. The totalitarian powers in 1940 controlled almost all of Europe, wedding the industrial potential of Europe with the natural resources of the Soviet Union. As part of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the Soviet Union shipped huge quantities of raw material, especially badly needed petroleum to fuel the NAZI war machine. Facing the totalitarians were the British and the Dominions backed by the resources and industrial potential of the United states. The RAF prevented the Germans from invading Britain and the much diminished and hard-pressed Royal Navy was struggling with the German U-boats to keep the sea lanes open, especially the vital sea lanes to America. The United States had an enormous industrial potential in 1940, but it was largely a potential. The U.S. Army was smaller than that of Romania and not equipped with modern weapons. And American industry was turning out mostly consumer products at a time when the future of the Western world was being determined. It was an open question as to if or when America would enter the War and if its industrial and human resources could be converted to war production in time to save Western Civilization.
The threat to the Western democracies was that the totalitarian powers, especially the NAZIS, had superior military weapons and tactical doctrines. The German tactical doctrine correctly integrated mechanized war and aerial support. This was not mastered by the British until mid-1942 and the Americans until mid-1943. Fortuitously the British and Americans learned to fight the Germans in North Africa where they were the weakest. The Soviet Red Army at huge cost had to confront the NAZIs at the peak at their strength in Europe where they were the strongest. The result were unbelievable casualties and near defeat. The NAZI lead in weapons system continued throughout the War. Even at the end of the War, the NAZIs had tanks, air planes, and rockets that were several year ahead of anything in the Western arsenals. What the NAZIs did not have was the industrial capacity to build them. This was in part due to the Allied strategic bombing campaign.
Even if Britain was not precisely alone given the support of the Dominions and America, the strategic situation was dire, even worse than commonly understood in World War II histories. Britain and the Dominions were in a very real sense all that stood not only between the NAZIs, but totalitarian tyranny itself. Europe had been divided up between two totalitarian powers, the NAZIs and the Soviet Union. While the press at the time and even historians today commonly focus on Hitler's invasion of Poland, Stalin from the east also invaded Poland (September 1939). And that was only the first of a dreadful series of Soviet aggressions. From the Urals to the Pyrenees, all of Europe Europe with the exception of a few isolated, vulnerable enclaves (Sweden and Switzerland) were in the hands of merciless tyrannies. And except for the Jews (admittedly a big exception), there was not a great difference between the NAZIs and Soviets. Soviet oppression was so dreadful in fact that except in Poland, the NAZIs were seen by many as liberators and that even included areas of the Soviet Union (especially the western Ukraine). The Soviet Union was not directly fighting the British, but they were supplying the NAZI war machine with vast quantities of critically important war materials as agreed to under the terms of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Hitler had begun the War with serious deficiencies in the resources needed to fight the War, especially oil. The Soviets were providing the NAZIs what they needed to complete their victory in the West. So in a very real way, Britain faced the entire continent of Europe under the control of two cruel tyrannies. Churchill realized that Britain by itself could never defeat the totalitarian powers that had seized control of Europe. Churchill's war policy was this simply to survive until the sleeping giant across the Atlantic would finally join the struggle against tyranny. And there Lindbergh and the Isolationists with a myopic view of history that defies credulity were determined to allow Europe to fight its own battles. As Churchill explained during the long, dangerous struggle after the fall of France, "We are fighting by ourselves alone, but we are not fighting for ourselves alone." American aid to Britain could help Britain survive, but without America as an active fighting ally, Britain could never challenge the NAZI hold on Europe. And even with America as long as the NAZI-Soviet alliance held this would not have been possible. And Japan's adherence to the Axis only added to the totalitarian strategic dominance.
The threat to the West was that the totalitarian powers rejected much of the basic tenets of Western civilization--the value and dignity of the individual and the rule of law. The NAZIs added a virulent racism that targeted whole peoples for genocide and other peoples for slavery.
The full scope of NAZI racism was not fully understood at the time, nor is it fully appreciated today. NAZI racism is associated by most people with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. The Jews were, however, simply at the top of the NAZI hit list. The NAZIs also targeted the Gypsies and non-racial groups such as homosexuals and 7 Day Adventists. There were much larger racial/national groups targeted by the NAZIs. Here the largest were the Slavs. The NAZIs killed millions of Slavs during the War in the Occupied East. Had the NAZIs won the War and even more horrific holocaust would have unfolded in the East. The NAZIs also disparaged blacks. Many of the few blacks in NAZI Germany were sterilized. NAZI propaganda pictured blacks as only slightly above monkeys. The future for blacks in a NAZI dominated world is obvious.
One of the poorly understood aspect of World War is Japanese policy making in 1941. We know a great deal about American, British, French, German, and even Soviet decision making, but much less about the Japanese. The Japanese militarists were strongly opposed to Communism and they coveted the resources of the western Soviet Union. This is well documented and of course there were attempts by the Japanese Army to move into Soviet Siberia (1939). The question becomes, why did the Japanese not join the NAZI crusade against the Soviets, especially after the spectacular success of Operation Barbarossa. Here there are several reasons that must have been important. The severe losses experienced at the hand of the Red Army as a result of Japanese attacks in Manchuria must have been a factor (1939). The fact that the Dutch East Indies had important petroleum resources, especially needed by the Japanese who had been buying oil in America, also must have been a factor. We wonder if and to what extent the question of the future of Japan in a NAZI-dominated world entered into Japanese decision making. We do know that the NAZIs tried to convince the Japanese of the dangers of the Jews. Japan had a small Jewish community. Japanese authorities encouraged by NAZI diplomats did interview the Japanese Jews who pointed out that the NAZI belief in the superior Aryan race did not include the Japanese. Officials deported the Japanese to Shanghai, but took no action against them. Hitler in fact admired the Japanese for their military prowess. The Japanese did not, however, have the military capability of the Germans and one can but assume that in a NAZI dominated world, the Germans would have had to eventually deal with the Japanese.
Churchill and Roosevelt assessed the greatest danger as being the NAZIs because of their scientific, military, and industrial strength. History has confirmed their assessment. Some of argued that Stalin was the more evil, pointing out he killed more people than Hitler. This of course is only because the Third Reich lasted only 12 years. Had Hitler won the death toll would have far surpassed Stalin's death toll. In addition, the Soviet Union in 940 did not possess the military and scientific capability of Germany. What Germany lacked was resources. The alliance with the Soviet Union (939) brought the benefits of access to Soviet raw materials. As a result if the alliance, the Soviets delivered vast quantities of raw material to support the German war effort. This ended only with the NAZI invasion (June 1941).
The tragedy of World War II is that by the time that the public in the Democracies had been awakened to the mortal danger, the only way to prevent defeat was an alliance with one of the totalitarian powers. It is difficult to see how the Western Democracies after the fall of France could have prevailed in war with the totalitarians had they maintained their alliance. Here the Japanese seem to have understood this. They signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets and stick to it. Hitler also signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, but for him this was a tactical step allowing him to deal with Poland and France. Success there opened the possibility for his primary goal, seizing agricultural areas in the East for Lebensraum and the natural resources of the Soviet Union. Hitler thus in the end made the decision for the Democracies when he launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union (1941). The weakness of the Western democracies in 1940 and the need to fight the War with the Soviets as an ally inevitably affected the post-War peace.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books: New York, 2010), 524p.
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