Breaking Glass

The Wrong War

I am nervous about the course I am teaching, this coming fall, about World War II.  As I will explain to the class from the outset, there are a few things I do not know about the topic—namely, when the war began, when it ended, where it happened, who were the key protagonists on each side, or indeed who the sides were.  Other than that, my knowledge is comprehensive.

Just when did the war begin?  Before answering that, we must ask: Which war? and Which nation is remembering it?  Britain and France have one answer; the United States, a totally different one; China and the Ukraine, yet others.  Increasingly, though, it is difficult to draw lines between the two world wars, or to see the intervening years as anything more than a temporary cease-fire.  Looking globally, a spasm of mass violence was clearly under way by the early or mid-1930’s, in China, Spain, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, and, to a greater or lesser extent, these conflicts merged into the giant struggle that attracts the label of World War II.

The question of “which war” becomes still more pressing if we shift our gaze from Western obsessions to consider the Soviet Union.  Under Western eyes—especially American—the war was an heroic conflict to stop a ruthlessly homicidal dictatorship from dominating the world and reshaping its future history as a global slave state. ...

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