The Second World War Created the Conditions for Transforming Europe and the Entire Global Geo-political Order

Home World Americas The Second World War Created the Conditions for Transforming Europe and the Entire Global Geo-political Order

The Second World War Created the Conditions for Transforming Europe and the Entire Global Geo-political Order

The Second World War Created the Conditions for Transforming Europe and the Entire Global Geo-political Order

During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union fought together as allies against the Axis powers. However, the relationship between the two nations was a tense one. Americans had long been wary of Soviet communism and concerned about Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical rule of his own country. For their part, the Soviets resented the Americans’ decades-long refusal to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community as well as their delayed entry into World War II.

To this one should ad that every combatant state in the Second World War thought that the war they fought was justified. They felt so for different reasons and with differing moral outlooks, but none of the participants had a guilty conscience. Justification for war was soon transformed into the belief that war must be. The post-war literature has almost unanimously regarded the claims of the aggressor states to be fighting for a just cause as entirely spurious. Still, little sense can be made of the efforts of almost all populations to prosecute the war to the bitter end unless it is recognized that both sides believed right to be on their side. Both Axis and Allies made extensive efforts to persuade their peoples of the virtue of their cause and the enemy’s vileness. They changed the conflict into a struggle of different versions of ‘civilization,’ a battle that had to be prolonged until complete victory had been sealed. Those who openly opposed the war on ethical grounds remained a tiny and isolated minority. 

Dennis Wheatley, the famous British author, was recruited in 1940 by the British military Joint Planning Staff to draft papers on the nature of total war and its moral implications. All the fighting powers might have well appropriated his description at the height of the conflict. ‘It must be realized, and it must be clearly stated,’ wrote Wheatley, ‘that Total War has only two possible alternatives for a Nation-at-War: they are Total Victory or Total Annihilation.’ Under these stark circumstances, Wheatley concluded that any course of action that would shorten the war and achieve victory was morally justified ‘irrespective of its “legal” or “illegal” implications.’1 The absolute terms in which the Second World War was fought were historically unique. Regimes on both sides adopted the rhetoric of doing or die national extinction or national survival. The pursuit of victory at all costs was the moral cement that held the war effort together. Although the threat of complete annihilation was in most cases greatly exaggerated, the possibility supplied a ready moral imperative to compel absolute compliance with the war effort and to justify the most extreme national exertion on both sides, Axis and Allied. The war for survival was everywhere viewed, by definition, as a just war, distorting the conventional legal and ethical description of the term, which suggested that natural justice rather than Darwinian struggle ought to determine whether or not a war was just.

How the various countries justified their war

The Axis aggressors had not intended the absolute terms in which total war was defined in the 1930s when they began their imperial projects to seize territory in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Their ambitions were regional, and their justification for conquest rested on the assumption that they were each denied by the existing structure of world power a just share in the world’s resources, and – in particular – adequate territory. Justice in this sense derived from a prior assumption that there were peoples fitted for empire, because of their racial and cultural superiority, and peoples included only to be colonized, a view evidently legitimated by the recent history of European expansion. The global order in the 1930s was regarded as illegitimate because it was designed to limit these claims; the wars of imperial conquest, from Manchuria in 1931 to Poland in 1939, promised to correct the injustice of denying vigorous peoples an outlet to empire and fairer access to the world’s natural resources.2 The Three Power Pact signed between the three Axis states in September 1940, assigning each a new imperial order in Europe, the Mediterranean basin, and East Asia declared that a feeling of lasting peace would be possible only once every nation in the world (that is, every ‘advanced’ nation) ‘shall receive the space to which it is entitled’, suggesting that the new order should be based on a firmer sense of international justice.3 As one Japanese official complained, why was it regarded as morally acceptable for Britain to dominate India but not for Japan to dominate China? 

Pursuing new regional empires was hesitant and improvised, not least because all three Axis states understood that their justification for aggressive expansion was unlikely to be endorsed by the wider world community. By the time war broke out in September 1939, the West had formed the view that Axis aggression was part of a larger plan to dominate the world, and the idea that the Axis were embarked on a global conspiracy of conquest became enshrined in the Allies’ perception of the enemy down to the post-war trials of the major war criminals, in which conspiracy to aggressive wage war was a principal charge. The claim that the Axis, particularly Hitler’s Germany, sought ‘world domination was never clearly defined, but it was used as a rhetorical tool to maximize the menace posed by the aggressor states. In reality, there was no coherent plan or deliberate conspiracy to achieve world domination. However, it might be defined. Indeed, the Axis states saw the situation as the complete reverse. When their regional imperial ambitions were finally challenged by war in Asia and the Pacific from 1937 onwards and in Europe from 1939, they found that their justification for war had to be reconfigured as total wars of self-defense against the implacable hostility and naked self-interest of states that already enjoyed the fruits of empire, or abundant land and resources. In Germany, aggression against Poland was overshadowed by the British and French declaration of war, which was regarded as a renewed attempt to ‘encircle’ Germany and stifle its legitimate claims to imperial parity. The popular view in September 1939, recalled a young German, was that ‘we had been attacked and we had to defend ourselves, and it was the Western powers who were engaged in a conspiracy, not Germany.4 Defence of the German core against its enemies became the overriding moral obligation on the German people, inverting the injustice of German aggression into a just war for national survival. 

