Re-Thinking the First And Second World Wars

The 20th century gave us many great things, the consumer society among them. It also gave us two world wars. in terms of sheer destructiveness, these wars were unlike anything ever seen before.  They also contributed directly to the prolonged cold war that lasted all the way to 1991, when the Soviet Union broke apart.

The conventional wisdom is that the first world war (from 1914 to 1918) was a senseless bloodbath. It was the stupid war. The second world war (1939 to 1945) was the virtuous war to overcome fascism.

Over the holidays, I watched a rather provocative video from BBC by Sir Max Hastings.  He argues that it was necessary for Britain to join in the war and win it. Why? It has to do with the way Germany was run at that time. On the domestic front, Germany had a sophisticated welfare state. But when it came to foreign affairs, Germany was a bellicose dictatorship, intent on domination. BTW, a key reason for this was the unstable personality of its Kaiser, Wilhelm. You can see this rather clearly in a second video.

Indeed, Churchill argued that the second war was the one that could have been easily prevented. But the great powers of Europe were asleep at the wheel when Hitler rose to power.

Why does this matter? We are in the midst of a debate about European security again. How should Europe react to a newly assertive Russia, grabbing territory in Ukraine? Understanding how we got to where we are helps us put the current debate in perspective.


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