Azerbaijani legionnaire from the 804th Azerbaijani infantry battalion

The Second World War will be studied by historians as long as human civilization endures, since the scope and scale of the conflict puts it in a class by itself, but what kind of war was it? What kind of war was the Second World War? It is a deceptively simple question, since it implies that there is some kind of taxonomy of warfare, and that the Second World War neatly fits into some taxon. Thus the question implicitly appeals to theories of war that remain unstated in the question. One could relativize the inquiry with some formulation like, “According to a Marxist perspective, what kind of war was the Second World War?” This would at least make our theoretical framework explicit, and would narrow the inquiry to a manageable scope. I’m going to tackle the subject in an open-ended way, without doing this.

A North African soldier from the Free Arabian Legion and a Cossack volunteer.

Some years ago I formulated a taxonomy of war (largely building on the ideas of Anatol Rapoport) that schematically distinguished between political war (human agency), eschatological war (non-human agency), catastrophic war (human non-agency), and naturalistic war (non-human non-agency) — I didn’t systematically develop this schema in relation to war to the point of writing a post on each kind of war, but cf. More on Clausewitz, Three Conceptions of History, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception (every conception of history implies a conception of war, and vice versa; moreover, every conception of war implies a conception of civilization, and vice versa). While this schematism possesses an enviable neatness (when systematically laid out), in retrospect it appears to me as being a bit too neat, and therefore not always helpfully reflective of the messiness of the actual world. And war is perhaps the messiest manifestation of the actual world.

Soldiers of the Free Indian Legion of the German Army, with a Luftwaffe Member, 1944.

If we abandon the attempt to explicitly formulate a taxonomy, we can distinguish wars of conquest, imperialist wars, resource wars, geostrategic wars, ideological wars, genocidal wars or wars of extermination, and so on. This grab bag of classifications is not unlike our classifications of science — empirical science, natural science, physical science, social science, historical science, and so on — in so far as there is no overarching conception that systematically relates the parts to each other and to the whole. For a messy world, there is a certain inevitability to messy systems of classification, but our taxonomies of classification should be no more messy than is absolutely necessary. Knowledge inevitably involves imposing a template on the messiness of actuality in order to organize our experience rationally and coherently, so that the more systematic our organization of experience, the more knowledge we could be said to possess of this experience. Taxonomies of war seek to systematically organize our experience of war into knowledge of war, and from knowledge of war comes efficacy in waging war.

The Clausewitzean approach is to define war and then to refine and elaborate the definition in order to illuminate the nature of war, rather than to converge upon a taxonomy of kinds of war. In Book Two, Chapter One of On War, Clausewitz does discuss the classification of war, and Clausewitz did note some kinds of war, for example, his distinction between absolute and real war. In Book Eight of On War Clausewitz comes to focus on the outcomes of war as persistently as he focused on the definition of war in Book One, and in focusing on outcomes Clausewitz distinguished between real war and absolute war, which latter is often assimilated to Erich Ludendorff’s conception of “totale Krieg”. (An interesting discussion of this can be found in “The Idea of Total War: From Clausewitz to Ludendorff” by Jan Willem Honig; also cf. “Controversy: Total War” by Daniel Marc Segesser.)

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-295-1560-22, Nordfrankreich, Turkmenische Freiwillige, photograph by Karl Müller

Real war, for Clausewitz (and in contradistinction to absolute war), is what we today would call limited war, but absolute war is the paradigm of war and the criterion against which any other conception must be measured, here expressed in the context of Clausewitz’s political conception of war: “If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form.” (Book Eight, Chapter 6, B) However, no great emphasis is given to the classification of war in Clausewitz. This has left taxonomies of war underdeveloped in the post-Clausewitzean literature. If Carnap was correct that scientific concepts develop from taxonomic (classificatory), through comparative, to quantitative concepts (though we are under no obligation to accept this schema of scientific development, but at least it offers a framework), then the underdevelopment of taxonomic concepts for warfare represents a failure in the development of a truly scientific understanding of war.

We can adopt the Clausewitzean approach and begin with a definition of war, which then defines the class of all wars, and then we can decompose the class of all wars into subclasses that define kinds of war. Any good taxonomy (by which I mean any taxonomy useful and fruitful for research) will involve a schematization of a complex and ambiguous reality that results in simplification. One of the most difficult aspects of scientific abstraction is finding the “just right” point between too much fidelity to empirical fact, which makes schematization impossible, and over-simplification, which falsifies empirical reality to an unhelpful extent. Ideally we would want a principled classification that decomposes all wars into a finite number of classes, each of which is mutually exclusive of the others, and each of which exemplifies an unambiguous idea. The ideal of classification is rarely realized, so we are often thrown back on a classification based on contingent properties. There are several contingent properties that characterize the Second World War and so furnish us with the most familiar, even if not rigorous, classifications. These contingent properties do not result in mutually-exclusive, non-overlapping classes, which means that there is overlap among kinds of wars. The Second World War was an industrialized war, but the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War were also industrialized wars. It was a planetary-scale war, but The Seven Years’ War and the First World War were also both planetary-scale wars. From the Second World War being a planetary-scale war it follows that it was a war fought on multiple fronts and in multiple theaters among a wide variety of combatants drawn from many nation-states. The Second World War was more a war of maneuver than attrition, more about offense and initiative than defense and stagnation. In this it differs significantly from the First World War, but resembles the Napoleonic Wars.

