As the world around us reels from one crisis to another, it is worth pausing occasionally to remind ourselves that things could always be worse. Seventy-five years ago, the world was emerging from a catastrophe that makes our own troubles look trivial. We still live in its shadow today. writes Keith Lowe.
The Second World War was probably the single most destructive event the world has ever seen. By August 1945, between 50 million and 70 million people had been violently killed, and tens of millions more stood on the brink of starvation. Thousands of cities across Europe and Asia had been reduced to rubble.
The war changed everything. For centuries, the nations of western Europe had sat at the centre of world power; but six years of destruction had reduced them to mere bit players on the world stage. It was America and the USSR that would step into their place, and the rivalry between these two new superpowers would define the rest of the twentieth century.
The list of social transformations brought about by the war is truly mind-boggling. The war was responsible for the spread of Communism in Asia and eastern Europe, but also the spread of American consumer culture around the world. It transformed our architectural heritage, as new cities rose out of the ashes of the old. It gave us rockets and jet planes and nuclear power; but also modern computers, microwave ovens and superglue. Without massive investments in wartime research, technological advances like these might have taken decades.
But perhaps the greatest transformation brought about by the war was psychological. The world experienced a gigantic trauma between 1939 and 1945, and in the following years it had to find ways to come to terms with that trauma.
Its initial reaction was to get busy. People everywhere launched themselves into a frenzy of rebuilding and planning for the future. The economic miracles of the 1950s and 60s, which took place not only in Europe but all over the world, were born out of this new spirit of enthusiasm and energy.
On the global stage, statesmen got together and tried to plan ways to prevent another catastrophe like the one they had just experienced. In July 1944, even while World War Two was still raging, economists gathered in Bretton Woods in America to discuss how to bring an end to the sort of financial crashes that had led to war in the first place. The institutions they set up – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – would regulate the world economy for the next 27 years and are still hugely important today.
In the summer of 1945, an even bigger, more ambitious organisation was set up: the United Nations. Its main purpose, as laid out in the opening line of its charter, was ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. In the following years, international cooperation became all the rage.
One of the world’s most successful international institutions is the European Union, which also has its foundations in World War Two. According to Robert Schuman, one of the EU’s founding fathers, the whole point of this organisation was to make another European war ‘not only unthinkable but materially impossible’. He and others like him believed that the key to achieving peace in Europe was to draw its nations closer together. This is why, ever since it was founded, the EU has always stated its dedication to ‘ever closer union’.
Unfortunately, these were not the only lessons that we learned from the war. The traumas of 1945 also taught us to fear our friends, to mistrust our neighbours and to blame our modern misfortunes on the historic wrongs that many of us have suffered.
In recent decades, the hope and idealism of the 1950s and 60s has been replaced with a growing culture of victimhood. In each new crisis today, we can’t help hearing echoes of the war.
During the Euro Crisis in 2012, Greek and Italian newspapers compared their own countries to concentration camp victims. They began calling Germany the ‘Fourth Reich’. During the Brexit referendum, British newspapers repeatedly compared Brexit supporters to the heroes of 1940, who had stood alone against a hostile continent. In Poland and Hungary today, the EU is frequently compared to both the Nazis and the Communists. To those who remember communist times, powerful outsiders seem to bring nothing but trauma. It is no wonder that so many in these countries have come to regard their nations as the only cause worth believing in.
International cooperation, once so highly valued, is now often regarded with disdain. There are many reasons for this but nestling amongst them are the continuing echoes of the war.
America now regards the superpower status that it achieved in 1945 as its birth-right. It longs to be ‘great again’ but refuses to accept the responsibilities that go along with such greatness. Russia is similarly nostalgic: Putin makes regular references to Russian wartime prowess, while quietly drawing a veil over the sins of the Red Army in the months and years that followed.
In Asia, too, the traumas of the war are returning in ever more frequent flashbacks. China once kept fairly quiet about its war with Japan, but ever since the 1980s museums and monuments devoted to the war have been popping up all over the country. Its TV schedules today are dominated with documentaries and dramas about Chinese victimhood. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of South Korea.
As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps we can learn some valuable lessons from this legacy. We can be grateful that the coronavirus has not been worse and is certainly not as bad as the calamity that rocked the world 75 years ago. And we can take heart from the fact that any crisis, even a global war, will always have benefits as well as costs. But we should be aware that the full consequences of what we are experiencing today will not be known for a generation.
Let us hope that we can manage the traumas and stresses of 2020 and 2021. Otherwise we might one day find ourselves haunted by them, just as we are still haunted by the echoes of World War Two.
Keith Lowe is an acclaimed writer and historian, whose works have been translated into 20 languages worldwide. His latest book, Prisoners of History, has been nominated by The Spectator as a Book of the Year.