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LONG SHADOW, WRONG SHADOW: WORLD WAR TWO PERCEPTIONS OF THE GREAT WAR
In The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century David Reynolds showed how — after 1945 — historical perceptions, perspectives and memories of the Great War became refracted through the prism of the SecondWorld War. World War One was retrospectively reimagined and reinterpreted in the light of the more immediate familiarity of World War Two experiences. It was forgotten that during WW2 people self-consciously used the experiences and lessons of the Great War as key reference points and as a benchmark by which to judge contemporary events, as well as to predict the likely future.
Harking back to the Great War — as it was known in Britain – was not surprising. WW1 was in living memory for most adults and even those born afterwards or who were too young to remember, had grown up in its shadow. For many middle-aged people WW1had been a fundamental life-changing experience, especially among the military and political elites who would serve during WW2. As Gerhard Weinberg put it:
«That struggle, which was generally referred to then as "The World War", to distinguish it from the localised or smaller conflicts of preceding decades, was the great formative experience of those who survived it; they would thereafter look at the world through the framework of the lessons they believed that war had taught them. This was as much the case for the victors as for the defeated; and the framing of peace in 1919, the conduct of policy in the two following decades, and the direction of the new war were all the work of individuals who saw and measured new choices by reference to choices made or not made in the great war just concluded.»
This was a natural development given the similarities and links between the two conflicts. The contesting coalitions in both world wars were broadly similar, at least in Europe. Both conflicts were total, industrialised wars whose outcome was determined as much by the mass mobilisation of civilians as by the deployment of military power. The two conflicts were global in scope and fought over many of the same battlefields. There were no large-scale, protracted, Western-Front style positional battles during WW2 but the mobile warfare that took place on Germany’s Eastern Front had its counterpart in the WW1 as did the Battle of the Atlantic and numerous other campaigns and operations. At stake in both wars was the existence not only of nationstates but of social and political systems and values. Thus the world was saved for democracy not once but twice before the mid-twentieth century, albeit with the indispensable aid of an autocratic Russia and then its authoritarian Soviet successor. Both conflicts were grand military-political power contests that also created the occasion and context for a complex series of ethnic, social and ideological struggles that were to persist for many years after the wars.
On the Soviet side of the Eastern Front the historical analogy that people often reached for was that contained in Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its grand narrative of how Russia triumphed over Napoleon during its first great patriotic war. The Bolsheviks had opposed WW1 and signed a separate peace with Germany after they seized power in 1917 and the Soviet authorities were at best ambiguous about its commemoration. Because the Russian civil war that had been a conflict in which the Bolsheviks had triumphed in the face of grave adversity this was the official, preferred historical parallel, especially in 1941-42 at the height of the German invasion of the USSR. Even so, the memory of the WW1 was kept alive in Soviet Russia with at least some of the defenders of Stalingrad referring to their city as a «Red Verdun», while the Germans saw themselves as trapped in a «Second Verdun», this despite Hitler’s November 1942 claim that his strategy was to avoid such a scenario. Drawing parallels with WW1 battles was common place during WW2. According to the Washington Post, for example, «Stalingrad’s role in this war was that of the Battle of the Marne, Verdun, and the Second Marne rolled into one».
Although experiences and lessons drawn fromWW1 were indeed relevant during WW2, the long shadow of Great War was also a wrong shadow. Viewing WW2 as a re-run of WW1 obscured some of its most vital, distinctive features. Hitler was not the Kaiser, nor was the Third Reich like the Kaiserreich. WW2 was a far more savage ideological and racial conflict than WW1. Civilians were military, political and ethnic targets during both wars. But, with the possible exception of Turkey’s atrocities against the Armenians, there was no equivalent to the Holocaust nor to the mass bombing raids that killed hundreds of thousands of European and Asian civilians, nor to the atomic bomb attacks on Japan in 1945. The statistics tell this distinctive story well: in 1914-18 there were 17 million war-related deaths, two-thirds of whom were military fatalities, while of the 60 million who died as a result of WW2, two-thirds were civilians.