Such moral inversion was common to all the Axis states. In their view, the Allied powers were guilty of conspiring not only to limit their just claims to territory but even to annihilate the national existence of the imperial core. Mussolini repeatedly claimed that Italy was imprisoned in the Mediterranean by the ‘plutocratic powers’ that colluded to deny the country its right as a civilizing power to lo spazio vitale, living space, where a new civilization could be founded. The pursuit of empire justified war.5 In Japan, there was strong resentment that earlier Western willingness to involve Japan as an ally in the Great War and to co-operate in imposing the ‘unequal treaties on China had been transformed by the 1930s into strong prejudice against Japan’s ambitions in Asia. Western support for China following the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War was regarded as one element in a wider conspiracy that had taken shape since the occupation of Manchuria to frustrate Japan’s rightful claim to the empire. Among Japan’s military, political and intellectual elite, this so-called ‘white peril’ threatened the very survival of the kokutai, the historical community of the Japanese, and with it the divine mission to bring the Asian people under the one roof of Japanese imperial protection. Japan’s moral obligation, wrote Nagai Ryūtarō, was to ‘overthrow the worldwide autocracy of the white man.’6 Although the final decision to risk war with the United States and the British Empire had a solid military and economic rationale; Prime Minister Tōjō expressed it as a more fundamental defense of Japan’s historic emperor-state against the threat that the West would create a ‘little Japan’ and end 2,600 years of imperial glory.7 On the Pearl Harbor attack day, the government issued an ‘Outline of Information and Propaganda Policies’ that blamed the war on the West’s ‘selfish desire for world conquest.’8 The ethical commitment of the Japanese people to total war was to be based on a similar inversion of reality to the German case, where aggression in China and the Pacific was transformed into a battle of self-defense against encirclement by the white powers. In December 1941, the Japanese poet Takamura Kōtarō summed up the Japanese view of the conflict with the West:

We are standing for justice and life; While they are standing for-profits, We are defending justice; while they are attacking for-profits, They raise their heads in arrogance while constructing the Great East Asia family. 

A year later, the Japan Times reminded readers that the war of self-defense was ‘just’.9 The most elaborate and pernicious conspiracy theory took hold in Germany. For Hitler and the National Socialist leadership, the real enemy conspiring to launch a war against the German people was ‘world Jewry.’ From the outset of the European war in September 1939, Hitler coupled the fight against the Western Allies with a broader fight against the Jews. The national enemies were regarded as merely the instruments of a malign international network of Jews that conspired not only to frustrate Germany’s rightful claim to an empire but to annihilate the German people. This fantasy had firm pre-war roots. German defeat in 1918 had long been interpreted by the radical nationalist constituency as the consequence of an alleged stab in the back by Jewish defeatists and agitators on the home front. Hitler, in his speeches in the early 1920s as leader of the tiny National Socialist Party, broadened this allegation into a more apocalyptic ‘life and death struggle,’ a real war ‘between Jew and German’.10

Hitler and his fellow anti-Semites consistently viewed the conflict with the Jews in world-historical terms. For National Socialist propaganda, it was the Jews who sought ‘world domination, not Germany; it was the Jews who sought world war, not the Germans. In 1936, years before the war, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the later architect of the Jewish genocide, wrote that Germany’s principal enemy was the Jew’ whose desire is world domination, whose pleasure is destruction, whose will is extermination ….’ In November 1938, Himmler warned an audience of senior SS officers that if war broke out, the Jews would seek to annihilate Germany and exterminate its people: ‘speaking German and having had a German mother would suffice.’11 These two tropes, that the Jews wanted war with Germany and would conspire to provoke it. The Jews planned to exterminate the German – or ‘Aryan’ – people made explicit the connection in the National Socialist mind between war and Jewish guilt. Hitler on 30 January 1939 finally chose to announce in public, in a speech to the Reichstag on the anniversary of his chancellorship, a notorious prophecy that if the Jews succeeded in plunging Europe once again into the war (as they were alleged to have done in 1914), the consequence would be the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. Historians have been wary of taking this statement at face value, yet over the coming years, Hitler returned again and again to the theme that behind the coming of war and its subsequent expansion lay the malign and deliberate efforts of ‘world Jewry’.12

The intertwining of a war between states and a battle with the shadowy conspirators of ‘world Jewry’ began from the very start of the conflict. In a radio speech to the German people on 4 September 1939, Hitler blamed the British and French declaration of war on a ‘Jewish-democratic international enemy’ which had harried the two Western powers into declaring a war they did not want.13 The anti-Semitic Weltdienst journal went so far as to assert that the Seventh ‘Protocol’ on the universal war in the fabricated Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (more than 150,000 copies of which had been sold in Germany) was realized in the Western declaration of war: ‘Could the war plans of Jewry be more clearly expressed?’14

When the head of the World Jewish Congress, Chaim Weizmann, publicly pledged support for the British cause later in September, the journal Die Judenfrage (The Jewish Question) told its readers that in Britain they faced ‘the world enemy number 1: international Jews and the power-hungry, hate-filled world Jewry’.15 The war of self-defense was two wars waged as one: the war against the Allies and war against the hidden Jewish enemy. The refusal of Britain to accept a peace agreement after the defeat of France was attributed to Jewish influence on Churchill (a recurring theme). The attack on the Soviet Union, for which there were solid economic and territorial motives, was presented as a pre-emptive strike against an alleged Jewish plot between London and Moscow, an assertion that allowed German propaganda to play with an otherwise implausible alliance of plutocracy and Bolshevism.16

