by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Sep 2013
World War Two was completely different from World War One. They share the name, and they share that Britain, France, Russia and the US lined up against Germany, but the unfolding and aftermath were completely different.
One of the big differences is that World War II was no surprise. People of the world had now experienced World War I, and as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin became more bellicose, and many other world hot spots festered and flared, a big war was expected years before World War II actually started. With war forecast, one of the important goals of the players was to avoid WW I-style trench warfare and slaughter. At this they succeeded... sort of -- there were few trenches, but new technologies brought new ways to slaughter.
Technology changed again. The internal combustion engine -- the kind we use in cars -- was well developed for this war. This meant a war with cars, trucks, tanks and planes in addition to trains, horses and marching soldiers. It also meant that oil displaced coal is the hot item energy resource, and that meant that the Middle East areas south and east of the new nation Turkey transformed from backwater to strategic. And right at the tail end, the nuclear bomb introduced nuclear power to mankind in a most scary way.
Between the wars the social orders standardized. The wild and varied experimenting that World War One fomented across the world was near completed, and choices were made. The Italians, Spanish and Japanese chose forms of Fascism, Germany chose Nazism, and Russia chose the Stalinist form of Communism. World War Two was followed by even more consolidation. Two standards emerged as the post-war developed into the Cold War: Capitalism and Communism. Experimenting was now done within these two frameworks.
Now let's look at the details.
World War One ended in confusion and chaos. This did not clear up when peace was declared. People were still confused and became even more shocked as the full extent of the damage done by the wars, revolutions and chaos became clear.
That was the dark side. The light side was that people's lives continued to benefit from the spreading of even newer technologies. But that brought up the second part of the dark side -- the confusion about how to spread through society the benefits and wealth these technologies created. Who should get cars? Who should get better sanitation? Who should get decent paying jobs? Who should decide the work rules for a job?
That second element of the dark side created booms and busts and the rise of strange new ways of spreading wealth. The most famous of these were Fascism in Italy and Japan, Nazism in Germany and Communism in Russia. This heady mix of fear and optimism in the people they ruled lead these leaders into adventurism and that's what started the war.
When the "boys came home" from the war, many were able to find jobs. The economies of the developed nations were able to transition rapidly from making military stuff to making civilian stuff -- stuff that people would want to buy such as cars and labor-saving home appliances such as washing machines. This successful transition fired a boom in prosperity in the developed nations that lasted for ten years -- the Roaring Twenties.
But the boom had weaknesses, and what was making it happen was not well understood, so when the boom suddenly transformed into a bust no one knew how to fix it. When the stock market crash came in late 1929, it spread from stocks into bank failures, and from bank failures into business failures. For the next ten years a lot of business leaders, bankers and politicians tried to fix the economy, but they did not succeed -- The Great Depression. The average people of the world got unemployed, deeply frightened and deeply frustrated.
The conventional solutions didn't work! And the first wave of unconventional solutions didn't work, either! Nor the second wave! Sound familiar? The Great Depression was as much a scary surprise as World War One had been. In the US the icon for the first years of consistent failure was President Hoover.
This "succession of failures leading to experimenting with even more radical ideas" is something I call The Time of Nutcases. This is a time when people spouting wild ideas aren't laughed off and dismissed out of hand. Instead they are listened to and taken seriously because the more conventional ideas aren't working. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Roosevelt all fall into this category of radical leaders who rose up because the more conventional leaders failed to fix the problems. Some of the ideas being spouted during a Time of Nutcases are visionary, but most are just plain crazy. The problem is: how do you tell which ideas are which? You experiment at the time, and let history describe the results.
The internal combustion engine brought dramatic changes to how armies equipped. This new form of propulsion lead to trucks, tanks and planes, and all these forms got dramatically better every year all through this period. Example: the planes of WWI carried one or two people, late in the war they carried machine guns and light bombs. All through the war they were best used for observing enemy ground movements. By the start of World War II they were bigger, faster and could carry a lot of armament. By the middle of the war they could bomb whole cities. At the end of the war they could carry nuclear bombs across hundreds of miles. Exciting stuff!
Exciting, but not necessarily cost-effective. This 21 Sep 13 Economist book review, A costly, brutal failure, of the book The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 by Richard Overy, talks about how exciting strategic bombing was while the fighting was going on, but in retrospect it accomplished little in terms of helping win the war for either side.
Movies and radio were the high tech mass communication systems of the day. People would listen to the big vacuum tube-equipped radio in the living room, and watch "News of the Week" trailers put on before the feature film at theaters. Both of these forms were vivid compared to reading newspapers, and both were expensive to produce. This made them easy for governments to manipulate, and they did. Hitler speeches and Nazi news reels are still memorable to this day as mass communications icons for this period.
Buses, cars and trucks were taking over much of the burden of moving around people and goods. This change opened new opportunities. This was a time when lots of people were moving into cities and working at mass production industrial jobs. This as a dramatic change in lifestyle for the average person of Europe and America. Two movies of this era that dramatized these new lifestyles were Fritz Lang's dark sci-fi Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin's comedy sci-fi Modern Times.
As mentioned above these lifestyle changes supported new styles of politics as well as new styles of day-to-day living. Particularly in the 30's there was a lot of frustration in the air with these "new fangled ways". There was talk of the "Forgotten Man" who was not getting his fair share and this supported populist politicians and movements. And huge mass rallies put on by political parties where a way of building support and enfranchisement.
