Today marks the 70th anniversary of World War II. Technically, it only marks the German invasion of Poland; Britain and France did not declare war until September 3, 1939. But that would be quibbling to the Poles who were dive-bombed, not to mention the Chinese whom Imperial Japan had been slaughtering since 1931.
The wave of Second World War nostalgia seems to have mercifully faded (the only people who never romanticize the “Good War” were those who actually fought in it). But as movies like “The Inglorious Bastards” prove, there is still a fascination with the last global war. It’s a sign of the times that we view the the bloodiest conflict in human history through rose-colored glasses. We project our desperate need for a war with purpose and righteousness on to World War II. Our search for clarity only obscures history. People in 1939 faced the same choices, grappled with the same dilemmas, as we do in 2009. Is war ever justified? Should we mind our own business, or become embroiled in foreign conflicts? As British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said when Hitler was dismembering Czechoslovakia,
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
He could have been speaking of Sunni and Shia or Pashtun and Tajik.
Most of all, there was plenty of doubt as to the real reasons for war. Communists were convinced that this was a civil war between capitalists, and they were going to sit it out (until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union). Others knew that the nations fighting Hitler in the name of freedom had signs reading “no dogs or Chinese allowed” in their African and Asian empires.
Yet whatever their reasons, the democracies did fight. Most of us would agree that it was a good thing that they did. It’s wrong to draw too many parallels between a conflict of nations like World War II and conflicts of nation-building like Afghanistan and Iraq. Portraying the “war on terror” as an existential struggle like that against Nazism is ludicrous.
But the notion that it’s always wrong for a nation to resort to violence is equally dangerous. When Britain and France went to war in the late summer of 1939, they didn’t realize just how existential the war really was. It wasn’t until fascist Germany and Japan blitzed most of Europe and Asia, that everyone realized just how serious the stakes were.
I came across this passage in the first Economist editorial published after the start of World War II:
“It [Nazism] has started compelling us to devote our energies to rearmament, our leisure to drilling, our income to taxes; it has cast over our lives the shadow of doom. Hitler has proved that we cannot be indifferent to the ways in which other people govern themselves.”