WW2’s contemporaneous sources are replete with references to WW1. But this essay aims to explore only three aspects of the Great War’s long shadow:
— How the experience of the Great War shaped expectations of the character of the coming war.
— How perceptions of the Great War impacted on the military course and conduct of WW2.
— How views of the outcome and consequences of the Great War underpinned perspectives on peace during WW2.
The Coming War
It was in the mid-1930s that contemplation of a new great war became widespread among elites and in public discourse. The most common expectation was that the coming war would be much like the Great War. It would be a war — as A.J.P. Taylor later put it — to reverse the verdict of WW1. It would be a long-drawn out struggle and advances in military technology meant that it would be even more devastating than the Great War. The damage and loss of life would be immense and the negative consequences would be manifold.
This terrifying vision — framed by memories of the carnage in the Great War — motivated both Anglo-French appeasement policies and mass popular movements agitating for peace in the 1930s. Fear of devastating air attacks on cities was particularly emotive. “The bomber will always get through”, intoned Stanley Baldwin in 1932, and would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. In the event, the bombing campaigns of WW2 were lethal but not on the scale of those apocalyptic visions articulated in the 1930s.
Nor was the outbreak of a new world war seen as inevitable. As Weinberg points out, while generals typically prepare to refight the last war, civilians try to avoid it. In the 1920s and 1930s attention focused on the supposedly inadvertent outbreak of WW1 as a result of the July Crisis of 1914. The mistaken idea that Europe sleep-walked to catastrophe in 1914 was as popular in the interwar period as it is today and it was encouraged by the self-serving war memoirs of Lloyd George and other politicians who sought to evade their responsibility for the catastrophe. Indeed, Chamberlain chose to intervene during the Czechoslovakian crisis in 1938 to avert the unintended outbreak of a major war. He flew to meet Hitler three times, the final visit resulting in the Munich agreement and Chamberlain’s soon-to-be refuted claim that he had secured peace in our time.
But the comparison with the 1914 July crisis proved to be misleading. WW2 began as a result of the prolonged Polish crisis of 1939, aslow-motion crisis that moved towards an inevitable end in such a way that no-one was surprised when war did come in September 1939. Nor was this perceived as inadvertent. WW2 was Hitler’s choice, more clearly so than war had been the Kaiser’schoice in 1914.
As a man of his age, Hitler was of course a participant in and a keen student of WW1. In his view Germany «lost» the Great War for two main reasons: being stabbed in the back by traitorous elements within the Reich; and the necessity of fighting a two-front war against Britain and France in the west and Russia in the east.
To avoid such a two-front war the Germans worked frantically to disrupt the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations for a triple alliance against Hitler that Moscow had initiated following the German occupation of Prague in March 1939. The assumption — common at the time and based on WW1experience —was that even if those triple alliance negotiations failed or dragged on, Russia would align with Britain and France against Germany. This assumption was further reinforced by the fact that Russia’s governing Bolsheviks were opposed ideologically to Hitler and the Nazis and had been campaigning since the early1930s for a grand, anti-fascist alliance against Germany. This was certainly the view of the Poles who were in the frontline facing Hitler’s aggression in 1939. Yet Warsaw resisted Moscow’s aspiration to secure, in advance, agreement to co-operate against Germany because they were confident that when war came the Russians, together with the British and French, would come to their rescue.
Stalin, too, was an avid reader of military history and strategy books and a keen student of WW1. He expected the new world war — which he pinpointed as having started in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria — would be a re-run of the Great War in which the belligerents would exhaust themselves in a long war of attrition. Stalin predicted a closely contested struggle on the western front that would weaken his capitalist enemies and buy time and space for the Soviet Union to continue its own preparations for a war.Stalin’s calculationwas that the interests of the Soviet Union would be best served by making a deal with Hitler that would keep the USSR out of the coming Anglo-French-German war over Poland. As a patriot as well as a communist Stalin’s believed Russia had paid the heaviest price during WW1 and he was determined to prevent that happening again. Hence the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in August 1939, securing Russia’s neutrality for the Germans in return for a secret agreement on Russian spheres of influence in Poland and the Baltic States.
