It’s 76 years this month since the end of the Second World War in Europe – just over three-quarters of a century since the end of the effort by the world’s democracies to survive against a rising tide of totalitarianism.
The fall of Nazi Germany ended the fascist side of that totalitarian system and enabled democracy to prevail in the west. It took the Cold War and another half-century to stop the communist side. These were two contrasting flavours of the same thing: the brutal police-state governments that humans are so adept at creating. But they were stopped.
We take it for granted that the democracies prevailed. Actually, they did so only by a whisker. The whole cycle – nicely captured by Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Extremes – actually leaned more towards the bad guys winning. Other writers have taken similar view, including Max Hastings whose view of the two World Wars as separate acts of the same larger struggle is compelling.
So what was going on – and why were the democracies so close to going out?
According to the current understanding of the twentieth century as a whole – of the wider cycles of global politics, societies and economics – it all began with the First World War. The ‘old European order’ that had dominated the world to that point was already cracking, breaking up from beneath under the forces of a disaffected working population tired of a system that simply profited the rich. The First World War – which was as much a social as a political event – broke it.
What emerged, the so-called ‘new order’ – was framed by the social and economic outcomes of the 1914-18 struggle. Combatant nations filled with shell-shocked and maimed soldiers now had to struggle against economic problems. For Germany, the argument goes, the armistice – this at a time when the army had not been wholly beaten in the field – was a humiliating blow to a nation brought up on Bismarck’s ‘Reich’ mentality. When a shell-shocked corporal popped up in a Bavarian beer hall and began ranting about it, people were prepared to listen – irrespective of the fact that the words and messages were openly deranged.
Why the former central powers swung into totalitarianism is another story: suffice to say, the outcome of the whole circus was the rise of a communist totalitarian power in Russia, and the rise of fascist totalitarian powers in Italy, Germany and – to an extent – Japan. The United States was neutral and isolationist, leaving only Britain and France as the key democracies actively facing these new existential threats. When the Great Depression struck, dragging the western democracies to their knees, it was not clear that this system would even survive.
That threat became particularly evident when the Second World War broke out. By mid-1940 France had fallen, leaving Britain – alone – standing against a totalitarian-dominated Europe. Yet even when the United States joined the struggle – with its unparallelled industrial power – victory for the democracies was by no means guarateed. According to the historian Richard Overy, the pivot was 1943 and the German defeat during the Kursk offensive. Until then, all hung in the balance. Indeed, even after that offensive there was potential for Germany and the Soviet Union to reach an agreement – and talks were held between their foreign ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop.
The what-ifs there could doubtless be debated; but the point is that the Second World War was a near-run thing. Democracy was not necessarily going to be the winner. It was, of course, and the world was all the better for that.
What worries me is that these lessons have been forgotten. But as the world slides into what is increasingly presenting as a new existential crisis, they deserve remembering.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021