Understanding WWII

We have talked before about how to present the history of WWII without falling into the trap of thinking it was all about liberating the Jews. Not that the Holocaust isn’t an important topic or that we should avoid teaching about it, but it wasn’t the primary reason for the war and presenting it as such seems a serious distortion.

Well, today I was reading the most recent Guardian Weekly and an editorial caught my attention. Peter Wilby argues precisely this point and goes on to show how presenting WWII as being motivated by humanitarian concerns has affected later foreign policy debates, or at least the public justification of foreign policy decisions. A few extracts to entice you to click the link:

… the war was not fought for humanitarian or democratic ends. Britain fought Germany for the same reason it had always fought wars in Europe: to maintain the balance of power and prevent a single state dominating the continent. America fought Japan to stop the growth of a powerful rival in the Pacific.


Romanticising the second world war has led us into foreign policy traps ever since. We look for new crusades against new Hitlers and new Mussolinis. We yearn to cheer our young men into “good wars”, to fight wars once more against the simple badness of fascism. Blair thought he could detect a national interest in fighting Saddam because he was so anxious to emulate Churchill and defeat “evil”. Hitler was monstrous: but we fought him, not for that reason, but because he was trying to make his country a rival, using force where necessary.

Exactly. Didn’t that guy Marx say something about those who don’t understand history…


7 thoughts on “Understanding WWII

  1. An excellent point, and a fascinating take on the consequences of narrating history in a particular way.

    But wasn’t it Santyana who said that business about those who are ignorant of history?


  2. Santayana, actually 🙂

    US and British leaders for the most part were quite anti-Semitic. And a world war did wonders for bringing the U.S. especially out of a huge Depression. But most important I think to try to understand all the threads and understand what a balancing act it was — not just Hitler and Germany, but Russia and Stalin (which went from Axis to Ally), and Japan. And coming after what was supposed to be the Great War, the war to end all wars, and the marked lack of resistance much of Europe showed to Hitler’s movements in the thirties. And in the post-war period, the balance of power was again upset, this time by the Soviets.

    I can see how the modern focus on the Holocaust has come to be. It is a horrific part of WWII, but, as you write, JoVE, we do ourselves, and our children, a disservice to limit our understanding of WWII to that one part.

    I haven’t read much Baker, beyond his pro-paper, what the heck are libraries doing nowadays stuff, but the new book interests me, though from the excerpts I’ve read Baker, more of a writer than a historian, might not be using as many shades of gray as I’d prefer. Mark Kurlanksy, a writer and historian I like, had a good review of the new book the other month; I think in the LA Times. I think Wilby is right, the book should land with a splash in England…


  3. This, from a NY Times interview with Baker the other month, is one of the most interesting points about Baker and the new book:

    [Baker said:] “I’ve always had pacifist leanings, and so one of the things I wanted to learn was how do you react to the Second World War if you’re a pacifist. That war is always held up as the great counterexample, the one that was justified. And I got hungrier and hungrier to answer the question: Did the Allies’ response to Hitler really help anyone who needed help?…”

    I think this is a fascinating starting point. I’d like to see someone who’s more of a historian and less of a novelist take this on.

    Here’s the link to the article,


  4. This is what Marx said about history. Also rather appropriate in the WWII-Iraq comparison.
    “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”


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