Had the Anglo-Soviet-French triple alliance negotiations of summer 1939 succeeded it is possible Hitler would have been deterred from going to war, at least for a while. On the other hand he might well have decided, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II in July 1914, that it was now or never and that it was better for Germany to go to war sooner rather than later, before the international balance of forces tipped decisively against the Reich. Certainly, German military planners were preparing for such a contingency. In that eventuality the line-up at the beginning of WW2 would have been the same as in 1914: Germany versus an Anglo-French-Russian coalition, except the Germans would have had no major allies apart from, potentially, Italy and Japan. Another difference would have been that Germany’s strategic priority would have been to deal with Poland and the Soviet Union first while remaining on the defensive in the west — a kind of Schlieffen Plan with the fronts reversed. This much was clear to Stalin, who feared that the Anglo-French plot was to keep their countries safely on the sidelines of conflict while war raged in the east.
The Military Course and Character of the War
The Nazi-Soviet pact belied expectations that the new war would be are-run of the Great War. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 the Soviet Union declared its neutrality, as did a number of other European states. On 17 September the Red Army invaded Eastern Poland and occupied Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia — disputed territories the USSR had lost to the Poles as result of the Russo-Polish war of 1919-20. The pretext for the 1939 invasion was that the Polish state had collapsed as a result of the German attack and the Red Army was intervening to protect its Ukrainian and Belorussian blood brothers. This operation served as a prelude to the first major ethnic cleansing episode of WW2 — the deportation of 400,000 suspect Poles to the interior of the USSR. Among them were the 20,000 Polish officers and officials who later perished at Katyn and other NKVD killing sites.
Winston Churchill was one of the few western politicians to welcome the Soviet invasion of Poland’s eastern territories because it contained the seeds of a future Russo-German conflict. In a famous radio broadcast on 1 October 1939 he said:
«I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest or the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic people of south-eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.»
The second event that belied expectations of a re-run of WW1 was the rapid and crushing defeat of Poland by the Germans at relatively little cost. That victory meant Germany would not have to fight a war of attrition in the east as well as in the west. Moreover, Stalin’s neutrality meant that Hitler would be able to concentrate his full force to attack France. When Germany’s western offensive came in spring 1940 the results were even more stunning than its conquest of Poland. The first to be surprised were the neutral states of Denmark, Norway, and Netherlands — invaded and occupied by the Germans as part of their western offensive, unable to sit out the conflict, as they had done during WW1. Some neutral states in Europe did manage to remain inviolate and unoccupied during WW2, including Ireland, but only at the cost of severely compromising their neutrality. In this respect the experience of neutral states in WW1 and WW2 was broadly similar.
The much greater surprise was, of course, the rapid defeat of France in May — June 1940. British and French expectations were that they would be engaged in a prolonged defensive war on the western front as a prelude to a counter-offensive after Germany was weakened by naval blockade and air attack. In other words, a scenario not unlike the Great War but with some crucial differences: the Germans would be stopped at the French frontier by the Maginot Line; the British Expeditionary Force could be much smaller than during WW1; and, above all, the massive casualties inflicted in trench warfare would be avoided. But the Germans scuppered these notions when they outflanked the Maginot Line by launching an armoured offensive through the Ardennes Forest. Yet even as outflanked French and British defences collapsed, inappropriate parallels with WW1 were invoked. As British troops retreated to Dunkirk the comparison was made with the 1918 German offensive, Operation Michael, invoking the spirit of Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s «backs to the wall», no retreat, no surrender order. But as Churchill said at the time, you don’t win wars by evacuations. There was to be a WW2 parallel with Haig’s «backs to the wall» command — but it occurred during the Stalingrad campaign of 1942 when Stalin ordered «not a step back».