The final steps to global war, from the publication of the Atlantic Charter in August 1941 that signaled British–American collaboration, to the American entry into the war in December that year, were publicly condemned by German leaders as conclusive evidence if evidence were needed, that Germany was the victim of a Jewish plot to annihilate the German people. When copies of a 100-page book, Germany Must Perish, self-published in the United States by the unknown Theodore Kaufman, reached Germany in July 1941, it was taken as definite proof that American leaders danced to a Jewish tune. The headline in the Party paper on 23 July trumpeted ‘THE PRODUCT OF CRIMINAL JEWISH SADISM: ROOSEVELT DEMANDS THE STERILISATION OF THE GERMAN PEOPLE!’ Following the announcement of the Atlantic Charter on 14 August, the Party paper published the headline ‘ROOSEVELT’S GOAL IS THE WORLD DOMINATION BY THE JEWS,’ while Hitler ordered that German Jews should now be forced to wear the yellow Star of David so that the German people would recognize for sure the enemy in their midst.17 By the time Hitler declared war on the United States in a speech to the Reichstag on 11 December, it was taken for granted among the anti-Semitic faithful that the Jews had again conspired to push Roosevelt into war. On the day after Pearl Harbor, the daily press release for the German media claimed that the war in Asia ‘is the work of the warmonger and world criminal Roosevelt, who as the acolyte of the Jews has striven ceaselessly for years together with Churchill for war.’18 Rather than see American belligerency as the consequence of Japanese aggression, Hitler claimed in his Reichstag speech that ‘It was the Jew, in his full satanic vileness’ that explained it.19 American entry into the war sealed the claim, repeated regularly in directives to the press from Hitler’s press chief, that ‘Bolshevism and capitalism are the same Jewish world deception only under different management … ’20

The repeated emphasis on a Jewish world conspiracy to explain why Germany found itself in a war of self-defense against the threat of annihilation was more than a rhetorical ploy to encourage the German people to see the war as a legitimate struggle for survival. That could have been achieved without reference to the Jews. The claims appear now – and must have seemed to many Germans at the time – as utterly preposterous, but it is difficult not to accept that Hitler and those around him wanted to believe them. The paradigm that was never questioned was the guilt of the Jews for the German defeat in the First World War; the responsibility of the Jews for the second war was established by analogy. The Jewish conspiracy became a powerful historical metaphor that allowed Hitler and those around him to project their guilt for waging aggressive war onto the Jews. For the Party leadership and much of the rank and file, the Jewish conspiracy made the unforeseen turn of events from the Anglo-French declaration of war, Britain’s refusal to make peace in summer 1940, the necessary war with Russia, and American intervention in the war. ‘To know the Jew,’ claimed a propaganda circular for local Party speakers issued in autumn 1944, ‘is to understand the meaning of the war.’21 When Hitler dictated his final notes to Martin Bormann in the spring of 1945, he reflected that the role of the Jews explained why so many things had not gone as he had hoped. As early as 1933, ‘Jewry decided … tacitly to declare was on us’; peace with Britain was impossible ‘because the Jews would have none of it. And their lackeys, Churchill and Roosevelt, were there to prevent it’; Roosevelt was not responding to the Japanese attack, but ‘urged on by Jewry, was already quite resolved to go to war to annihilate National Socialism.’ There had never been a conflict, Hitler concluded, ‘so typically and at the same time so exclusively Jewish.’22 Even with their captives after the war, Allied interrogators found the trope still alive when it might prudently have been abandoned. Challenged by what he regarded as unfair accusations of anti-Semitism, Robert Ley, former head of the German Labour Front, wanted the Allies to understand why the Jews had been singled out: ‘We National Socialists … saw in the struggles which now lie behind us, a war solely against the Jews – not against the French, English, Americans or Russians. We believed that they were only the tools of the Jew … ’23

The alleged Jewish plot served to make the wars that Germany waged appear legitimate. The struggle between ‘Aryan’ and Jew was a struggle to the death, and the moral responsibility of every German was to wage that struggle to the full. It served, too, to legitimize the shift to genocide in 1941; by painting the Jew as an enemy at war with Germany, all Jewish communities became unwittingly militarized as irregular combatants, justifying their annihilation. By projecting onto ‘world Jewry’ the idea that Jews would exterminate Germans, the repeated public threats to annihilate, kill, destroy or root out the Jew appeared to be an entirely justified response, even a moral act in defense of the racial community. The real war and the fantasy war with the Jews created a terrible symbiosis in the mind of Hitler and his accomplices in genocide in which killing enemy soldiers and killing Jews attained a moral equivalence. Though the proximate cause for the shift from deportation and ghettoization to mass murder is still widely debated, the link between war seen by Hitler and his circle as a product of Jewish machination and what Himmler later called the ‘iron reason’ of extermination appears self-evident.24 However, improvised the final shift to mass killing, the explanatory framework that shaped the regime’s view of the war was an essential precondition. Writing in his diary in May 1943, when the majority of Jewish victims had already been killed, Joseph Goebbels reflected that ‘None of the Führer’s prophetic words has come so inevitably true as his prediction that if Jewry succeeded in provoking a second world war, the result would be not the destruction of the Aryan race, instead the wiping out of the Jews.’25 

The obsession with the fight against a world Jewish conspiracy had implications for how Germany’s allies, Italy and Japan, responded to the ‘Jewish question.’ For Japanese leaders, the absence of prolonged contact with Jewish communities meant that they were largely neutral about the issue. Two dedicated anti-Semites, Colonel Yasue Norihiro for the army (who translated The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion into Japanese) and Captain Inuzuka Koreshige for the navy, were employed in the 1930s to study Jewish affairs. Still, although Inuzuka could describe Jews as a ‘cancer in the world,’ neither he nor Yasue developed a coherent view of Jewish conspiracy or enjoyed vast influence. Both hoped to exploit the 20,000 Jewish refugees from Europe, resident chiefly in Shanghai, to gain access to Jewish finance and improve relations with the United States. When that prospect disappeared with the signing of the Three Power Pact with Germany and Italy, the official Japanese treatment of the Jewish refugees became more restrictive. Still, there was nothing in common with German treatment. A Jewish settlement was established in Shanghai for all refugees, and although conditions were far from ideal, it did not operate like the ghettoes and camps in Europe, and anti-Semitism did not become a theme of wartime propaganda.26

