From Hobson's Choice
A term applied to several conflicts that are historically grouped as two distinct wars (World War I and II). World War I was essentially a European conflict which affected colonial possessions in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean, while World War II is typically used to refer to both the 1939-1945 war in Europe and North Africa, as well as the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Two of the major belligerents in the European-North African conflict (viz., the USA and the United Kingdom) were major belligerents in one phase of the other, which has naturally led popular histories to treat the two as a single war.
Another conflict that can be reasonably described as "World War 0" was the Seven Years War (1754-1763; it actually lasted nine years). This was waged chiefly on two fronts in Europe, in South Asia, and in North America.
One War or Two?
The "One World War" Theory
There are various ways of explaining the World Wars; one of these treats the two as different phases of the same conflict. In this analysis of "The World War," the paramount conflict is between Germany and liberalism (or the liberal's client, the poorer parts of Europe). In phase one, the centralized police state, Prussia-Germany, having effectively absorbed Austria-Hungary as an economic entity, is now acting as executor for both. It perceives the long-festering "national questions," which grip Central & Eastern Europe, and also the perverse resentment of the peoples of that region for the rich, booming communities of the West. It conjectures that, left to its own devices, the countries will become radicalized and autonomous, but remain poor (because of the lack of sound administration). It concludes that only permanent conquest under a firm Western technocratic hand will achieve the development of the region. But, there is the irresponsible interloper, France and Great Britain (who insist that only non-whites may be treated like serfs); and Mother Russia, the recklessly and fanatically unsound lunatic asylum, with its absurd and nihilistic ravings about the narodh and Slavonic unity.
The logical thing to do was smash the revolutionary rabble (starting with Serbia), then thump the perennially interferring French, wallop the Englanders (who, God knows, were only in it for the dividends) and then liquidate the Czars before they knew what hit them. In 1914, it was clear who would win, and who would lose, if the technocratic German empire carried the day. The British and the Czar would be driven from the Continent for good, the French would need to get a real job, and the sundry peoples of Central Europe would be delivered of any absurd notions about sovereignty and what-not.
According to the "One World War" version of events (to continue with that), the Prussian technocratic regime was the one that suffered its come-uppance, although not without a historically significant victory over the Russians. In a seeming irony, the German victories in Central Europe created seven new countries, plus a massively enlarged Serbia (later, Yugoslavia) and four additional temporary states (Ukraine plus three Caucasian republics; none survived 1921).
|Map of European states created by WW1|
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When Germany's technocratic elite returned to the fray, they began be restoring control over the warmaking resources they had lost in the first round, plus some new ones: Romania and Italy, both resource-rich regions disappointed by the Paris settlements. The elites were the same, the mission the same. The objective was the economic redemption of Central Europe, and the totalitarian movement of Hitler was just a tool.
The "Two World War" Theory
An alternative view has it that the wars represented entirely different historic conflicts. In this version, Germany's institutional integration with its neighbors and some-time rivals is more profound; the first war represents a civil war within an already-integrated Europe, which erupted as an unintended (or collateral) byproduct of bourgeois-inflicted ultranationalism. The agenda of confrontation with other powerful nations was developed as a policy of technocratic control over the state machinery, whatever the political division of Europe happened to be. One compelling argument for this view is the fact that each country, regardless of size or geopolitical situation, had a feud with at least one other country that was as great an obsession. No major state had skipped out of the feud business (except for the USA and Japan; both were shopping for feuds, and both had heretofore been able to expand internally). It was as if each country needed a massive nationalist grudge in order to operate, and if one did not appear spontaneously, the "system of alliances" would create one.
In this narrative, the technocratic administration of the European states required what Hannah Arendt and others call the "conquest of the nation by the state." This required an excuse, as all tyrannies do, that foreign enemies were plotting the downfall of the nation. The level of panic and resentment achieved, [World War I] became inevitable.
But where WW1 had destroyed the technocratic regime of the bourgeoisie, it also liberated the bourgeois. The liberal-radical politics of mass democracy accompanied several profound economic shocks. The money supplies of all the belligerents of the War, including the USA, Canada, Japan, and Australia, expanded very sharply and threatened to become ungovernable. During the war, prices in the USA doubled; in France, they increased by a factor of six; in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the state and currency collapsed. In the years that followed, massively larger and more sophisticated nation-states emerged. The nation-state had passed its apex of historic power, since it was now highly vulnerable to capital flows, exchange rates, refugees, and interlocking alliances. But it was also far more sophisticated, assertive, and energetic. Even the countries that returned to the gold standard continued to intervene heavily in the administration of their national money supplies. Again, often national governments administered smaller populations than before, and were "closer" to them than before. There was now a Czech state, an Hungarian state, a Polish state, a Finnish state, and so forth; likewise, the former Austro-Hungarian imperial government in Vienna was now an Austrian national government. Russia was now not merely an imperial garrison state, but a socialist republic that acknowledged multiple national aspirations (this did not last long, of course).
In addition to the new-found duties of the states, then, there was the administratively (if not politically) influential League of Nations, which gathered statistics and facilitated uniform standards of government administration; and the new Bank of International Settlements (BIS), which continues to coordinate the functions of the world's central banks. The League, notorious for its failure to check the totalitarian regimes, also standardized the system of European colonialism, through the Mandates. If one subscribes to the view that competition for empire abroad triggered the first world war, then one can at least credit the League with preventing a war among the victors over the spoils.