France’s surrender on 22 June 1940 meant that insofar as WW2 was re-run of WW1 it was all over and Germany had won. In a few months Hitler had achieved, with relative ease, the continental hegemony the Kaiser had sought unsuccessfully during the four years of hard fighting. Britain, under Churchill, decided to fight on with the support of its Commonwealth allies (apart from Ireland) but the British were isolated and mostly on the defensive. There would be no repeat of the great land battles in France and Belgium in 1914 — 1918, at least not until 1944.
The only potential challenger to German hegemony in Europe was the Soviet Union but Stalin continued to envisage long-term coexistence with Nazi Germany. Seeing the war as virtually over Stalin undertook various pre-emptive actions in summer 1940. The Baltic States were annexed and incorporated into the USSR. Romania was forced to concede Bessarabia — a former Tsarist province long claimed by the Soviets. As part of a proposed spheres of influence deal with Italy in the Balkans, Stalin’s diplomats sought to draw Bulgaria into the Soviet sphere.
In Stalin’s mind these actions were defensive and precautionary. But in Berlin they were viewed as hostile, aggressive and threatening. Hitler and his military were convinced that Russia was an active threat to German domination of Europe. Following a failed attempt in November 1940 to negotiate a new Nazi-Soviet pact Hitler gave the go ahead for Operation Barbarossa — the invasion of Russia in summer 1941.
It is often said that Hitler’s greatest mistake — the mistake that led to his own and the Nazi regime’s downfall — was the invasion of Russia in June 1941. However, from the perspective of WW1 this was not such a risky operation as it appears in retrospect. During WW1 the Germans had – with the help of the Bolsheviks’ revolution — forced Russia to exit the conflict, in effect winning that Eastern Front war. Under the terms of the Brest-Litovsk treaty of March 1918 Germany occupied vast swathes of Russia and the Ukraine — a treaty the Bolsheviks repudiated after the November 1918 armistice. German success on the Eastern Front enabled them to redeploy forces to Operation Michael and almost enabled German success on the Western Front as well. In 1941 Hitler was confident that Germany could replicate its WW1 successes in the east. In Hitler’s mind, too, there was a connection between the western and eastern theatres of operation. If Russia was defeated, Britain would surely come to its senses and sue for peace.
The Nazis did not invent the prejudice that Russians and other Slavic peoples were backward and barbarian races but they did give it a nasty anti-semitic and ideological twist. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was no ordinary military operation. It was an ideological and racial war against Jews, Communists and Slavs. It was a war of destruction, of extermination, that aimed to destroy the Soviet system and eradicate its Jewish influences. In this respect also WW1 proved to be an inadequate predictor of what would happen on the Eastern Front during WW2.
In the run-up to the Soviet-German war Stalin was also mindful of the precedents of WW1. «Mobilisation means war» he told his generals, referring to Russian mobilisation in support of Serbia during the July crisis of 1914. Stalin, who wanted to postpone war for as long as possible, was determined to avoid actions, above all pre-emptive mobilisation, that would precipitate a war with Germany.
Another reason Stalin adopted a passive stance in the face of clear evidence of a massive German military build-up along his borders was also based on the experience of WW1. Soviet military doctrine assumed war would begin with some tactical border battles with the Germans that would last about two weeks, during which time the two sides would position their main forces for strategic attack and counter-attack. Stalin and his generals believed their frontier defences would hold and buy enough time for them to prepare the Red Army’s planned counter-offensives.
The Soviets had observed the German Blitzkrieg through Poland in 1939, France in 1940, and Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941. And the Red Army was itself an offensive-minded army, an exponent of what the Soviets called «deep battle» and «deep operations» — concentrated combined operations by air, armour, artillery and infantry that would punch wide and deep holes in enemy defences and then rapidly exploit them to the full. Despite all such evidence, Soviet military doctrine remained wedded to the perception, formed by their experience of WW1, that deep defences could prevail over even the strongest attack, at least for a time. Soviet generals considered the French and Polish collapses to be the result of poor defensive preparation and lack of fighting spirit. They did not expect the same thing to happen to the Red Army, which deployed three million troops along or near the USSR’s western borders together with thousands of tanks, planes and artillery pieces.
