The Truth About World War II

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Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies
Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov (center left) and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (center right), Berlin, May 1945

Ever since it began, World War II has been seen as “the good war,” to borrow the title of Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize–winning oral history.1 In sharp contrast to World War I, remembered mainly for its terrible conditions in the trenches of the Western Front, its tragic waste of a whole generation of young men, and its disastrous consequences in Europe, leading to the rise of fascism and communism and the triumph of Hitler, World War II is remembered as the defeat of dictatorship by democracy, racism by tolerance, nationalism by internationalism, extremism by moderation, evil by good. It is a memory that is buried deep in the political consciousness and identity of the modern world and in particular Britain and America, where it has sustained a positive self-image ever since 1945 and underpinned the two countries’ global ambitions and roles.

Yet in recent years this positive memory has come increasingly into question. From a pacifist point of view, the war has been portrayed as a pointless struggle, not fought on moral grounds but provoked by the Allies to serve their own material interests.2 From a conservative, Euroskeptic perspective, some British historians have argued that the United Kingdom should have stayed out of both world wars, since (in their view) Germany was not a threat to world peace, and the ultimate outcome of the wars was the destruction of the British Empire, the subjugation of Eastern Europe by Stalin for nearly half a century, and the incorporation of Britain into a united Europe dominated by the Germans.3 In the US, conservative condemnation of the war has been even harsher, with the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 singled out as a war crime without parallel, Winston Churchill castigated as a warmonger, and the US blamed for sparking the conflict in the East by ejecting the Japanese from the international community in the 1920s.4

It is probably fair to say that these views have not had much impact on public memory in Britain and America; nor have they been widely accepted by scholars. Popular fascination with World War II in particular continues to be led by an enthusiasm for experiencing vicariously the heroic struggle of the democracies and their armed forces against the barbarism of the Nazi forces and the sadism of the Japanese military. Yet even here, narratives of the war have more and more revealed its political ambiguities and moral complexities.

Few authors have contributed more to this process of rethinking than the British military historian Antony Beevor. Himself a former professional soldier, he has written a series of best-selling books on major battles of World War II, including Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege (1998), winner of the Wolfson History Prize, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (2002), and D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009). Brilliantly written, these books won …

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Letters

Ruthless General Zhukov November 8, 2012

Terkel’s ‘Good War’ November 8, 2012

  1. 1

    Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (Pantheon, 1984). 

  2. 2

    See, for example, Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon and Schuster, 2008). 

  3. 3

    John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (Harcourt Brace, 1992); Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (Penguin, 1998). 

  4. 4

    Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (Crown, 2008).