Amidst all the ballyhoo of this incredible election we are in danger of not giving proper thought to an event which has shaped all our lives. Seventy years ago today saw an end to what Churchill called ‘the German War’. It was a war in which 50 million died – 20 million, let us never forget, Russian.
I have never regarded the Second World War as anything other than a continuation of the First, but with a 21-year interregnum. On 8th May 1945 the world was still far from at peace. Not yet vanquished were the fanatical Japanese. If our soldiers feared the last ditch fanaticism of the Nazis as they stormed across the Rhine into the enemy heartland, their fears were multiplied several fold as they considered the horrors of what awaited them on the beaches of Japan. Their naval comrades had already experienced a foretaste of what they could expect with the Kamikaze death flights into their ships.
As the great armies of the Western allies celebrated with their Russian allies in the West, they knew that an even more fearful test of their resolve awaited them in the East. Bloodletting on a scale hitherto unknown seemed guaranteed as they briefly enjoyed their moment of triumph in Europe before their embarkation to the other side of the world and a fresh clash of arms.
Their foe in this encounter did not abide by Western concepts of warfare and could, especially in defending their homeland, be expected to die to the last man and perhaps even woman. At that very moment, while the celebrations were continuing, British Empire forces were locked in mortal combat in the steaming jungles of Burma and south east Asia while their American allies were island-hopping ever closer in the Pacific to the Japanese mainland.
But far away in the deserts of New Mexico a secret project was being furiously fast tracked to its terrifying completion. It was a bomb of such enormous potential that a single one could lay waste an entire city. Millions of lesser bombs had fallen on the cities of the Reich, but still there were whole districts of them relatively unscathed. If it worked then even the suicidal Japanese – who at that moment were preparing for a ‘twilight of the gods’ – would bear what their emperor would later broadcast ‘the unbearable’ and surrender, rather than see their 2000-year-old civilisation wiped from the face of the earth.
In all the long march of humankind towards a better world, the stakes had never been higher. Terrible as the new weapon was, it would save those fearful young Western men who were even then preparing to board their ships, as it would also, ironically, save the Japanese themselves. (Though a quarter of a million of them would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.) So while we are right to commemorate the end of the war in Europe, we must not forget the true end of the war, three month later.
This ‘true end’, as I call it has, in my view, the greater significance. This is because it really did achieve what many had, mistakenly, believed in the First World War to be: ‘The War to End Wars’. From the detonation of those two nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki came a belief – rightly – that global war was no longer an option as it would escalate, inevitably, into a nuclear conflagration and with that the end of all human civilisation. In such a scenario there could be no winners and it is my belief that that it is this appreciation during the Cold War that kept it from becoming a hot one.
As for the reason I do not believe the two European wars to be separate wars, it is because certain powerful elements in Germany considered the outcome of the First World War unfinished business. It took only a charismatic demagogue like Hitler to fan the embers for a re-run. Even then it would have been unlikely to happen, but for the Wall Street Crash and the impoverishment and mass unemployment which struck Germany. Of all the advanced economies, Germany suffered by far the worst because its situation was dramatically worsened by the huge reparations it was forced to pay under the Versailles treaty.
Why those powerful elements in Germany considered the war unfinished business was because the Western allies did not press home their advantage when they finally broke the four-year impasse on the Western Front and went on to smash the, by then, retreating German army which was surrendering in droves. Heeding Ludendorff, the German commander – who had a breakdown – and his call for a cessation of hostilities (Armistice) the allies allowed the Kaiser’s high command to maintain the fiction that it had not been defeated in the field. Hitler, of course, was all too ready to encourage them in this misplaced belief and, more to the point, provide them with the tools to try once more. The rest is history.
How might the world have looked but for that cataclysmic conflict which began almost a hundred years ago? Mighty different, I can tell you. It is highly unlikely we would have a United Nations since only a catastrophe on a planet-wide scale could have caused countries to submit themselves in the future to a supra-national authority.