Stalin and his generals were confident they could absorb any German attack whenever it came. This proved to be a disastrous miscalculation when the Germans skipped the expected tactical preliminaries and instead launched a strategic main force attack across a broad front from day one of their invasion. Soviet defences crumbled under that onslaught, while hastily prepared counter-offensive splayed into German hands by exposing the Red Army’s forward forces to encirclement — an eventuality they were ill-prepared to meet.
The outcome of Operation Barbarossa was very close. The German plan for a short, Blitzkrieg war to destroy the Red Army and conquer European Russia almost succeeded. By the end of 1941 German armies were at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad and had penetrated deep into Ukraine and southern Russia. The Red Army had already suffered four million casualties by the end of 1941. While it buckled it did not break, and in December 1941 the Soviets launched a massive counter-offensive in front of Moscow to push the Germans away from their capital. The success of the Moscow counter-offensive signalled the strategic failure of Operation Barbarossa. The Germans now faced a long attrition struggle on the Eastern Front.
The onset of the Soviet-German war was followed by the outbreak in December 1941 of the Japanese-American war in the Far East and the US entry into the war in Europe when Hitler sided with Japan and declared war on the Americans — an apparently irrational act which freed the Germans’ hands in the Battle of the Atlantic. The limited European war of 1939 — 1940 had become a world war. This change in the scenario reinforced — or rather revived — the perception that WW2 was a re-run of WW1with a Soviet-Western coalition ranged against German-led Axis powers.
But this was an illusion. France’s defeat meant that WW2 was being fought primarily on the Eastern Front and was mostly a Soviet-German war with 80% of all combat taking place on the Eastern Front. It was on the Eastern Front that the Germans suffered 75% of their losses — ten million casualties, including three million dead — three times the damage wreaked during WW1. Red Army casualties amounted to 24 million. Among the eight million fatalities were the three million out of five million Soviet POWs who died in German captivity. There was no WW1 parallel for that atrocity, nor for the million Soviet Jews executed by the Nazis in 1941 — 1942 — an act which marked beginning of the Holocaust which was to wipe out 80% of European Jewry during the Second World War.
The absence of a western front in France after 1940 meant that one must be created if Britain and the United States were to play an important part in the final defeat of Hitler. This raises the vexed question of opening a Second Front and Churchill’s resistance to an early invasion of northern France. Not until the Tehran summit in November 1943 were Stalin and Roosevelt able to force Churchill’s hand and insist on a firm commitment to an allied invasion in summer 1944. There were many reasons for Churchill’s position — all of them framed by his perceptions and experiences of WW1.
Opening a Second Front in France was an inherently perilous operation and not to be undertaken lightly although, as the Soviets argued, the longer it was delayed the more perilous it became as it gave the Germans a chance to prepare their defences. The Soviets were convinced a Second Front was a viable option as early as autumn 1942.What Stalin had in mind at that time was not a full-scale invasion (as did occur in 1944) but landing a few divisions in northern France to draw away some enemy divisions from the Soviet-German front. For Stalin it did not matter if such a landing could be sustained or that high casualties would be incurred: the point was to force the Germans to divide their forces at a time when the situation on the Soviet-German front was on a knife edge. Such an operation would be costly for the British but the Soviet argument was that the costs of a complete collapse of the Red Army would be infinitely greater. Churchill, who had fought on the Western Front in WW1, was not prepared to countenance suffering casualties on a similar scale unless it was absolutely necessary. But being casualty-averse, as the modern phrase puts it, was a luxury the Soviets could not afford.
Churchill was also attracted by the so-called Mediterranean strategy — attacking the Axis’s alleged soft-underbelly in Italy, North Africa and the Balkans. In this, Churchill’s calculation was political as well as military. Desertion by its allies during WW1had signalled the beginning of the end for the Germans. That was also true during WW2, but this time it was prompted by the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, not least because the fall of Italy’s dictator Mussolini followed huge Italian losses on the Eastern Front.
