Defense Focus: The war that reshaped the world

Hitler’s lunatic master race fantasy of conquering the west and enslaving the Slavs for 1,000 years was drowned in a six-year bloodbath that saw up to 80 million killed

By Martin Sieff

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama celebrated the 65th anniversary of D-Day this weekend. D-Day marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. Within three months, its conquests of France and Poland had been reversed by the Canadian-Anglo-American armies driving from the west and the Soviet Red Army from the east.

The victory at the end of World War II that resulted from these vast battles was the crucible that created the template of the modern world. And it ended exactly the opposite way its prime mover expected it to.

When Adolf Hitler went to war against Poland, he did not dream the way the world would change. But then, nobody did.

The Nazi armies crossed into Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and then France reluctantly declared war on Hitler's Third Reich.

The global conflict that followed has come to be called "the good war," but it cost the lives of an estimated 50 million people. Some analysts put the total killed directly or indirectly by the war, history's bloodiest conflict to date, as high as 80 million. Winston Churchill preferred to call it "the unnecessary war."

Out of that seething cauldron poured the modern world. It was a world that in almost all respects was the very opposite of the one Hitler thought he was creating when he launched his tanks east that fateful day.

The Nazi leader thought he was creating a racist German Empire that would last 1,000 years. Less than six years after he began the war, he shot himself as his once proud imperial capital Berlin burned around him — flattened night and day by Allied air raids and the artillery of the victorious Soviet Red Army.

Hitler thought he had a divine mission to crush communism and enslave the Slav peoples. Instead, the outcome of the war left the Soviet Union the mightiest conventional military power on Earth and one of the two superpowers that would decide the destinies of the globe for the next half-century.

Hitler sought to annihilate the Jewish people in his so-called Final Solution. At least 6 million innocent victims perished under the most nightmarish conditions in what Jews called "The Holocaust." But out of that bloodbath, the survivors established a militarily strong state of Israel that became embroiled with its neighbors in a series of conflicts. The one with the Palestinians remains acute even into this 21st century. Obama addressed both the Holocaust and the Palestinian issues in his speech at Cairo University last Thursday.

To Hitler, the very idea that the colonized peoples of Africa and South Asia could manage their own affairs would have seemed ludicrous. But only a few years after his Third Reich crashed to destruction, the exhausted nations of Western Europe responded to what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called "a wind of change" and withdrew — sometimes bowing to necessity, often irresponsibly precipitously, sometimes only after bitter guerrilla wars — from their vast empires.

Hitler would also have loathed the changes that transformed Germany itself, though the German people themselves welcomed their transformation. The arrogant, militant conquering power of 1939 rose rapidly from the ashes of its defeat in 1945 — the time Germans themselves called "Year Zero." But it revived as a peaceful, stable and prosperous Federal Republic.

Part 2: The new Germany and the new Europe

Adolf Hitler despised the United States and was determined to annihilate the Soviet Union and the Russian people. His ally Imperial Japan had conquered vast tracts of Mainland China before World War II began and was determined to hang on to it for generations.

Instead, when World War II ended, it was Nazi Germany that was forever crushed while the United States and the Soviet Union were the two dominant military powers of the Earth, and the communist armies in China were poised to conquer the country.

Some 64 years later, as the first decade of the 21st century draws to an end, the conditions that were created by the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan continue to shape the world today. The United States remains the dominant nuclear power, and its only comparable rival, albeit with a far smaller economy, is Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union.

The heirs of Mao Zedong continue to rule a fast-rising China that looks certain to be one of the superpowers of the 21st century.

Hitler would have loathed all these changes, but he would have loathed the transformation of his own Germany most of all.

However, the German people themselves welcomed their transformation. The arrogant, militant conquering power of 1939 rose rapidly from the ashes of its defeat in 1945 — the time Germans themselves called "Year Zero." But it revived as a peaceful, stable and prosperous Federal Republic.

When Germany reunified during the collapse of communism in 1989-90, it did so not through the military conquests and arrogant displays of power so beloved by Otto von Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II or Hitler, but through peaceful, democratic politics and cautious, humane processes of compromise.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who as a teenager had seen other boys hanged from lampposts as deserters and traitors by the Nazi SS, rewrote the lessons of history inscribed 130 years earlier by Bismarck that Germany could only be united and made great by "Blood and Iron." He did it through peace and democracy.

Hitler would have hated it.

Hitler foresaw a world where social justice and mercy would become faint, unattainable memories. Instead, the world his war produced saw the emancipation of the oppressed peoples of the globe. The Arab, African and Asian peoples attained a new freedom and dignity. The United States, which Hitler had despised as a mongrel hybrid of inferior races, became the world's supreme power. American and Russian scientists succeeded where Hitler's Nazis had failed in harnessing the power of the atom itself.

All these developments were unimaginable in 1939. But by 1945, most of them were unavoidable.

So terrible were the crimes and atrocities of the Third Reich that for decades after its destruction the very ideas of genocide and ethnic cleansing became anathema to most of mankind. But in recent decades, as old concepts of order have weakened and memories have faded, old evils have returned in new guises. In Rwanda and Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia and Somalia, dominant ethnic groups again mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of thousands of different races and faiths.

Germany and Japan, the most notorious aggressor nations of World War II, both remain stable, democratic and constructive members of the world's community. But the contagions of hatred and conquest that infected them all those decades ago have not been eradicated from the human race. They continue to drive other peoples — and to serve as the driving forces of global war in the 21st century.

9 June 2009 — Return to cover.