USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Conclusion to WWII

World War Two, the second major international conflict in a matter of decades, was nothing short of a wholesale assault on the ideals of civilization. This is not an exaggeration. Let us look at some of the numbers, which reflect the devastation. Worldwide, it is estimated that 70 million people died as a result of the Second World War. Nazi Germany suffered over five million military deaths, China about 3.5 million. The Soviet Union saw over 10 million of its soldiers perish—an astounding number—eclipsed only by the more astounding 11 million deaths of Russian civilians. The Second World War was a beginning of a dark new phase of warfare, a phase that saw civilian deaths far exceed deaths of military combatants. Indonesia is a perfect example of this dark trend. The archipelago had no military fatalities and yet lost 4 million people, all civilians, to the war. In Europe, the ratio of military to civilian deaths was also lopsided. The Dutch, in resisting the Nazi advance of 1940, suffered around 15,000 deaths. All told, the Dutch lost over 100,000 civilians during the war along with another 100,000 Jews. Poland was even worse off. The Poles lost a quarter of a million soldiers in a valiant attempt to slow the Nazi Blitzkrieg, but this was nothing in relation to the nearly two and half million Polish civilian death and the three million Polish Jews who died in the Nazi ghettos and extermination camps. The exception to this rule was, for obvious reasons, the United States, which lost over 400,000 at war and only around 1,500 civilians. Overall, the numbers are clear, while an astounding 25 million people died fighting during World War II, an unfathomable and truly horrific number of civilians, over 41 million, died as collateral damage. Modern warfare targeted not just armies but peoples. We see the gruesome extension of this concept in every subsequent war in the twentieth century and today.

All over the world these horrifying death tolls repeated. Beyond the battlefields, a new type of inhumanity welled up. Torture became common. Prisoners of war were abused, degraded, often tortured and killed. Death camps replaced internment camps. Mass murder became the business of nations. The bourgeois world of the belle époque with its emphasis on manners, respectability, honor, and decency, seemed like another age entirely. How did this crisis happen? How could the civilized, modern, and increasingly global world succumb to such barbarism? These were questions asked even at the time and, sadly, we have found, sadly no definitive answers.

What can we say as a coda to this age of disaster, 1914-1945, during which more than 150 million people died as a direct or indirect result of warfare? This so-called “enlightened age,” with its ideals of human rights, liberties, and the dignity of the individual had resulted in utter carnage. We might lament that the ingenuity of humankind, its drive for efficiency, industrialization and the mastering of nature, gave way to mass extermination, nuclear warfare, and the vast military industrial complex that still wields tremendous political and economic power on the world stage. We can see this period as an outgrowth of trends emerging in the 19th and early 20th century: a) the debasing of human labor by the conditions in the factories and mines, b) the race for raw materials at all costs (especially to other cultures and the environment) to power industry, c) the division of the world map into nation states which sought to advance their own interests against the interests of others and often against the common interests of humanity, d) the ravaging of nature on an unprecedented scale to satisfy the luxuries of human beings, e) the drive to subjugate millions of people in colonialist, imperialist enterprises for the benefit of a minority back home, f) the hunger for wealth and power that drove Americans and Europeans in North America and Africa to force the removal of hundreds of thousands of Amerindians and Africans, and g) in general, the economic policy, in a worldwide context, to exploit the many in order to enrich the few. This was a violent age of economic, industrial and military conflict, conflict often hidden from Western view in the jungles and grasslands of Africa, the islands of Asia, or the Great Plains of the United States. The historian Eric Hobsbaum was right when he termed this era from 1914 to 1945 the “Age of Catastrophe.”

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