World War II: How Did It Start and When Did It End?

Still embedded in our consciousness, World War II influences the way we think about Europe, forms a part of our identity, and continues to be responsible for many of our enduring phobias. It makes no difference that we shall soon mark seventy years since it ended.

Or does it? And when did World War II really end?

And when did it start?

It was not the Anschluss of Austria (March 1938) that started it, nor was it the invasion of the Sudetenland (autumn 1938) or of the rump Czech Lands (March 1939) by Nazi Germany, nor even the invasion of Albania by fascist Italy (April 1939). What really started it was Nazi Germany’s alliance with the communist Soviet Union, sealed by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 March 1939.

The pact turned Hitler and Stalin into allies, who split Europe between themselves. The war in Europe was not started by a single aggressor but rather by two, both of them equally guilty.

In 1938–1939 there were three political and ideological formations in Europe: the Western democracies (represented by France and Great Britain); Nazi Germany; and the Communist Soviet Union. Because of their conservative vision of the international order, bourgeois democracies were keen on maintaining the status quo and did not desire war (as they made abundantly clear in September 1938 in Munich by refusing to go to war because of Czechoslovakia). Nazism and Communism, on the other hand, held a revolutionary, revisionist attitude to the international order and were keen on changing the status quo in their favor, even at the cost of war.

And so they did, and started the war. Which is how it came about that two revolutionary armies under two red banners—one adorned with a swastika, the other with a hammer and a sickle—met in September 1939 in the middle of Catholic Poland and shook hands.

Of course, both the Nazis and the Communists strove for world dominance and therefore their ultimate goals were mutually incompatible; it was obvious that they would eventually end up at war with each other. This was not so clear, however, in 1938 or 1939. Hitler did not wish to open two fronts, one in the west and one in the east, which is why he found the alliance with Stalin convenient in 1938. Stalin, in turn, believed that World War II would be just a repetition of the Great War, i.e. that the bourgeois camp, comprising the Western democracies and the Third Reich, would emasculate each other and exhaust themselves through many years of war until, at the right moment, the Red Army would “liberate”, i.e. steamroll, all of Europe right up to the English Channel.

The alliance of Soviet communists and German Nazis lasted two years, from the summer of 1939 to the summer of 1941. Stalin supplied his good ally, Hitler, with raw material and goods. That was one of the reasons why, at the turn of 1939–1940, the Brits and the French considered launching air raids against oil refineries in Baku in the Caspian Sea from their bases in the Middle East, quite justifiably regarding the Soviet-German alliance as a single bloc.

The fact that alliances were switched to some degree after the beginning of the war continues to complicate our understanding of the war, leaving many people under the false impression that the Soviet Union was its victim rather than a perpetrator. Having joined the anti-German alliance in 1939, France split down the middle in 1940: one half, represented by the Vichy regime, sided with Germany, while General de Gaulle’s Free France remained on the side of the Brits. Initially pro-German, Italy also split after 1943: the monarchist regime changed sides and joined the western alliance, while Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic continued to support Hitler. And the Soviet Union, having joined the war as Hitler’s ally, was forced to turn into his adversary in June 1941; quite reluctantly, for the only person whom Stalin believed all his life, was a man who had double-crossed him, nearly destroying his regime: that man was Adolf Hitler. And in December 1941 the US was also drawn into what had started out as an intra-European war.

Great Britain and France did not fight Germany in 1938 because of Czechoslovakia; they started fighting Germany only in September 1939, because of Poland. The military goal pursued by western democracies in September 1939 was thus an independent Polish state. Of course, this goal was not achieved in May 1945.

After the war, what in 1944–1945 had been a single occupation of Poland (and, for that matter, of all Central Europe of which Poland is the most important and significant representative) came to be replaced by another occupation; as it happens, by Hitler’s good 1939 ally who had started the war in Europe jointly with Hitler, Stalin’s Soviet Union. Naturally, Stalin and his Soviet Union were not interested in liberating Europe from Nazism but rather in conquering and invading it with Communism. In this he succeeded in May 1945 as far as half of Europe was concerned.

Historians might debate why and how it was possible that Stalin, who had started the war as Hitler’s ally, was allowed to bring the Red Army as far as the River Elbe, into the very heart of Europe. This was evidently a failure of statesmanship on the part of Western democratic politicians. However, something even more dishonorable was at play here: members of Western democratic governments—those of Czechoslovakia, the USA and others—included Stalin’s willing collaborators. These people were guilty not only of a lack of judgment or of naiveté but also of a deliberate betrayal of their countries. (In this respect senator Joseph McCarthy, whose reputation is still very bad, was more right than wrong.)

A logical and inevitable result of Stalin’s domination of half of Europe was the Cold War, a renewed hostility against the West. This represented the natural state of Stalin’s and his regime’s mind: everything that occurred from 1941 to 1945 had been an aberration, whereas everything that happened before 1941 and after 1945 was the Soviet and Communist norm.

We must not forget that at the beginning of the war Stalin, as an anti-Western tyrant, was Hitler’s ally. After Hitler’s fall he resumed his anti- Western struggle on his own.

The Cold War was thus not a new war, distinct from World War II, but rather its logical continuation. It had been encoded in the DNA of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, indeed in the November 1917 Bolshevik revolution itself.

Western democracies joined the war in September 1939 to fight for the freedom and independence of Poland. This wasn’t achieved until 1989. Thus the wartime goals of European democracies in the war, which began in Europe in 1939, were not achieved in 1945 but rather in 1989.

At least, that is how it appeared until now. It seemed that World War II, and the Cold War as its integral part, came to an end in 1989.

The events in Ukraine, however, have made history appear in a new perspective. Germany has not been proud of Hitler for the past 70 years, regarding him and his regime as a catastrophe, a stain on the history of the German nation and a terrible embarrassment. No German politician would dream of praising the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Many Russian politicians, on the other hand, have praised the pact. The Russian regime is in the same mental state vis-a-vis the countries to the west of Russia as it was in August 1939. The Drang nach Westen goes on, so far limited in military terms to eastern Ukraine but in ideological and propaganda terms everywhere else.

If Russia finds itself in the same mental place as the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939, we have to abandon the optimistic assessment that 1989 was the end of World War II and the Cold War. It does not matter very much what name we give to this new phase: whether we call it the New Cold War (Edward Lucas) or some other name. As long as Russia does not view the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in the same way as it has been viewed in Germany for the past seventy years, there will be no peace and war will continue. A war which will not be a new war but a very old one.

Roman Joch

is the Executive Director of the Civic Institute in Prague. He is a commentator and lecturer on political philosophy, international relations, with an emphasis on US Domestic and Foreign Policies. He is the author of several monographs and expert studies including: American Foreign Policies and the Role of the US in the World (Studies OI, Prague 2000), Why Iraq? Reasons and Consequences of the Conflict (Prague 2003), and (together with Frank S. Meyer) Rebellion against the Revolution of the 20th Century (Prague 2003).

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