The situation differed in Italy, where racial laws against Jews were introduced in 1938 independent of any German pressure, creating the basis for a harsh regime of Jewish apartheid. Still, even here, it was not until the founding of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic late in 1943 that Fascist justification for war came to include more explicitly the idea of a war against a Jewish world enemy, inspired by the rabidly anti-Semitic ex-priest Giovanni Preziosi (who published his translation of The Protocols in 1921). In the ‘Verona Manifesto’ drawn up by Mussolini’s new republic in 1943, the Jews were explicitly identified as an ‘enemy nation.’27 Propaganda posters used anti-Semitic images to brand Allied leaders as stooges of world Jewry. Fascist newspapers declared, along with allegations of spying and terrorism, that Jews were ‘the greatest supporters of this war’ and that Jews were ‘pursuing a crazy project of world domination, but the propaganda was not systematic or linked, like Hitler’s world view, to a central idea of conspiracy. Jews were blamed much more for ‘treachery’ in the overthrow of Mussolini in summer 1943, posing a domestic threat rather than an international one.28 

For the Allies, there was no necessity to pretend that wars of aggression were just wars of self-defense against an external menace, racial or otherwise. The justice of the Allied cause was taken for granted. Nevertheless, self-defense was a complicated argument for the British and French governments because they had declared war on Germany, not the other way around. Until September 1939, neither state had been directly threatened by German aggression. Self-defence was presented in these two cases as a defense in a more generic sense against the territorial ambitions and naked violence of the Third Reich, which had to be stopped before German expansion did challenge Western interests to face. The defense of Poland was a subsidiary concern, one that neither state seriously contemplated before Poland was defeated; declaring war on Poland’s behalf was nevertheless enough to put both France and Britain in the front line against German armed forces, and this confrontation was quickly transformed into the rhetoric of self-defense once Hitler had decided that attack was preferable to a perfectly feasible defensive stand-off. The other Allied powers, major and minor, could present themselves unambiguously as the victims of unprovoked aggression waging wars of self-defense. There were, Stalin announced in his annual November speech in 1941 commemorating the Revolution, ‘two kinds of war: wars of conquest, and consequently unjust wars, and wars of liberation, or just wars.’29 The defense of the Motherland against fascist aggression became the central ambition in Soviet wartime rhetoric. The concept of the ‘Great Patriotic War,’ the term used in the Soviet Union throughout the conflict, was coined in the official Party newspaper Pravda only a day after the opening of hostilities, on 23 June 1941.30 In the United States, the attack on Pearl Harbor had an electrifying effect on American opinion, which had been sharply divided between isolationists and interventionists up to December 1941. The cement that held together an unlikely alliance of divergent political forces was the unequivocal commitment to defending the United States against what Roosevelt called ‘powerful and resourceful gangsters,’ bent on enslaving the human race.31 Self-defence was in all these latter cases consistent with the just war tradition. 

The Allied states had no difficulty making a moral case for waging war. On 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain ended his radio broadcast on the British declaration of war with a clear statement of the matter: ‘It is evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.’32 Stalin, in his 1941 commemorative speech, told his audience that the Germans’ ‘moral degradation’ had reduced them ‘to the level of wild beasts. In 1942, Roosevelt, facing all three Axis enemies, defined America’s war as a fight ‘to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.33 The same year Chiang Kai-shek, on the fifth anniversary of China’s long war against Japan, announced that the Chinese people were also fighting a war ‘between good and evil, between right and might’ that gave China a position of ‘moral ascendancy.’34 Waging war against enemies perceived as irretrievably immoral provided a powerful negative justification for war throughout the ensuing conflict. The assumption of enemy wickedness rested on the evidence of the 1930s during which the Western states while taking little action, had nevertheless deplored the violent expansion and repressive authoritarianism of the Axis states. The moral contrast was taken for granted by the time war broke out and the prevailing language of moral condemnation was mobilized remorselessly to provide a consistent narr. The dominant coming a wicked enemy justified any means used to achieve it. When the British War Cabinet debated in mid-May 1940 whether or not to allow bombing of German targets in which civilians would be killed, Churchill argued that the long catalog of German crimes gave ‘ample justification’ for the operations.35

For the British public, loathing for the German enemy gave the contest an almost biblical character. The pacifist author A. A. Milne dropped his objection to was,r in 1940 because fighting Hitler was ‘truly fighting the Devil, Anti-Christ.’ Another lapsed pacifist, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though that history had never presented decent men ‘with a more sharply defined “evil.”36 In the United States, the semi-official narrative, captured in the first of Frank Capra’s film series Why We Fight, began with a trailer claiming that the documentary was the greatest gangster movie ever made: ‘More vicious … more diabolical … more horrible than any horror-movie you ever saw.’37 