The twenty years, then, between World War I and World War II were (according to this second, "Two World War" theory), not merely a breathing space for essentially similar belligerents to resume their former struggle, but themselves an almost-revolutionary transformation of the very nature of the trans-European state. Instead of the belligerents being nations with a unified elite and cohesive economic interests, they actually represented different, sometimes rival, congeries of control overlaid upon an essentially united Europe. The totalitarian movements of Germany and the USSR originated there, in the devastated, beleaguered, and atomized masses, but they never acknowledged any natural borders; they appealed to non-Germans and non-Russians; and they regarded huge cohorts of Germans and Russians as aliens and objective enemies. Soon after conquering hearts and minds with honeyed words of flattery, the Nazis revealed their abject scorn for the German people by obliterating their social institutions. The Soviets did the same after 1929.
War and Unification
This essay has focused on two (of four) possible models of the world wars in Europe. There are two that have been neglected; in one, Europe is fundamentally divided among rival states/empires, AND there were two fundamentally different conflicts between those congeries of states; and in the other, there was one "civil war" that was unresolved from 1918 to 1939. These neglected models have their own advantages as historical narratives; initially, I was inclined to reject them as "pat" (the 2WW/ME version) or "conspiratorial" (the 1WW/1E version). Nevertheless, they, too, serve as useful descriptions of what occurred.
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(The "2WW/ME" version is the one most familiar to non-historians, and indeed, is well-nigh universal. It appeals to the intuition of countries bearing collective guilt or merit for their histories, so it appears a lot on comment threads or in newspaper op/ed columns. However, that's not a necessary corollary. In fact, there were deep and profound chasms dividing the nations of Europe, trade and capital flows notwithstanding; and of course, the Axis included a different group of nations from the Central Powers, which is by itself an excellent reason for differentiating the two wars. As for the "1WW/1E" version, this rests on the concept that the civil war that shattered Europe failed to dislocate the original elites. That does border on the "conspiratorial," but only just. If you are a Marxist, for example, this analysis is likely to appeal to you.)
No one version captures everything. My preference for characterizing the World Wars as "civil wars" within an existentially unique Europe, is based on a perception of individual nationhood that comes from outside of Europe. Consider, for comparison, East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand/Laos, and Cambodia are culturally more different from each other than any two countries in the European Union (with the possible exception of Japan and Korea). None of these countries has significant domestic cohorts of the other's population; there is not a large Japanese population in Korea, despite a 50-year Japanese occupation. There is a Korean minority in Japan of <0.5% of the population; likewise, a Korean minority in Manchuria, also tiny. The countries all have languages that are linguistically unrelated (some say Korean is distantly related to Japanese). In contrast, most European countries speak an Indo-European language. China's periods of imperial flourishing do not coincide with those of Japan's or Vietnam's. In fact, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan each had their own domestic empires, which—by an interesting coincidence—include the countries in their present boundaries, at their maximum point of imperial expansion. China has frayed a bit, losing Outer Mongolia and Outer Manchuria, and Thailand has lost some ground to its neighbors, but otherwise the modern nations represent these empires at their greatest geographical extent. Likewise, the empires of South Asia in, say, 1600, each represented core states having expanded outward as far as possible. Ottoman Turkey, Muscovy, Safavid Iran, the Mughul Sultanate, and Burma had each grown outward in the direction of each other. The nations of Europe expanded together, in collaboration with each other, and rarely in direct competition with each other. The Fashoda Incident and the "Leap of the Panther" are relatively unusual, representing clashes between rival European empires (despite the attendant acrimony, neither touched off a war and neither was likely to have done so). Even the "Great Game" in Central Asia was a game, rather than a war. The real wars were against the subjugated populations of India and Central Asia, and reflected competitive sportsmen run amok, not sincere strategic clashes in the region.
Nations are not often comparable, but it's hard to claim that the USA is a different country from Germany and the UK in the same sense, say, as China is a different country from either Vietnam or Korea. The USA is rich because the UK and Germany, inter alia, were rich too; US nationals, including those of African and Chinese extraction, are affluent as a result of the European economy and European technology propagating across the Atlantic. The sudden and drastic population growth in the eastern part of North America after 1800 (after the North American indigenous population had reached 0.5 million on its way down) was the result of Europeans physically arriving here by boat, and as many immigrants typically return, it must be pointed out that the cultural ties are refreshed constantly. And whether one regards this as a fact of geopolitical relevance circa 1914 or 1939, it certainly is the case now.
- ↑ For example, Matthew Yglesias: German Suffering. Yglesias' remarks are espescially bizarre in so far as he's a Usonian writing in May '05, when the deathtoll of US actions in Iraq had reached the same orders of magnitude as that of the Third Reich in Poland or Yugoslavia.
- ↑ For a description of the Fashoda Incident, see Frank Smith, "The Fashoda Incident"; Mr. Smith also has a good article available on "Leap of the Panther."
- ↑ Introduction to the "Great Game" between Russia and the UK for hegemony in Central Asia: Mohan Guruswamy, "The Great India-China Game" Rediff (2003)
James R MacLean (13:09, 5 January 2008 (PST))