Beyond a haphazard classification of war by overlapping contingent properties, there are reflective taxonomies that seek to organize our knowledge of war around principles of war, but which embody no overarching conception that unifies the principles employed. This is the status of Anatol Rapoport’s distinction among political, eschatological, and cataclysmic philosophies of war, mentioned above (but which I developed in accordance with an overarching conception of agency). Another example can be found in Ian Clark’s Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (pp. 19-23), which distinguishes six concepts of war, as follows (the headings below are Clark’s, but the explanations and commentaries that follow each heading are mine), and which I will examine in relation to planetary-scale warfare:

War as instinctive violence — This could be called the evolutionary or biological conception of war. As Freud once wrote, “…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.” This was written long before evolutionary psychology had been formulated, but further work in evolution, biology, and psychology has underlined Freud’s assertion with voluminous evidence, including something like war fought among chimpanzees in the wild. If human beings are instinctively violent, then it should not be surprising that human beings organized by civilization should engage in organized violence on a scale proportional to their organization, and this is what was exhibited in the global industrialized wars of the twentieth century.

War as divination or legal trial — We could also call this “war as a decision procedure.” In so far as the decision procedure of war invokes divine sanction on its side, it also becomes an eschatological war, but it is at least arguable that its eschatological character is epiphenomenal in the context of war as a decision procedure. The point is to settle a dispute, and in so far as war has a decisive outcome (which is not always the case), the dispute is settled and the procedure of war has yielded a decision. In the case of a planetary-scale war of multiple theaters, there are multiple decisions simultaneously in pursuit of decision, and it cannot be expected that all of these outcomes will be decisive. This implies that planetary-scale war rarely if ever achieves an outcome that largely decides outstanding issues, hence the Second World War was followed by the Cold War.

War as disease — This closely corresponds to what Anatol Rapoport called the cataclysmic philosophy of war, but Clark makes a distinction between war as disease and war as cataclysm: a disease can be cured, whereas a cataclysm usually cannot be prevented, so that mitigation efforts focus instead on limiting the damage and cleaning up after the fact. War as disease suggests a cure, and is therefore an abolitionist conception, but it also suggests the possibility of pandemic. If human beings, or human societies, are infected with the disease of war, then war will be spread like a disease, and at times that disease will take on the properties of a pandemic. War understood as a pandemic is planetary-scale war of planetary-scale civilization.

War and social change — Clark glosses war as social change as war being either a measure or a means of social change. Although Clark mentions Comte and Schumpeter (focusing on economic development), this is essentially a Hegelian conception (or, if you prefer, a Marxist conception), since it is conflict that pushes the social dialectic forward; we cannot make social change without fulfilling all of the steps of the dialectic. If we look how far we have come, driven by conflict, it appears as a metric of that development; if look forward to social change yet to come, conflict appears as the means by which such change can be brought about. If we look forward to a planetary civilization, then only a planetary-scale dialectic, which involves planetary-scale war, can secure that end. This was once made very clear in some varieties of Marxism, which insisted that the peace of the communist millennium could come only after the world entire had experienced proletarian revolution and the planet entire has been unified on communist economic principles.

War as a political instrument of the state — This conception perfectly embodies the political philosophy of war, which we usually identify with the work of Clausewitz. For the political conception of war to culminate in a planetary-scale war, the political framework must be planetary, and this planetary-scale political framework has been taking shape since the Age of Discovery, with the industrial revolution providing the technological means for effectively acting on a planetary scale at human time scales. It could be argued that it was only the twentieth century that this framework and its means came to maturity, and as soon as this maturity was achieved, planetary-scale wars were waged. This argument, however, minimizes the role of human agency (it makes war look as inevitable as a violent instinct), which agency is one of the key features of the conception of war as a political instrument. In other words, there is an interesting overlap between the most agency-centered conception of war and the least agent-centered conceptions of war.

War as regulator of the international system — This might also be called war as the invisible hand, as the parties waging war are, by waging war, performing a function that restores the balance of power, though through no intention or plan of the parties to the conflict (Clark does not make this connection). If war is waged as the action of the invisible hand of the international system to maintain its own viability and stability, then we would also expect instances of “market failure” in which the invisible hand ceased to function. In cases of political failure (say, the failure of conception of war as a political instrument, above), the wars waged in the wake of political failure would fail to restore balance of power and confer viability and stability on the international system, cascading into planetary-scale war now free of the mechanisms that had once governed its scale and conduct (being much like the concept of war as a disease).

In the above taxonomy, there is no obvious place for what Rapoport called the eschatological philosophy of war, except as briefly mentioned under war as divination, where the eschatological aspect is epiphenomenal. We could place eschatological war under instinct or divination or elsewhere; the point isn’t to find a place for it, but to point out how haphazard taxonomies usually miss something important and fail to fully clarify that which they exhibit as central. Still, some attempt to give order to our experience is better than no attempt at all. Sometimes the only way to proceed is to work with a haphazard framework, revising and refining it with further experience and evidence, until either it converges on an effective taxonomy, or the additional experience and evidence forces a model crisis and a paradigm shift, with a new taxonomy emerging from the paradigm shift.