Forging positive justifications for war was more complex. Dennis Wheatley observed in Total War that, despite the near-universal belief that Britain’s war was just, there was what he called ’a a lamentable lack of mental ammunition’ on Britain’s positive war and peace aims.38 In the United States, Archibald MacLeish, the man chosen by Roosevelt to run part of the government’s information service, wrote a memorandum in April 1942 trying to puzzle out what would provide an affirmative view of the war: ‘1. Should this war be presented as a crusade? 2. If so, a crusade for what? What do men want? a. Order and security? World order, etc.? b. Better life? 3. How do you get those things?’39 The positive narrative on the moral nature of the conflict was provided by the trope that the Allies were saving civilization and humanity from the barbarity and destructiveness of the Axis enemy. For Britain and France in 1939, the hubristic claim that they were defending civilized values reflected profound fears among the intellectual and political elite of both countries that the crisis of the 1930s posed by economic collapse, political authoritarianism, and militarism might indeed mean that civilization as the West understood it was genuinely imperiled.40 Hitler and Hitlerism became the lightning rod for a range of Western anxieties, so that war with Germany in 1939 was not simply about restoring a balance of power but a fundamental contest to decide the future fate of the world. These were very grand terms. ‘Our responsibility,’ wrote the British MP Harold Nicolson late in 1939 in Why Britain is at war, ‘is magnificent and terrible.’ Britain, he continued, is fighting for its very life but would also fight to the war’s bitter end ‘to save humanity.41 The same rhetoric was mobilized in France. Édouard Daladier, the French premier, in a speech to the French Senate in December 1939 explained that while fighting to the utmost for France, ’at the same time we are fighting for other nations, and, above all, for the high moral standard without which civilization would be no more.’ The war was defined as a just war because, as the French philosopher Jacques Maritain put it in 1939, ‘it is for the elementary realities without which human life ceases to be human.’42 

There were nevertheless ambiguities in the way the British and French wars to defend civilization were presented. There was criticism that the claims were too grandiose and too vague for populations that wanted definite promises of a better and more secure future for the post-war world. Civilization itself was seldom defined on the assumption that Western publics would understand what it implied without interrogating the term too closely. Much of the rhetoric stressed the democratic way of life and the survival of conventional liberties. Still, there was an awkward contrast between those who saw the war as a form of a crusade to save ‘Christian civilization’ and those who took a more secular view of what modern civilization represented. Although Churchill used the term ‘Christian civilization’ in his famous speech in June 1940 after the fall of France, announcing the coming ‘Battle of Britain,’ he seldom expressed Britain’s war aims in religious terms. Christian writers in both Britain and France were critical of any claim to be rescuing Christian civilization because of the extent to which Christian values had already evidently lapsed among Western populations.43 In February 1945, an ‘Appeal Addressed to All Christians’ circulated in Britain by the Bombing Restriction Committee asserted that there existed ’a deeply distressed, widespread and unexpressed Christian conscience against the pursuit of victory by unlimited violence.’44

Above all, there was the awkward double standard in the constant repetition that the two allies (together with the British white Dominions) were defending democratic values when they both controlled large colonial empires in which they had little intention of instituting these values either during or after the war. The reality in 1939 was that both Britain and France went to war to defend not simply the democratic motherland but the more vast empires as well. Without the empire, Nicolson wrote, Britain would lose not only ‘her authority, her riches, and her possessions; she would also lose her independence.’45 Churchill throughout the war remained steadfast in his belief that the British Empire should long outlast the end of the conflict. The result was a persistent wartime tension between the claim to be defending democratic civilization and the desire to sustain British imperialism. While committed to saving Western democracy and the liberties of their citizens, colonial governance rested on a denial of those liberties and the repression of any protest against the undemocratic nature of the colonial rule. The wartime propaganda on the significance of empire unity suggested that the colonial areas shared a common sense of moral purpose with the motherland. Still, this claim masked a less certain historical reality. ‘The victory of the Allies,’ claimed a Labour pamphlet in 1940, ‘would mean the consolidation of the greatest empire in the world, the empire that taught the Nazis the use of concentration camps, the empire in whose prisons men like Gandhi and Nehru have spent great parts of their lives … ’46 India was an obvious wartime example. In autumn 1942, when Mahatma Gandhi launched the ‘Quit India’ movement in protest at the failure of the British government to offer the prospect of post-war self-government to India, thousands of Indian nationalists were imprisoned and hundreds killed when troops and police opened fire on protesters. The African American theologian Howard Thurman thought that Gandhi had ‘reduced to moral absurdity’ the British claim to ‘fight a war for freedom.’47

In the United States, the initial uncertainty about presenting the war other than as a war of defense was gradually replaced by an unambiguous internationalism driven by Roosevelt’s view that the wider world should enjoy defined liberties after victory. His moral commitment to creating a better world was already in place well before the United States was forced into war. In January 1941, he defined what he saw as the essential freedoms – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of religious conviction, and freedom of speech. The Four Freedoms became the foundation stone of the public American wartime narrative about why the war was fought. They were illustrated by the artist Norman Rockwell and the four paintings were reproduced endlessly throughout the war; in 1943, 2.5 million leaflets were distributed using the four pictures as an incentive to buy war bonds.48 Two of the four freedoms were enshrined in Roosevelt’s second pre-war statement of moral intent, the Atlantic Charter. The document was the fruit of the first summit meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, between 9 and 12 August 1941. It was at best an accidental statement since neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had arrived for the meeting primed to produce it, though the president hoped that it might happen. Neither statesman had disinterested motives. For Roosevelt, making a statement of some kind was designed to strengthen the hand of domestic interventionists; for Churchill and the British government, it was hoped that a statement, however non-committal, would indicate that the United States was publicly behind the Allied cause and might be drawn into full belligerency.49