Then there was the experience of Gallipoli, which showed that even a major amphibious invasion could become bogged down and forced to retreat — a lesson reinforced by the difficulties experienced in the Dieppe raid of 1942 and the Salerno landings in Italy in 1943. Fears of military disaster were still prevalent as late as the following spring. In March 1944 General Sir Hastings Ismay, wrote to Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell in India:
«A lot of people who ought to know better are taking it for granted that Overlord [the code-name for the D-Day operation] is going to be a bloodbath on the scale of the Somme and Passchendaele.»
What remained an important factor for Churchill was his concept of how Germany would be finally defeated. From the beginning of the war British grand strategy had been that Germany would eventually collapse internally as a result of a war of attrition, much as it had done in 1918. But Churchill’s weapon of choice this time was a strategic bombing campaign to destroy Germany’s capacity and will to resist. From this perspective, an allied invasion of France was the coup de grace best deferred for as long as possible. Had Churchill prevailed and D-Day been yet further delayed it is quite possible the Red Army would have liberated France in 1945 or 1946.
Preparing for Peace
Early in the war Stalin, too, envisaged an internal German collapse as bringing the war to a sudden end. When British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, visited Moscow in December 1941 Stalin presented him with a comprehensive plan for a postwar peace settlement. This was an extraordinary proposal given the Germans were only a hundred miles away from the Soviet capital. But Stalin believed the Red Army’s winter counter-offensive would soon drive the Germans out of Russia precipitating the fall of Hitler’s regime through a combination of military mutiny and popular revolt — again the model was provided by what had happened in Germany at the end of WW1.
The essence of Stalin’s proposal for the postwar world was for the Soviet Union to retain the extended borders it had acquired as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact i.e. Eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and some Finnish and Rumanian territory. When Eden withheld British recognition of those borders Stalin complained bitterly that during WW1 Britain and France had been prepared to cede Constantinople and control of the Black Sea Straits to Tsar Nicholas.
Stalin wanted to secure some agreements in advance from the British because he assumed the war would be followed by a general peace conference modelled on Versailles and involving all the allies including the United States which, in theory, opposed great power politics and spheres of influence agreements.
This assumption that hostilities would end with a new Versailles to determine the terms of the peace was common during WW2. There was a Peace Conference in Paris in 1946 but it was a shadow of its famous predecessor, dealt only with the peace treaties for minor Axis states and was tightly controlled by the great powers. In addition it was a consultative not a decision-making conference conducted with Foreign Ministers not Prime Ministers. The conference did contribute to the content of peace treaties signed with Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Italy, and Romania but it was more an exercise in public diplomacy than deal-making and dealt more with show than substance.
Within the Soviet-Western coalition — or the Grand Alliance as Churchill later called it — what to do with Germany after the war was a crucial issue. The negative experience of Versailles failing to secure a long-lasting peace was a significant determinate in shaping a projected outcome. Throughout the allied world it was believed that because Germany had not been properly defeated during the Great War, Versailles had not imposed a sufficiently punitive peace.
Allied policy was that even if Germany did collapse internally the country was to be invaded and subject to a prolonged occupation. There would be no armistice and no peace negotiations. Germany and its allies would be forced to surrender unconditionally — a policy proclaimed by Roosevelt at his conference with Churchill in Casablanca in January 1943.
The policy of unconditional surrender was designed in part to rule out suspicions within the Grand Alliance that separate peace deals might be concluded. There were many such rumours during WW2, none of which had any substance, but the fears were stoked by what had happened duringWW1. The western states’ concerns referenced Russia’s Brest-Litovsk peace deal with Germany while Stalin feared a shift of alliances to re-create a grand anti-communist coalition as had confronted the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war.
But the fundamental reason to demand unconditional surrender was to inflict a punitive peace on Germany — both as punishment and as insurance that it could not rise again to provoke another world war. It was broadly agreed that after the war Germany would be de-nazified, disarmed, demilitarized and, most importantly, dismembered — broken up into a number of smaller German states — a policy requiring prolonged military occupation of Germany by the allies. The Soviets were also keen to extract reparations from Germany and other enemy states, a policy the British and Americans conceded in theory but resisted in practice because they feared they would end up picking up the reparations bill, just as they had to after WW1.