One of the tricks Hitler was masterful at was conducting splendid little wars. The Germans called them Blitzkrieg -- lightning war. This was an important skill. After WWI the Germans were as war-shy as the rest of Western Europe. No one wanted to repeat that! And Hitler didn't. He started his series in 1936 with the bloodless reoccupation of the Rhineland -- it had been demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles. His series of splendid little wars started in peace time and continued into what became World War II. Each success allowed Germans to gain confidence in the viability of military solutions to its national problems.
The chain of success was broken in two ways. The first, a small one at the time, was when the British refused to sue for peace after Germany blitzed France in the summer of 1940. The British army was as thoroughly defeated as the French army and forced at Dunkirk to evacuate back to England without its equipment. Instead of suing for peace the British elected Churchill as prime minister and chose to keep fighting. The much bigger chain break was in late 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and that war didn't end in six months with Russia suing for peace. Whoops! Both Britain and Russia were now in this for the long haul. War making was going to get seriously hard on Germany!
The Germans stayed game, and their attacks remained potent and scary for another two years. But the combined forces of Britain, Russia, and then the US, were too much. It was overrun and surrendered in 1945.
Something to note is that by the end of the war it had become a deeply emotional grudge match between the Germans and Russians. The symptom of this was how the final Battle of Berlin was conducted in late April 1945.
At the time of the battle the German situation in Berlin was hopeless: The city was encircled and there was no chance of relief -- there were no German armies left nearby that could relieve them, all had been defeated. The Germans should have surrendered, and the Russians should have waited until they came to their senses and did so. Instead the Russians chose to attack vigorously and the Germans chose to defend vigorously. The result: 175,000 dead over a week's worth of fighting. This was a battle that made no sense militarily, but a lot of sense emotionally.
Japan likewise was an early master of blitzkrieg. Their opening campaigns after the Pearl Harbor attack captured the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and those coastal cities of China that they didn't already control. But historic accident cost them their "hammer fleet" (my term) at the Battle of Midway in 1942, and it was steadily downhill from there -- the US was just too big an industrial power for them to battle with long-term. They surrendered three months after the Germans did.
This war was not the surprise that World War One was. This meant that the aftermath was much better planned. There were still a lot of scared people, but clearly Blame Game had not worked as a peace plan after World War One, so different solutions were tried this time. These solutions paid a lot more attention to nation building, and devoted a lot more resource to it.
As mentioned above one of the new tactics of WWII was planes bombing cities. By the end of the war these attacks were devastating as well as scary. All the European countries involved in the war suffered from these bombings, but America did not. This is partly why America became far and away the biggest industrial power right after the war. It was followed in size by Russia.
Another way WWII differed from WWI is that few new social orders emerged. Instead the Cold War emerged, and that was a contest between just two flavors of social order: Communism and Capitalism. There were many variations within those two flavors, but much of the world chose between them. India was vigorous about not taking a side, and that is why India of this era was called a "Third World Nation" or a "Non-aligned Nation".
Related to this was that both the Soviets and the Western powers were much better about organizing the societies of the post-war world. America and the Western powers did a good job of setting up Japan and West Germany to recover from the war as capitalist-oriented democracies. Russia did a good job of setting up central Europe and China as Communist workers' paradises. Both sides pointed fingers at the other and shouted, "You're doing a terrible job! Look at the abuse! Look at the injustice!" but both organized societies that were stable for the next fifty years.
Like WWI, the post-war period brought lots of prosperity and new technologies to everyday people. Cars got faster, cheaper and better. TV displaced radio and news reels at movies as the hot new broadcast communication technology. Telephones got cheaper, easier to use and could call world-wide -- direct dial started replacing operators with switchboards.
In the Communist countries the emphasis was on building heavy industries such as steel making. In the Western world the emphasis was on making consumer good such as TVs. Both spent heavily on military; each fearing the other. This spending was feeding back on itself. In 1961 departing President Eisenhower made a speech warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex overreaching itself. This was a warning the West took to heart but the Communist states ignored, and the Communists continued to outspend the West as a percentage of their economy.
The worrying of the post-war era in the US centered on sneaky Communists.
The US and the Communist Russians were allies in fighting Hitler during World War II. Then during the 1945-48 post-war years the Russians under Stalin installed Communist governments throughout central Europe. This surprised many people in the US, and Churchill came up with the phrase Iron Curtain to describe those nations which had been converted. And in 1949 the Chinese Communists drove the Chinese Nationalists from the mainland and left them controlling only the island of Formosa/Taiwan. Double extra scary! When would this spread of Communism stop?
Then in 1950 the North Koreans started rolling troops and tanks through South Korea... and here the US backed by the UN drew the line -- the Korean War ensued and was fought until 1953.
Meanwhile, in the US many people started seriously worrying about who was a "Red" in US government and businesses? If you were, that was a big problem. It would likely cost you your job. You would be blacklisted. The second Red Scare came to America. This worry was called McCarthyism, named after Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin who became the icon of worrying about Communist plotters. In this era if you weren't a full-fledged Red, but you sympathized with the cause, you were a "Pinko".
World War Two was a very different war from World War One. It had the same major enemy lineups -- France, Britain, Russia and the US versus Germany -- but it was otherwise completely different. The civilian and military technologies were different, how the war and peace were conducted were different, and how the post-war era turned out was different.
World War One turned into a time of social chaos and experimenting. That chaos and experimenting continued for twenty years after the war and ultimately created the conditions that lead to World War Two. World War Two ended with just three sides emerging -- the Captialist side, the Communist side, and the Third World side -- those who didn't want to be either Capitalist or Communist.
Technology changed dramatically during and after both wars, and after both wars there were still lots of unanswered questions about how people should live. But the peace-making after World War Two proved more durable, and we have now been living with sixty plus years without a World War Three.