The Charter itself was simply a list of eight statements of the intent expressed in lofty internationalist language, consistent with much of Roosevelt’s rhetoric on his hopes for a better world. The ‘common principles in the Charter included a desire for post-war disarmament, freedom of the seas, and economic justice for victor and vanquished. The third statement was the most significant: ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.’ There was no explanation of how these might be achieved beyond the defeat of ‘the Nazi tyranny.’50 The British reaction to the Charter was muted. Churchill especially was unwilling to apply the principles to the Empire. The Charter, he told the House of Commons on his return, was not ‘applicable to colored races in colonial empire’ but only to the states and nations of Europe.51 Stalin associated the Soviet Union with the Charter merely as a gesture of goodwill towards Allies already supplying the Soviet war effort. In China, the Atlantic Charter was regarded by Chiang Kai-shek as too exclusively European in intent, although he decided to interpret ‘Nazi tyranny’ loosely to include Japan. In January 1942, Chiang asked Roosevelt formally to apply the Charter to the peoples of Asia under colonial rule; disappointed, he again requested at a summit conference with Roosevelt and Churchill in Cairo in November 1943 for a Charter that applied to the whole world, but without success.52

Roosevelt nevertheless allowed the Charter to become a central reference point once the United States was in the war. It signaled American commitment to a more moral post-war order that served American interests and had global implications. In a ‘fireside chat’ broadcast in February 1942, Roosevelt told his American audience that in his view, the Charter did apply not just to the states bordering the Atlantic but to the whole world. He added the establishment of the ‘Four Freedoms’ as an Allied principle, though only fear and want had been included in the Charter.53 By this point, Roosevelt had, with Churchill’s grudging acceptance, renamed the Allied powers the ‘United Nations and invited them all to sign a Declaration, published on 1 January 1942, that reaffirmed the principles laid down in the Charter. This did not yet amount to an endorsement of a post-war international organization since Roosevelt was hesitant to suffer what Woodrow Wilson had endured with American rejection of participation in the League of Nations. But by January 1943, he was fully persuaded by the State Department that American global interests could best be defended through a new international assembly to promote peace and human rights.54 Roosevelt’s object was to ensure that the Allies formally occupied the moral high ground whatever contradictions or ambiguities existed in uniting democracies, imperial powers and authoritarian dictatorships in a common endeavor. The call for unconditional surrender made at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 underscored the ethical commitments made in the Charter and the Declaration by making it clear that there could be no agreement with states regarded as morally degraded. In January 1942, Roosevelt had already put on record, in his annual State of the Union address, his conviction that ‘there has never been – there never can be – a successful compromise between good and evil’, a contrast that allowed the Allies to set aside any moral scruples they might have in the conduct of the war.55 


The critical factor for Japan, Italy, and Germany was territory. Control over a domain, exercised in various formal and informal ways, lay at the heart of the empire. The model for ‘territoriality’ was the forty years of violent territorial expansion and pacification that preceded the 1930s and were still going on. In this more extended context, the decisions taken in Tokyo, Rome, or Berlin to wage their local wars of aggression make historical sense. The discourses of ‘race and space’ that had supported empire since the late nineteenth century had lost none of their explanatory force for the generation that came to power in the 1930s. Though this form of imperialism appears anachronistic, even delusional, the paradigm of empire seemed familiar and near. The results of the redistribution of territory in 1919–23, or the consequences of the economic catastrophe after 1929, only strengthened rather than weakened the belief that seizing more territory and resources was an indispensable means to save the nation. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II.

It is not clear when Hitler decided that living space in the East could be found more usefully in Poland. Until 1938, the Poles were regarded as potential allies in a German-dominated anti-Soviet bloc. They would hand back the German lands they were granted at Versailles and voluntarily became a German satellite. Only when the Polish government repeatedly refused the German request for an extra-territorial rail and road link across the Polish Corridor and the incorporation of the League-run Free City of Danzig back into Germany did Hitler decide to launch against the Poles the small war he had been denied in 1938, and to take Polish resources by force. Poland now contained the vast former German coal and steel region in Silesia and promised vast areas for German settlement and an agricultural surplus to feed the German population. At the meeting on 23 May 1939, when Hitler presented to the military leadership his intentions against Poland, he claimed that ‘Danzig is not the object in this case. For us, it involves rounding off our living space in the East and securing our food supplies.’ Food supply could only come from the East because it was sparsely populated, continued Hitler. German agricultural proficiency would raise the productivity of the region many times over. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II, part two.

The calculation that Hitler would be deterred by the sight of the rapidly rearming British and French empires or by the wave of anti-fascist sentiment washing across the democracies was not entirely misplaced. A weaker hand had forced Hitler to climb down from war in 1938. Intelligence sources suggested a severe economic crisis in Germany, even the possibility of an anti-Hitler coup. Even after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September, Chamberlain allowed him to withdraw his forces rather than face a world war. The idea of a conference was briefly mooted by the Italian leadership on 2 September, echoing Mussolini’s intervention in September 1938. Still, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax told his Italian counterpart Ciano that the British condition was ‘the withdrawal of German troops from Polish soil,’ which ended any prospect of peace.60 Historians have searched for convincing evidence that Chamberlain wanted to wriggle out of his commitment even at this late stage, but there is none. Only a complete German capitulation to British and French demands for an end to the violence would have averted world war, and by 1 September, that was the least likely outcome. Neither containment nor deterrence had in this case worked. Chamberlain announced a state of war on the radio at 11.15 on the morning of 3 September; Daladier announced a state of war at 5 p.m. that afternoon. A temporary alliance of imperial elites and democratic anti-fascists had made possible a new world war. ‘We can’t lose,’ observed the British army chief of staff in his diary. When the war of empires started in Manchuria not included Western Europe.

