Friday, July 12, 2013

Why They Fought

I am sure quite a few people have seen the Frank Capra films, commissioned by the U.S. government when America entered World War II called, “Why We Fight”. They used to be shown in school and are still replayed on the History Channel (on one of those very rare occasions when they actually show something historical rather than construction or pawn shop shows). I would say that those were the days when the U.S. government still made openly blatant propaganda movies but they still do, they are just more partisan these days. Those were also the days when it was considered normal and even okay to actually hate your enemies since, as anyone who has seen the films will recall, they do not just make the case that Adolf Hitler, Mussolini and General Tojo were bad guys but that their entire nations are basically pure evil and always have been. They are the enemies of mankind, hate everything that is decent and pure and will conquer the world if they are not totally destroyed. So, that was “Why We Fight” but what about why “they” fought? Monarchists probably pay more attention to the First World War than the Second (for obvious reasons) but a great many monarchies hung in the balance in World War II. Many did not survive the Allied victory and likewise quite a few would certainly not have survived in the event of an Axis victory.

Some may be surprised at what seemingly trivial issues caused the start of the largest and deadliest war ever fought in human history. Certainly that is the case with the most prominent member of the Axis, Nazi Germany. Contrary to what many may think, Germany did not go to war in 1939 as part of a grand scheme to conquer the world. Putting aside the absurdity of any one country being strong enough to subdue every other nation on the planet, any country even wishing to fight such an intercontinental conflict could never think of doing so without a large fleet of aircraft carriers of which Nazi Germany had none. Planning to attack North or South America without aircraft carriers would be like planning to land on the moon without having any rockets; you can plan all you like but you are never going to get there. The most simple reason for why Germany went to war in 1939 was, anticlimactic though it may be, the city of Danzig. This was a German-populated city that had been given to Poland by the Allies after World War I and Germany wanted it back just as it wished to incorporate all German populations into the new “Third Reich” (as Hitler rather blasphemously called his regime). This goal was what was behind the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Czechoslovakia (or at least the Czech half of it). Hitler wanted Danzig and after what had happened with Austria and Czechoslovakia he was probably convinced that, while the Allies might grumble, no one would try to stop him.

Much of his genuine popularity at that time rested on the fact that Hitler had delivered great victories, in the sense of expanding the German borders, without actually having to fight. He was called the “miracle man”, the man who “conquers with words”. As such, Hitler first tried to gain Danzig by diplomatic means, proposing to Poland that the city be allowed to vote on annexation to the Reich (which would surely be favorable to Germany) but promising the Poles that they would still be allowed to keep their Baltic Sea coastline with Germany being given only a narrow corridor of road and rail lines to link Germany proper with Danzig and East Prussia. By that time, however, the Allies (primarily Britain and France) had decided that they would oppose any further moves Hitler made even if that meant a European war. A “war guarantee” was given to Poland by which Britain and France promised to declare war on Germany if Hitler made any aggressive move toward Poland. Armed with this promise, the Poles could be more strident in their opposition than Austria or Czechoslovakia had been and they refused all German proposals. National pride was also at risk and, after a stunning victory over the Soviets, the Polish military rulers may have thought things were not as bad as they seemed. Hitler, never the sort to handle defiance very well, ordered his troops to invade, perhaps still not really believing that Britain and France would go to war on behalf of a country they could do nothing to help when in the past they had done everything possible to avoid it.

It seems incredible that it could have been that simple, as simple as the city of Danzig, but when you boil it down, that was it. Every other aggressive move Hitler made was a reaction to circumstances rather than a pre-planned strategy, except to some degree the invasion of the USSR which was both a war to obtain Russian grain and other resources as well as a war of intense ideological hatred between national and international socialists. Why did Hitler invade France? Because France first declared war on Germany. Why did Hitler invade the Low Countries? For the same reason the Kaiser did (sans Netherlands) in the First World War; practical military necessity. Why did Hitler invade Denmark and Norway? Because the British mined Norwegian ports to cut off supplies going to Germany. Why did Hitler invade the Balkans? Because the Prince-Regent of Yugoslavia had been overthrown by a pro-Allied faction and Hitler wanted his southern flank secure before invading Russia and that meant stomping on any government there that was not Axis-aligned and putting a quick end to the war in Greece where the British had diverted considerable resources. Why did Hitler invade north Africa? Because the premature Italian invasion of Egypt ordered by Mussolini had ended in total failure and the British were about to takeover the whole of Libya. Although Hitler liked to portray himself as a man of action, these were all reactions and not part of a grand strategy.

