Published September 1, 1995
Because it was the first truly global war, and because its effects continue to be felt in world politics, the causes, conduct, conclusion, and consequences of World War II have been deeply, and sometimes bitterly, disputed for fifty years. One classic interpretation of the war was fixed early on, with the publication of The Gathering Storm, the first in Winston Churchill’s six-volume history The Second World War. According to Churchill, World War II was “The Unnecessary War”: stupid Allied peacemaking after World War I, followed by pusillanimous Allied policy, led to the second phase of a new Thirty Years’ War. But while Churchill held the negotiators at Versailles and the British and French leadership of the 1930s responsible for egregious errors of commission and omission, he was also certain that the Second World War would not have happened absent “a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository and expression of the most virulent hatreds that have ever corroded the human breast—Corporal Hitler.”
Some years later, A. J. P. Taylor, a British historian of a different ideological disposition, caused a furor by adopting half of Churchill’s analysis: the ineptitudes of the World War I victors remained, but the “maniac of ferocious genius” was transformed into a rational (or, at the very least, purposeful) politician who, having made his aims plain for all to see, could not be blamed for taking advantage of the vacillations and strategic failures of the Baldwin government and the revolving cabinets of the French Third Republic. It was an argument well received in the iconoclastic sixties.
More recently, less pretentiously, and more persuasively, the German-émigré historian Gerhard Weinberg, now of the University of North Carolina, has challenged the “New Thirty Years’ War” image, arguing that, despite some obvious similarities, the Second World War was a very different business from the First:
In World War I, the two sides were fighting over their relative roles in the world, roles defined by possible shifts in boundaries, colonial possessions, and military and naval power. … In this sense, the war, however costly and destructive in its methods, was still quite traditional in its aims….
In World War II, all this was very different indeed. The intent was different from the start. A total reordering of the globe was at stake from the very beginning, and the leadership on both sides recognized this… This was, in fact, a struggle not only for territory and resources but about who would live and control the resources of the globe and which peoples would vanish entirely because they were believed inferior or undesirable by the victors.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.