Editor’s Note: The Following is the first in a series of excerpts adapted from Victor Davis Hanson’s new book The Second World Wars. It appears here with permission.
Some 60 million people died in World War II.
On average, 27,000 people perished on each day between the invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939) and the formal surrender of Japan (September 2, 1945) — bombed, shot, stabbed, blown apart, incinerated, gassed, starved, or infected. The Axis losers killed or starved to death about 80 percent of all those who died during the war. The Allied victors largely killed Axis soldiers; the defeated Axis, mostly civilians.
More German and Russian soldiers were killed in tanks at Kursk (well over 2,000 tanks lost) than at any other battle of armor in history. The greatest loss of life of both civilians and soldiers on a single ship (9,400 fatalities) occurred when a Soviet submarine sank the German troop transport Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The costliest land battle in history took place at Stalingrad; Leningrad was civilization’s most lethal siege. The death machinery of the Holocaust made past mass murdering from Attila to Tamerlane to the Aztecs seem like child’s play. The deadliest single day in military history occurred in World War II during the March 10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo, when 100,000 people, perhaps many more, lost their lives. The only atomic bombs ever dropped in war immediately killed more than 100,000 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki together, most of them civilians, while tens of thousands more ultimately died and were maimed from radiation exposure. World War II exhausted superlatives. Its carnage seemed to reinvent ideas of war altogether.
Yet how, why, and where the war broke out were familiar factors. The sophisticated technology and totalitarian ideologies of World War II should not blind us to the fact that the conflict was fought on familiar ground in predictable climates and weather by humans whose natures were unchanged since antiquity and thus who went to war, fought, and forged a peace according to time-honored precepts. Reformulated ancient ideas of racial and cultural superiority fueled the global bloodbath between 1939 and 1945, which was ostensibly started to prove that some ideologies were better, or at least more powerful, than others. Nazi Germany certainly believed that other, supposedly inherently spiritually weaker Western nations — Britain and France in particular — had conspired since World War I to prevent the expression of naturally dominant German power. In his memoirs, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine, the German navy, after January 1943, summed up accurately the German justification for the war: “Britain went to war in 1939 because Greater Germany, growing in strength and united with Austria, was becoming a menace to British imperial and economic interests.” Notice how Doenitz’s key phrase, “Britain went to war,” assumes that the German invasion of Poland was the result of victimization and grievance and thus should not have provoked a wider war.
By 1939, Germans had concluded that the postwar policies of the Western European nations were unfair, vindictive, and, with some tolerable sacrifices, correctable, given the rebirth of Germany under a uniquely powerful National Socialism. An unfettered Germany would establish hegemony throughout Europe, even if that effort might require dramatic changes in current borders, substantial population exchanges, and considerable deaths, though mostly of non-Germans. In time, both Fascist Italy (which had invaded both Ethiopia and Albania prior to September 1, 1939) and Japan (which had invaded China well over two years before the German attack on Poland) felt that if Hitler could take such risks — as he had throughout 1939–1941 in apparently successful fashion — then they too might take a gamble to share in the spoils. Perceived self-interest — and a sense of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ realist notion of honor and fear — as much as ideological affinity, explained which power entered the war, or left it, or chose to remain neutral.
World War II was conceived and fought as a characteristic Western war in which classical traditions of free markets, private property, unfettered natural inquiry, personal freedom, and a secular tradition had for centuries often translated to greater military dynamism in Europe than elsewhere. If the conflict’s unique savagery and destructiveness can only be appreciated through the lenses of 20th-century ideology, technology, and industry, its origins and end still followed larger contours of conflict as they developed over 2,500 years of civilized history. The Western military’s essence had remained unchanged but it was now delivered at an unprecedented volume and velocity, and posed a specter of death on a massive scale. The internecine war was largely fought with weaponry and technology that were birthed in the West, although also used by Westernized powers in Asia. The atomic bombs, napalm, guided missiles, and multi-engine bombers of World War II confirmed a general truth that for over two millennia the war-making of Europe and its appendages had proven brutal against the non-West, but when its savage protocols and technology were turned upon itself, the corpses mounted in an unfathomable fashion.
Excerpts from The Second World Wars: