Across oceans and continents it raged, drawing 100 million people into combat, leaving tens of millions dead, transforming millions more into refugees, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, redrawing borders, rewriting alliances, creating scientific advances so frightening that the end of civilization could be contemplated. It moved the center of military power (and with it the center of scientific power) from Europe to the great Eurasian land mass and North America. It was the worst war ever fought, and it was fought by men and women we now call the Greatest Generation. It started 70 years ago last week.
Not just America’s war
Americans have fought many wars, but today when we speak of “the war” we think of only one, and we think, wrongly, that it began on Dec. 7, 1941. But more than two years earlier, on Sept. 1, 1939, Europe was convulsed into conflict for the second time in a generation (and more than two years before that, on July 7, 1937, Japan launched a full-scale war against China). The effects of World War II are with us still. So, too, it turns out, are some of its unresolved historical issues.
These flared again this summer when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group of 56 states that stretch from Vancouver to Vladivostok, voted to condemn both Stalinism and fascism for beginning the conflict and to observe a day of remembrance for victims of both these failed and faded ideologies every Aug. 23, the date when, 70 years ago, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty that united the two nations and divided Eastern Europe.
Moscow’s chief delegate walked out of the OSCE meeting, calling the action an “insulting anti-Russian attack,” and, in an instant, many of the tensions that produced a hot war and, later, a cold one, were fired up again, at least within diplomatic circles. All of which is to show that Europe in one respect resembles the American South, where, Faulkner once said, the past is never dead, it’s not even past.
The European past is again solidly an element of the present, in part because the Soviets for so long denied the existence of their accord with the Nazis and then, confronted with irrefutable evidence from their own archives, portrayed the alliance as “Stalin’s difficult choice,” by which the Soviet leader tried to push his country’s effective border to the west so as to absorb more easily the inevitable attack from Hitler.
Russians paid heavy price
Not everybody remembers it that way, though many Americans do forget the Soviets’ contribution to victory in World War II after they switched sides in 1941 — or, more precisely, after Germany turned on its putative ally and opened up a ferocious eastern front. More than 20 million Russians died in what the nation still calls the Great Patriotic War, a phrase that should remind us that it is likely that for every American who perished in World War II, 50 Russians died.
One more sobering reminder: Think of all the Americans who died on the first day of the Normandy invasion in 1944, and then consider that the figure was less than half the average Russian loss every day of the war — some, to be sure, by execution squads or at the hands of the security services, but most as a result of combat with the Germans.
And though we customarily think of D-Day as the turning point in the war, it is arguable that the turning points might have been the battles of Moscow (1941), Stalingrad (1942-43) or even Kursk (1943), all fought on Soviet territory, all appreciably before Normandy.
“We take D-Day to be the pivotal day, but in the larger sweep of things — the numbers, the territory, the damage done to Germany — the Russian contribution was indispensable,” says James V. Wertsch, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies collective memories of history in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. “They did the war very brutally, but they did it.”
(The Chinese contribution to victory in World War II is even more often overlooked in the West. It was China’s armed forces that prevented Japan from sweeping to a swift and inalterable victory in Asia. Richard Overy, the University of Exeter historian, estimates Chinese losses in World War II at about 20 million people.)
This month, however, the question before Europe — actually the question before history — is whether Stalin and Hitler should be grouped together, as the OSCE did, or whether instead they should merely be compared, as two monumental dual biographies, one by Alan Bullock of Oxford (1991), another by Overy (2004), do with skill and insight.
Both leaders were dictators, both prosecuted brutal campaigns against their own people. But the Russians argue that their dictator bears no responsibility for starting the war.
In the United States that dispute is more likely to be regarded as an academic exercise — a superb final exam question in a course on modern history, perhaps — because in this country the war didn’t start for two more years, when Soviet Russia already was on the Allied side. Which is why our view of the war that began 70 years ago is so different.
Tragedy and transformation
We look at World War II as an event of tragedy and transformation, the awful moment that blurred the distinction between civilian and combatant but also the redemptive moment that propelled America toward world leadership even as it prompted the United States to address important domestic concerns.
“The war changed everything,” former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, perhaps the nation’s most visible World War II veteran, said in a conversation recently. “We were slow getting in but we eventually did the right thing and, thanks to the Brits holding on, we were able to prevail. The war had a huge impact on American education because of the G.I. Bill and it helped end segregation. We were mostly all united as a nation. It was the big event of the century.”
Despite all the tragedy attendant to World War II — tragedy that marked nearly every American family, including mine and almost certainly yours — we had a better war than did the Europeans and Russians. It is why we dare employ an ominous oxymoron and call the event that started 70 summers ago this week the Good War.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.