The next question is; why did the Kingdom of Italy fight? The answer, again, is not very satisfying. Italy had stayed out of the fight at first (which the King thought best) and Mussolini had even tried to arrange peace talks, which may sound odd but is not surprising considering how high his popularity shot up after the Munich agreement. However, both Mussolini and the Allied leadership wanted Italy in the war but for very different reasons obviously. Most have heard the motivation for Mussolini. France was nearing defeat, few expected Britain to carry on after such an event and Mussolini feared that if Italy did not get into the war before it was over they would gain nothing from it. The famous line of his was that he needed only a few thousand dead to be able to sit at the conference table at which he hoped to gain Savoy, Nice, Corsica, Tunisia and a corridor across the Sudan to link Libya with Italian East Africa. The Allies, for their part, realized that Mussolini would be getting into the war sooner or later and they preferred it to come sooner. The Italian armed forces were fairly worn and weary by 1940. In the twenty years since World War I the Italians had suppressed a guerilla war in Libya, conquered Ethiopia, successfully intervened in the Spanish Civil War and occupied Albania (which was done virtually without resistance but was still a logistical and economic strain). All of this had put stress on a war machine that was not exactly ‘up to code’ in the first place. Italy needed time to fully modernize their military and the Allies (primarily Britain) did not want to give them that time and preferred Italy to enter the war before they were fully prepared.

So, why did Italy fight? Coal. True, it seems about as anticlimactic as saying, “Danzig” but that was the given excuse. In March of 1940 the Allies ordered the seizure of all Italian coal shipments coming out of Germany, bound for the industrial heartland of northern Italy. At the time the Kingdom of Italy was still neutral and at peace with both sides and Mussolini seized on this (as the Allied leaders surely knew he would) as an outrageous act of piracy and a violation of Italian sovereignty. Mussolini could also point out (and did) that with Britain holding Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, and determined to cut off their overseas trade, Italy was effectively bottled up in the Mediterranean and cut off from the rest of the world, all before Italy had taken any aggressive moves against any of the Allies. In truth, of course, Mussolini wanted to get into the war and the Allies were simply being good enough to provide him with a reason to. On June 10, much to the horror of the King, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. Later Italian troops would participate in the invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union for the same reasons as Germany but the only other attack Mussolini launched entirely on his own was the invasion of Greece, which did not go exactly as planned nor are the reasons for it entirely clear. Was it simply an act of mad aggression? Fascist paranoia? Was it a ruse meant to draw British support out of Egypt prior to the Italian invasion? Only Mussolini would know for sure and he never said, and it would be even money if he could have been believed if he had.

Finally we come to the last question; why did the Empire of Japan fight? One big difference between Japan and the other principle Axis powers was that Japan was already fighting and had been fighting for a decade in an undeclared war with China. This arose out of the Japanese desire to secure a buffer in northeast Asia between themselves and the Soviet Union which had already suppressed efforts to form an opposition government in the Russian Far East and occupied Mongolia, making it a part of the Soviet Union in all but name. There was also the desire for the natural resources of Manchuria and control of Chinese markets (with whom their primary competitor was the United States). Economic interest in China was also the basic reason for why many other nations maintained military forces in China. At the time war broke out in Europe, Japan was focused on consolidation and winning the war in China (having already been burned in a border clash with the Soviets). The situation was not fundamentally different in the Far East in 1941 than it had been in 1931 but the United States decided to get involved in what had, until then, been the Second Sino-Japanese War. Why did Japan fight? To sum it up in another one-word answer, it was about oil.

As an island nation with a small population and no sources of oil of their own, Japan depended on imports of oil to maintain their war effort and (it is often forgotten) to simply maintain a modern standard of living such as every other industrialized country enjoyed. The United States cut off all trade with Japan, froze Japanese assets in the United States and encouraged Great Britain and the Dutch government-in-exile to do the same. The U.S. also sent Japan an ultimatum ordering the Japanese to withdraw from China completely, including Manchuria. This might have been simply ignored were it not for the stoppage of oil imports by America, Britain and Holland as the only sources of oil available to Japan in those days were those in the United States, Malaysia (controlled by the British) or Indonesia (controlled by the Dutch). So, with virtually no oil at all coming in, Japan faced either total military and social collapse or the surrender of all they had been fighting for over the last ten years to comply with American orders. The only other option was to fight and occupy the areas of southeast Asia that had the resources they needed. Oddly enough, part of the reason Japan had been so interested in taking control of Manchuria was so that they would not be dependent on foreign sources of oil and subject to the sort of pressure the U.S. was placing on them.

The result was the “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor which turned the American public from isolationist to interventionist overnight. In condemning this “dastardly” attack by Japan, what President Roosevelt failed to mention was that he had signed off on a surprise, first-strike fire bombing of Japan several months earlier, using American personnel in American planes but under the flag of republican China. Logistical slowness simply allowed Japan to beat America to the punch but that information was not declassified until many years after the war was over. FDR was mostly concerned with the struggle against Nazi Germany but had been unable to make the case to the American public that would dissuade them from their desire to stay out of any more foreign wars. Japan was simply the only Axis power against which sufficient pressure could be brought to force them to take the first swing at the United States. Republican Representative Clare Boothe Luce said that FDR was, “the only American president who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the political courage to lead us into it” (who, I might point out was a Dame of the Order of Malta and a Catholic convert).