There would be no Arab-Israeli conflict and, as a result of that, no 9/11. We would be boarding aircraft in pretty much the relaxed way we used to, with none of the demeaning scrutiny and security measures we have now. There would have been no Cold War and as a consequence of that no mad rush to be the first to land a man on the moon. Because the Second World War was the unfinished business of the first, rocketry was given priority by the Germans as a possible war-winning technology and without that impetus space technology would be way, way behind where it is today. We might not even have those satellites circling the earth which give us GPS, satellite television and so much else. Computer technology – also hastened by war – would still be in its infancy and the World Wide Web would be non-existent. The whole business of electrical miniaturization on which just about everything today depends received a major shot in the arm by the space effort. Of course we would have got there in the end but it would have been at a much more leisurely pace.
In geopolitical terms, the landscape would be just as dramatically different. There would be no European Union since it was only the trauma of the two World Wars which caused Europeans to think there had to be a better way. We would probably still rule India and most of the other European empires would be staggering on, though under rising pressure for emancipation along with us. Russia would have evolved from a tsarist autocracy into a fully fledged democratic state. All the fallen monarchies of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria/Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, he Tsar of Russia and even the Sultan of Turkey would still be in place along with a clutch of Balkan princlings. It is likely, though, that most of them would have had their wings clipped democratically.
But the Emperor of China would still be gone. He went three years before the Great War started, discredited by his inability to prevent China’s humiliations by the European colonial powers. But the new China would have had a Japanese experience; it would have taken the Japanese approach of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and industrialised like mad. Today, most probably, it would be the top economic as well as military power in the world with Uncle Sam as No. 2. It would have avoided the trauma of the Mao experience and be like Japan, a democratic state. Britain’s colossal overseas investments – all lost to war – along with her staggering land holdings around the world would have been deployed to who knows what ends. They might even have allowed her to stay top dog.
All in all it would have been an utterly different landscape from the one we see around us today. It would not necessarily have been a better world since many of the less salubrious features of the old world would not have been swept away and there would have been umpteen disputes leading to what may be described as bush-fire wars.
As for no conflict with the Muslim world, that is because there would be no state of Israel. If there was any conflict it would be with their Ottoman overlords – it would be them, not us, taking the flak. It was Britain’s seizure of Palestine and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire along with its foreign secretary’s promise to allow a home for Jews in the Holy Land which made the creation of Israel possible. He had no idea it would lead to the dispossession of millions of Arabs from their ancestral lands. This, above all else, is what drives the Jihadists today along with Western military intervention in Muslim affairs. They take the view that it was not a kind-hearted act on the part of Britain regarding Jews – which in fact it was – but a calculated move to plant a Trojan Horse in their midst which would do the West’s bidding and help it keep control of them.
One of the consequences of the two World Wars was to so weaken and discredit the European powers that it hastened the end of their empires. Had the people of the various empires gained their freedom at a more leisurely pace – perhaps as much as a century later – there would have been more time to prepare cadres of their people and put institutions in place which could have avoided the shambles we saw following the rush to independence after the war. Africa, today, with its boundless resources, might perhaps be a well-governed and prosperous continent
But war did hasten the end of deference – à la Downton Abbey – and dispose, in the process, of autocratic monarchies. Only in the victor or neutral states did they survive. Interestingly, not a single state which abolished its monarchy has had a change of heart and reinstated it. I suppose that is our fate when something cataclysmic comes along one day to discredit our own monarchy.
Apart from the most obvious ones – the advancement of science, the UN and the EU – the other major beneficiary of war has been the emancipation of women. Oddly, it was not the dictatorships with their powers of compulsion (the USSR was an exception) which were the earliest and most successful in harnessing the abilities of the fair sex, but the elective dictatorships of the West. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, was always bemoaning the Reich’s slowness in this crucial field to his boss.