Another means of punishing Germany was through war crimes trials. The historical backdrop to this issue was the failure to implement the war crimes clauses of the Versailles Treaty, in particular prosecution of the Kaiser — who fled to neutral Holland at the end of the war — on charges of «supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties». There were some low-level war crimes trials after WW1 but few convictions. This failure provoked the British in WW2 to oppose the use of judicial proceedings to punish Nazi war criminals and to instead propose summary execution of the worst offenders. The Americans, however, insisted on a legal process and were the driving force behind the 1946 Nuremburg trials of major Nazi war criminals for conspiracy to wage aggressive war and crimes against humanity. This was a complete reversal of the position taken by the United States at Versailles where it had been lukewarm about punishing the Kaiser and staging war crimes trials.
The US position changed in part as the result of the perception that aggressive German leaders had got away with it after WW1 and shouldn’t be allowed to do so again. Also, standards of international morality had developed since the 1920s, particularly regarding the obligation to seek peaceful resolutions of inter-state disputes. But the most important impetus for war crimes trials during WW2 was the widespread revulsion about mass atrocities committed by the Nazis in occupied Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union.
Not until the end of WW2 did the full scale of Nazi atrocities became evident, most notably in relation to what we now call the Holocaust. During the war people found it hard to believe the Nazis were deliberately killing millions of Jews. German atrocities during the Great War had not been on the scale claimed by allied propaganda and the exaggerations of WW1 became the sceptical prism through which reports of the Holocaust and other atrocities were filtered. Even the Soviets, who amassed solid evidence of German atrocities in territories they recaptured from them in 1942 — 1944, had difficulty believing the scale of the suffering the Nazis had inflicted on the civilian population.
Conclusion: From World War to Cold War
Perhaps the greatest surprise for the generation that had come of age during WW1 was what happened after WW2.
It was self-evident that WW2 would, like the Great War, be a catalyst for radical change not only in Europe but globally. Political sympathies had taken a substantial swing to the left, not least because of the role communists played in the resistance to Nazi occupation in Europe and to Japanese imperialism in Asia. Big question marks hung over the future of the British and French empires. The Soviet Union and the United States were the new power-brokers of international politics. The Americans may withdraw their military forces from Europe after the war but there seemed little chance of the US returning to pre-war isolationism. The Americans were fully committed to the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations that bore more than a passing resemblance to its predecessor.
The expectation was that the Europe of self-governing, democratic nation-states established by the Versailles peace settlement, would be restored. This was what the victorious allies promised in their Declaration on Liberated Europe issued from the Yalta conference in February 1945. This postwar restoration of the old order was to be guaranteed by the continuing collaboration of the British-American-Soviet coalition that had won the war. A Soviet-Western peacetime grand alliance would protect its own interests but would also guarantee peace and security for all.
Yet within two years of the war’s end the Soviet-Western coalition was in disarray and a dangerous cold war was developing between the USSR and its erstwhile British and American allies. By the end of the 1940s Germany was divided and Europe had split into competing political, ideological and military blocs. The spectre of a new world war loomed as the Soviet Union and the United States competed in a nuclear arms race and struggled for power and influence across the globe.
The cold war and the dawn of the nuclear age made WW1 seem even more remote and irrelevant. It was an event to be remembered and commemorated but — to use Michael Oakeshott’s distinction — as part of the historical past, not as a living or practical past of any relevance to contemporary affairs.
After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis some historians and political scientists, worried about the danger of inadvertent nuclear war, re-examined the outbreak of WW1 for lessons concerning the catastrophic failure of international crisis management. But the enduring legacies and lessons of WW1 did not regain the prominence they once had in historical consciousness — not least during WW2 — until after the cold war ended, communism fell and Germany and Europe were reunified. In the 1990s it seemed that post-Versailles Europe had been reborn and by the time of the 100th anniversary of its outbreak, the Great War had been resurrected from its historical grave and returned to the living past.