It is 77 years since the Second World War broke out – a succession of anniversaries starting on 1 September with the German invasion of Poland, and continuing two days later, 3 September, when the French, the British – and their Empire – declared war on Germany in response.
It was a case of political brinksmanship gone wrong. German dictator Adolf Hitler, convinced that the British and French were weak, never expected them to declare war over Poland any more than they had over Czechoslovakia, the Sudentenland, Austria or any of the other territories he had been grabbing since seizing power in 1933. He was wrong.
Exactly why the war broke out was subject to a lot of soul-searching afterwards, but – as with the First World War – we are wrong to look at the narrative as a kind of bar-brawl between nations, this time featuring Nazis. The actual origins can be readily traced back to the settlements of the First World War, and the usual historical consensus today is that the two wars – in reality – were two acts in the same larger struggle that set Bismarckian ‘Reich’ thinking against the western powers. Germany had not lost that mind-set despite being defeated in the First World War. In this thinking, the Nazis were merely an extreme example of what already existed, certainly in a latent sense, in Germany.
The other historical fact that seems clear is that in the first tumultuous week of September 1939, neither the Nazis nor the democratic powers that opposed them had any idea that their struggle might last another six years, spread to engulf the planet, and lead to the deaths of at least seventy million. A disturbing proportion of that seventy million were not combatants, but ordinary civilians – innocent citizens – who were murdered by the Nazis (and the Soviets, who were equally totalitarian) for no better reason than that they existed.
But all that lay in the unknown future to the world of September 1939. That world, instead, seemed to be plunged into what was soon called a ‘phoney’ war. Once the ground fighting was over in Poland, there seemed to be precious little fighting. The war surged at sea when a U-boat sank the Athenic, with casualties including neutral US citizens. The RAF began bombing Germany promptly – but only with propaganda leaflets. Later, air and sea fighting gained pace and lethality. But it was not until early 1940 that ground fighting began across Europe to any large extent. Of that, more another time.
Rumours that New Zealand declared war ahead of Britain are illusory – we were on the other side of the dateline and our declaration was timed to match Britain’s. And we fought beside Britain to the very end – both of the European war in April 1945, when our ground forces rushed into Trieste in the very last days of the fighting, there meeting General Tito’s Communists in what became the first confrontation of the Cold War; and of the Pacific war, where our cruiser HMNZS Gambia was part of the last engagement of the entire war, when a kamikaze plunged down on a British squadron fifteen minutes after the Japanese surrender was meant to take effect.
Back in the early 2000s I wrote a trilogy of books covering the story of New Zealand’s main wartime ground force, 2 NZ Division. They’re now available on Kindle, either individually or in one handy (and cost-saving) volume. Check ’em out! Click to buy.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016