When reduced down to the bare minimum, words like Danzig, coal and oil hardly seem sufficient in justifying war but when it is a global conflict with many millions of dead any words would certainly seem insufficient justification. The Allies certainly had more noble words or at least noble-sounding words which they presented to their people as the reason for going to war. However, words like “freedom”, “democracy” and “self-determination” were certainly not the rewards of a great many people after the war ended in an Allied victory. If you were on the wrong side of the “Iron Curtain” when it was over, it would not be unreasonable to wonder if you might not have been better off if the Axis had won. Certainly it must have been a bitter pill for Poland in particular. Britain and France went to war with Germany, starting a second world war, in defense of the independence of Poland only to have the war end with Poland being subject to a red-shirted dictator rather than a brown-shirted one. Sometimes war is the only way, yet at the same time, losses on such a monumental and global scale cause any reason or attempt at justification to shrink in comparison. In the end, the Allies won but everyone knows that did not mean everything got better for everyone in the world afterwards.

This was a victory that left half of Europe in communist slavery and ultimately would leave most of East Asia in communist slavery as well, in several cases of an even more murderous variety than the worst Stalin ever managed. It was a victory that saw the downfall of many monarchies; Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia and Italy all went republican because of the war. It could be argued that the downfall of the Greek monarchy started with the civil war that emerged from World War II. In Asia the monarchies of Korea, Manchuria and Vietnam fell and it was only by the narrowest of margins that the Japanese monarchy did not go as well (thankfully cooler heads prevailed) though even there things have never been the same since. The gains made by communism also meant that the days were numbered for the monarchies of Laos and Cambodia. Finally, with the fall of the British Empire, a direct result of the war, many more republics would emerge all over the world. How things would have turned out if the Axis powers had been victorious we can never know and most would prefer not to even imagine such a thing. Even conceding that though, given the state of the world since, it seems rather elementary to say that Danzig, coal and oil were certainly not worth it.


  1. Excellent history lesson and summary of how wars don't just "happen", but are carefully planned. We are seeing the same sort of provocation strategy now playing out in the Middle East. Those who fail to learn from history...

  2. Going to have to disagree with you fundamentally on Hitler, MM. While certainly had Germany been given Danzig it would have been the last legitimate diplomatic casus belli that would have avoided any proposed legitimite war of revanchism on Poland. But by this point Hitler himself was growing incredibly arrogant and viewed the surrounding countries as weak (specifically FOR being so easy to convince diplomatically) so if he got the city of Danzig I doubt it would have satiated his appetite, but probably would have made his propaganda machince's job harder in terms of justifying war to the population.

    1. Wow, a 'fundamental disagreement'. Seems odd considering I never said Hitler would have stopped at Danzig. I think you 'fundamentally' missed the point that Danzig was not worth a world war either to keep or to take. Hitler did not need to have Danzig, he could have gone on just fine without it, it's nowhere near the same as even Italy or certainly Japan. What would have happened if he had got it is purely speculative and something we can never know for sure. I think he would have gone on myself but I think us aggression would have been directed solely at the Soviets, the thought of which does not unduly distress me.

  3. I think it is precisely because of the losses that the world - and the West in particular - suffered that most people tend to not know the true, "anticlimactic" (as you put it) causes of World War II. Certainly fifty million dead and half the world under Communist influence is not worth it because of coal, oil, and Danzig. Most Americans still think that America went to war because of the Holocaust (which was not revealed until the end of the war), and because Hitler was planning on invading the Western hemisphere. It's so preposterous but that's what most people believe.

    As for should the Allies have won? I don't think our world has become fundamentally better without it. Honestly, had US government instead watched the Germans smash the Soviets and overthrow the Communist government, perhaps it might have ended more better. I don't think the Germans in the long term would have been able to hold their far-flung European conquests for long, though they certainly may have been able to negotiate a favorable peace. At least Communism would have probably been consigned to the dust bin of history.

    Sure, this is all speculative, as all 'What If' scenarios are, but I for one reject that we are better off with the Allies having won the war. Thanks for another brilliant post.

  4. Great post as always MM, there's only two things I have in mind: Danzig was not part of Poland at the time it was the Free City of Danzig (Freie Stadt Danzig), independent of both countries and also that the Kingdom of Hungary was also among the monarchies destroyed after WW2. Granted, the full restoration didn't happen in 1920 as we only had a regent instead of a king but still, it was the Kingdom of Hungary that fell and was forced by communists and social democrats to continue on as a republic after February 1st 1946.

  5. Splendid article, i'm from Poland and I think that Giving Danzig to Hitler would end much better for Poland.

  6. Great article that tries to look through the propaganda. My grandfather (German) would argue until his last breath that they were actually defending Germany and that 'they' just wanted to correct the unjust conditions after WW1. That was the kind of feeling people had and that explains why German troops would fight so fiercely ... and not for conquering the world. So thanks again for pointing that out.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...