Seventy Years

1 September 2009


Poles watch the first German planes over Warsaw.

Poles watch the first German planes over Warsaw.

During the middle of the twentieth century civilization experienced a convulsion of apocalyptic proportions. The sky was filled with airplanes, the sea was filled with ships above and below, great cities were destroyed in a single night, entire populations were displaced, and millions upon millions of people were killed.

Today marks seventy years since the spiraling tensions in Europe broke out into open war with the Nazi invasion of the Poland. Today marks seventy years since the outbreak of the most destructive and bloody war in human history. Today marks seventy years since the explicit and intentional use of Blitzkrieg as a tactic.

Western Europe fell with astonishing rapidity. Despite Churchill’s early confidence that the French would hold out, it should have surprised no one when they did not. While the French were on the winning side in World War One, the conflict essentially broke them. Near the end of the First World War, a mutiny in the French trenches left France open to attack; it was only the ignorance of the Germans on the other side of the line that did not turn the mutiny into a military debacle for France. After the mutiny was put down, the French put all their energies into simply surviving until the Americans would enter the war and take the burden from them. After this, the French had little fight left in them.

The British, on the other hand, had plenty of fight, and as an island nation saved time and again from the tumult of the continent by the English Channel, they were saved by the channel again, and miraculously evacuated an army across it. This war it was the turn of the British to wait and to hang on until the Americans entered the war against Hitler and the Nazis.

Once Hitler violated the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and moved his forces into the Soviet Union, the westernmost part of Russia fell with the same rapidity as western Europe. But Russia is vast. After Stalin recovered from the initial shock of betrayal, he presided over the reconstruction of the Soviet Union’s war machine in the Russian east. And as England has been saved through its history by the English channel, the Russians have been saved throughout their history by their vast steppe and the cruel Russian winter. The early German gains in Russia faltered as the Nazis moved east, and eventually came the rest, and came to grief, at Stalingrad.

The Second World War was epic in scope: larger than life in many senses. The suffering was epic as well. There were commemorations in Poland especially as the opening theatre of the war. Poland suffered much, from beginning to end, and still carries the scars of Nazi genocide: the most notorious extermination camps operated by the Nazis were located in Poland.

The world has changed much since those traumatic six years that began seventy years ago, but the war lives on in us, with us, and for us.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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