Sixty years ago this week, the Second World War in Europe came to an end. On April 30 Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker in the shattered heart of Berlin; two days earlier Benito Mussolini was murdered by an Italian mob–the same mob that hailed him as Il Duce just four years earlier. On May 3, the guns in Berlin and elsewhere fell silent; on the May 7 Hitler’s successors made their formal surrender. The Nazi empire in Europe, which Hitler swore would last a thousand years, had vanished. But the lessons its defeat have left for posterity have not.
Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, Germany’s defeat could hardly be called a victory for justice or humanity. After all, it left Hitler’s brutal collaborator, Josef Stalin, in control of eastern Europe. Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz on April 27, yet the camp was only a clone of Stalin’s own gulag. In a few months, Soviet judges would be sitting solemnly at the Nurnberg trials trying German defendants for using slave labor–as odious a twist of irony as history has ever delivered.
So this was not a victory for justice. It was, however, a crucial victory for liberal democracy, the very system that had seemed to be on the brink of destruction four years earlier. It was that system that Hitler and others had blamed for plunging the world into the Great Depression, and which he promised to crush by defeating the liberal democracies and their “Jewish capitalist warmonger” allies. To Hitler, Britain and America represented a way of life that was decadent, corrupt, and grossly self-serving–precisely the same complaints voiced by Osama bin Laden and today’s Islamic terrorists. And it was a way of life that in the fall of 1940 seemed about to pass into history.
It is important to remember how many people, especially Europeans, wanted democracy to lose and hoped Hitler would win. They included the world’s Communist parties, who followed the directions of their leader Josef Stalin in enthusiastically embracing his alliance with Nazi Germany. They included politicians and intellectuals who, after Hitler’s lightning victories in Poland and France, saw a new world order arising and wanted to be part of it. Denmark’s elected government enthused in July 1940 that Hitler had “brought about a new era in Europe, which will result in a new order in an economic and political sense…” France’s Robert Brasillach saw Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin as the men of the future and Roosevelt and Churchill as “grotesquely antiquated” relics of the past. Catholic mystagogue Teilhard de Chardin proclaimed that “we are watching the birth, more than the death, of a World….the Germans deserve to win…” Holland’s Paul de Man, later the darling of the deconstructionist Left at Yale and other universities, announced that Europe’s future under Nazi rule was brighter than ever and that “we are entering a mystical era, a period of faith and belief, with all that this entails,” with the Third Reich at its center.
Today, it is sobering to contemplate how close Hitler came in the early summer of 1941 to achieving that new order. Had he followed the advice of his naval advisers and completed his rout of the British from the Mediterranean by seizing the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, Germany would have secured control of the world’s oil supply and the world’s sea routes to India and the Far East. After Pearl Harbor, Hitler and the Japanese could have divided the resources of Asia–from Bombay and Afghanistan to Australia and Singapore–between them.
But Hitler was not interested in following in the footsteps of the British and Americans, in building an empire built on economic power instead of conquest. Instead, he turned on his ally Stalin and invaded Russia–again hoping this would complete the isolation of Britain and deter the United States from going to its aid. Like all totalitarians, he assumed the democratic response to forthright force would be hesitation, weakness, and retreat.
Instead, the United States and Britain would forge an alliance that would not only be able to fight both Germany and Japan, but keep Stalin’s Russia supplied and fed. British factories supplied aircraft engines for Russian planes, while American factories turned out the trucks and vehicles that kept the Red Army in the field. By the end of 1942 Britain’s wartime production was 50 percent higher than Germany’s; America’s output of tanks, planes, ships, and ammunition was more than that of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. By 1944 America had doubled that number again, while its army of 7 million men was performing feats of valor and sacrifice around the world that would earn them the title of “the greatest generation” and that democracy’s critics, then as now, had predicted were impossible for a corrupt capitalist society like the United States.
This is in fact the basic lesson of the Second World War: that political freedom unleashes a material and spiritual power that dictators only dream about. That dream of power ended for Hitler in the rubble of Berlin; it would end for Stalin’s successors 44 years later in that same city, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today it is ending for Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere. They should have learned the lesson of their predecessors: that the future still belongs to freedom.
–Arthur Herman is the author of To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.