While the collapse of resistance on the northeast front continued in late May, the significant Allies began to consider the awful capitulation scenario unthinkable two weeks before. Weygand, despite his apparent resilience and energy, told the French Cabinet on 25 May to think about abandoning the fight, and Reynaud was the first to pronounce the word ‘armistice,’ though it was an ambiguous term, as the Germans had discovered in November 1918. According to a commitment made on 25 March 1940, this had to be agreed with the British that neither ally would create a separate peace. On 26 May, Reynaud flew to London to explain to Churchill that France might consider giving up. Unknown to him, the British War Cabinet had begun to discuss a proposal from the foreign secretary, Halifax, presented to him by the Italian ambassador, for a possible conference convened by Mussolini. Italian motives remain unclear since, by now, Mussolini was also preparing to declare war to profit from what seemed to the Italian leadership a ripe opportunity for exploiting the imminent conquest of France. After three days of debate, the British decided against any initiative. Though often seen as a turning point at which the appeasers might nearly have triumphed, some discussion of the consequences of a comprehensive defeat was inevitable, and not even Halifax had favored any settlement that compromised Britain’s primary interests. Eventually winning support from Chamberlain, who kept a seat in the War Cabinet, Churchill carried the debate to reject any approach to Mussolini. British leaders were already contemplating war without France. ‘If France could not defend herself,’ Churchill told his colleagues, ‘it was better that she should get out of the war. The war in the West deepens while at the same time it spread further into the western colonies.

The British Empire did not collapse or accept defeat in 1940, but the year was a turning point in the long history of European imperialism. Failure and occupation in Europe undermined the claims of the other metropolitan powers, France, Belgium fatally, and the Netherlands. Fatally undermined For the British Empire, the crisis raised awkward questions about the future. Nevertheless, the British government refused to confront the paradox of emphasizing the value of the empire to Britain’s war effort while at the same time using force to stifle demands for greater political autonomy in India and running Egypt under virtual martial law. The priority was the survival of the home islands. Neither side, German nor British, could find a strategy capable of undermining the other’s war willingness or achieving a decisive military result. Still, it seems almost certain that with an army of 180 divisions and the spoils of much of continental Europe, Germany would have found a way in 1941 of bringing the war in the West to an end if Hitler had not turned to the East. Britain, by contrast, had no way of achieving victory over Germany. Expelled from Europe twice in Norway and France, facing a crisis in Africa, economically weakened, desperately defending its access to the broader world economy, Britain faced strategic bankruptcy. The war Britain waged for a year after the fall of France was the one prepared for in the 1930s – air defense, a powerful navy, and lesser imperial conflicts. This was the war Chamberlain had prepared for, but Churchill was the one forced to wage it. War almost lost.

The two major campaigns against British Malaya and the American Philippines protectorate began on 8 December. Pilots with specialized training for extended overseas flights attacked the Philippines, flying from Japanese Empire bases on Taiwan; as in Oahu, they found American aircraft lined up on the tarmac at Clark Field and destroyed half the B-17s and one-third of the fighters. Amphibious landings began on the 10th on the main island of Luzon and made rapid progress towards the capital, Manila, which surrendered on 3 January. The United States commander, General Douglas MacArthur, appointed earlier in the year, withdrew his mixed American–Filipino force south to the Bataan peninsula. The staff was doomed with no air cover and only 1,000 tons of supplies shipped by an American submarine. MacArthur was evacuated to Australia on 12 March to fight another day. Bataan was surrendered on 9 April. On 6 May, after a grueling and tenacious defense of the island fortress of Corregidor, the surviving American commander, General Jonathan Wainwright, gave up the fight.

The Japanese Fourteenth Army captured almost 70,000 soldiers, 10,000 of them American. They were marched along the Bataan Peninsula to an improvised camp; ill, exhausted, and hungry, they suffered beatings, killings, and humiliation from Japanese Empire forces who suffered themselves from the poverty of medical supplies and food and who had been taught to despise surrender. The geopolitical transformation of Asia and the Pacific.


1. Ibid., 18, 20. 

2. Davide Rodogno, Fascism’s European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War (Cambridge, 2006), 44–9. 

3. F. C. Jones, Japan’s New Order in East Asia (Oxford, 1954), 469. This is a translation from the German text of the agreement. The original was drafted in English and this version had ‘each its own proper place’ rather than ‘the space to which it is entitled’. The idea of ‘space’ was inserted in the German version to make the nature of the New Order more explicitly territorial. 

4. Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband, What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Germany (London, 2005), 106. See too Nick Stargardt, The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939–45 (London, 2015), 15–17. 

5. Rodogno, Fascism’s European Empire, 46–50. 

6. Peter Duus, ‘Nagai Ryutaro and the “White Peril”, 1905–1944’, Journal of Asian Studies, 31 (1971), 41–4. 

7. Sidney Paish, ‘Containment, rollback and the origins of the Pacific war 1933–1941’, in Kurt Piehler and Sidney Paish (eds.), The United States and the Second World War: New Perspectives on Diplomacy, War and the Home Front (New York, 2010), 53–5, 57–8. 

8. John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, 1986), 205–6. 

9. Ben-Ami Shillony, Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan (Oxford, 1981), 136, 141–3. 

10. Werner Maser (ed.), Hitler’s Letters and Notes (London, 1973), 227, 307, notes for speeches 1919/20. 

11. André Mineau, ‘Himmler’s ethic of duty: a moral approach to the Holocaust and to Germany’s impending defeat’, The European Legacy, 12 (2007), 60; Alon Confino, A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (New Haven, Conn., 2014), 152–3. 

12. Randall Bytwerk, ‘The argument for genocide in Nazi propaganda’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 91 (2005), 37–9; Confino, A World without Jews, 153–5. 

13. Heinrich Winkler, The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West, 1914–1945 (New Haven, Conn., 2015), 87–91. 

14. Randall Bytwerk, ‘Believing in “inner truth”: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Nazi propaganda 1933–1945’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 29 (2005), 214, 221–2. 

15. Jeffrey Herf, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), 61–2. 

16. Ibid., 64–5. 

17. Tobias Jersak, ‘Die Interaktion von Kriegsverlauf und Judenvernichtung: ein Blick auf Hitlers Strategie im Spätsommer 1941’, Historische Zeitschrift, 268 (1999), 311–74; Bytwerk, ‘The argument for genocide’, 42–3; Herf, The Jewish Enemy, 110. 

18. Helmut Sündermann, Tagesparolen: Deutsche Presseweisungen 1939–1945. Hitlers Propaganda und Kriegführung (Leoni am Starnberger See, 1973), 203–4. 

19. Confino, A World without Jews, 194. 

20. Sündermann, Tagesparolen, 255, press directive of 13 Aug. 1943. 

21-22. Bytwerk, ‘The argument for genocide’, 51, citing a Sprechabendsdienst (evening discussion service) circular for Sept./Oct. 1944. 

22. François Genoud (ed.), The Testament of Adolf Hitler: The Hitler–Bormann Documents February– April 1945 (London, 1961), 33, 51–2, 76, entries for 1–4 Feb., 13 Feb., 18 Feb. 1945. 

23. NARA, RG 238 Jackson Papers, Box 3, translation of letter from Ley to attorney Dr Pflücker, 24 Oct. 1945 (not sent). 

24. Mineau, ‘Himmler’s ethic of duty’, 63, from a speech to Abwehr officers in 1944: ‘The only thing that had to prevail was iron reason: with misplaced sentimentality one does not win wars in which the stake is life of the race’; see too Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 254, 265; Christopher Browning, ‘The Holocaust: basis and objective of the Volksgemeinschaft’, in Martina Steber and Bernhard Gotto (eds.), Visions of Community in Nazi Germany (Oxford, 2014), 219–23. 

25. Bytwerk, ‘The argument for genocide’, 49. 

26. Gao Bei, Shanghai Sanctuary: Chinese and Japanese Policy toward European Jewish Refugees during World War II (Oxford, 2013), 20–25, 93–4, 104–7, 116–25. 

27. Amedeo Guerrazzi, ‘Die ideologischen Ursprünge der Judenverfolgung in Italien’, in Lutz Klinkhammer and Amedeo Guerrazzi (eds.), Die ‘Achse’ im Krieg: Politik, Ideologie und Kriegführung 1939–1945 (Paderborn, 2010), 437–42. 

28. Simon Levis Sullam, ‘The Italian executioners: revisiting the role of Italians in the Holocaust’, Journal of Genocide Research, 19 (2017), 23–8. 30. Joseph Stalin, The War of National Liberation (New York, 1942), 

29. speech of 6 Nov. 1941. 

30. Oleg Budnitskii, ‘The Great Patriotic War and Soviet society: defeatism 1941–42’, Kritika, 15 (2014), 794. 

31. R. Buhite and D. Levy (eds.), FDR’s Fireside Chats (Norman, Okla, 1992), 198, talk of 9 Dec. 1941. 

32. Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (London, 1946), 416. 

33. Stalin, War of National Liberation, 30; Susan Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (New York, 2009), 87. 

34. Chinese Ministry of Information, The Voice of China: Speeches of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek (London, 1944), 32–3, address to the Chinese people, 7 July 1942. 

35. Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939–1941 (London, 1983), 329–30. 

36. Keith Robbins, ‘Britain, 1940 and “Christian Civilisation”’, in Derek Beales and Geoffrey Best (eds.), History, Society and the Churches: Essays in Honour of Owen Chadwick (Cambridge, 1985), 285, 294. 

37. Dower, War without Mercy, 17. 

38. Wheatley, Total War, 33, 54.

39. Brewer, Why America Fights, 88. 

40. On the anxieties of the age see Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization (London, 2009); Roxanne Panchasi, Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France between the Wars (Ithaca, NY, 2009). 

41. Harold Nicolson, Why Britain is at War (London, 1939), 135–6, 140. 

42. Jacques Maritain, De la justice politque: Notes sur la présente guerre (Paris, 1940), 23; Hugh Dalton, Hitler’s War: Before and After (London, 1940), 102. 

43. Robbins, ‘Britain, 1940 and “Christian Civilisation”’, 279, 288–91; Maritain, De la justice politique, ch. 3, ‘Le renouvellement moral’. 

44. Friends House, London, Foley Papers, MS 448 2/2, ‘An Appeal Addressed to All Christians’, 8 Feb. 1945. 

45. Nicolson, Why Britain is at War, 132–3. 

46. University Labour Federation, ‘How we can end the War’, Pamphlet No. 5, 1940, 4–5. 

47. Penny Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY, 1997), 31 (quoted in the American newspaper Courier). 

48. James Sparrow, Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government (New York, 2013), 44–5; Robert Westbrook, Why We Fought: Forging American Obligation in World War II (Washington, DC, 2004), 40–46. 

49. David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (New York, 2013), 142–5. 

50. H. V. Morton, Atlantic Meeting (London, 1943), 126–7, 149–51. 

51. Von Eschen, Race against Empire, 26. 

52. Gerhard Weinberg, Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders (Cambridge, 2005), 86–9; Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), 186. 

53. Buhite and Levy (eds.), FDR’s Fireside Chats, 217, broadcast of 23 Feb. 1942. 

54. Stephen Wertheim, ‘Instrumental internationalism: the American origins of the United Nations, 1940–3’, Journal of Contemporary History, 54 (2019), 266–80. 

55. Michaela Moore, Know Your Enemy: The American Debate on Nazism, 1933–1945 (New York, 2010), 119. 

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