As the largest war of human history in scope and scale, the Second World War was also the messiest war, and therefore the most difficult to classify, but in hindsight (because of its salience in our consciousness of war) it has become a war understood in schematic terms in which the messiness is progressively erased from historical memory. Even the Cold War, in all its complexity, was simpler than the Second World War, because of the planetary-scale division between the US and the USSR was, at its basis, an us-against-them conflict, and could be reduced to this schematic dyad. The Second World War cannot be reduced to a dyad; it was a war with many fronts, many theaters, many belligerents, and many motivations for participation. When Nazi Germany set its war machine in motion and it was evident to all that this was a formidable force, there was probably a strong sense of inevitability about ultimate German victory in the war. When Poland and France had fallen and the British had retreated at Dunkirk without any means of striking the Germans except for their long-ranger bombers, and with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact keeping the Soviet Union out of the war, “Fortress Europe” looked secure, and the burden fell upon those on the outside Fortress Europe to penetrate its defenses. When the Allies did begin to penetrate the defenses of Fortress Europe, and the Soviet Union entered the war after Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had to seek more manpower for their armies.

Bosnian soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Handschar”

It was a relatively straight-forward matter to recruit from Soviet and Soviet bloc POWs, as many of them were passionately anti-Bolshevik and had no love for the Soviet Union. Promised the opportunity to fight for the freedom their native homelands from Soviet tyranny, many joined. These volunteers were opportunistic, not ideological. The volunteers from western European nation-states, by contrast, were more ideologically driven, though not always in the way one might guess. There were two Waffen-SS divisions of Scandinavian volunteers, the 5th Wiking and the 11th Nordland, and the different circumstances of the Scandinavian nation-states, which were very different indeed, influenced the character of the volunteers for Germany. The Finns fought the Russians in the Winter War of 1939, and thousands of Swedes volunteered to fight in Finland against the Russians, so when Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and went to war with the Russians, Finland became an ally of Germany (until the Moscow Armistice of 19 September 1944), one of the Axis powers, and Finland then became a “pipeline” for fighters to join the Axis cause. Sweden remained resolutely neutral throughout the war, but Norway was occupied up until the very end, and occupied Norway was governed by Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with treachery. Quisling was an interesting figure, as he was not an opportunistic fascist nor even an anti-Semitic fascist; Quisling belonged more to ideological fascism, and even to the mystical and esoteric side of Nazism; one suspects he would have been much more comfortable with Heidegger than with Hitler or Himmler.

Soldiers of the Turkestan Legion.

The German use of foreign legions was no doubt utterly cynical, which is to say, it was pragmatic; it was equally cynical (i.e., equally opportunistic) on the part of those who sought to hitch their wagon to a star by jumping on the bandwagon of what seemed to be the most powerful military force on the planet. The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor, argued that Hitler himself was an opportunist, not driven by fanaticism or an insane lust for destruction, but was responding to geopolitical imperatives to which any German politician would have had to answer. Taylor’s book was controversial in the extreme (the response to it was not unlike the intensity of the response to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), and only time will tell its eventual reputation. Taylor’s arguments aside, we should question the idea that any war — and most especially a war as large and as complex as the Second World World — must be pigeon-holed as one and only one kind of conflict. There is the possibility that a war might be one kind of war for one of the combatants, and another kind of war entirely for another of the combatants. This is most obviously the case when a war of extermination on the part of one party to a conflict is a war of survival for the other party; those fighting only to survive need not exterminate their rivals, though they may well come to desire this end. However, it also can be the case that, when an ideological war is being fought by two or more parties of the conflict, other parties join the conflict for opportunistic reasons. This was manifestly the case during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were locked in an ideological struggle, but third world proxy wars which the great powers attempted to contain within ideological bounds inevitably became mired both in local struggles as well as opportunistic conflicts.

Chiang Wei-kuo, adopted son of Chiang Kai-shek, attended a German military academy and commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

Because of the diversity and multiplicity of war, there is no unity and clarity of purpose at the largest scales. For a fire team of soldiers caught in a skirmish, there is perfect unity and clarity of purpose, but this purpose doesn’t scale beyond a certain limit. The grand strategies of nation-states, kingdoms, and other political agents, constitute clarity of purpose in so far as the grand strategies themselves are clear, and impose a measure of clarity on those wars that have their origins in grand strategy, but, once a war has started, the grand strategy of any one of the parties to the conflict cannot contain the conflict within the grand strategy parameters of the originating party. The grand strategy can continue to guide developments in a war as it progresses, and so can confer a rough directionality on the conflict, but even this directionality can evaporate if the political agent attempting to pursue its grand strategy begins to lose the conflict. Precisely this occurred in the Second World War. The ideological aims of the Nazi party were rendered ambiguous by the growing scale of the conflict, and eventually become meaningless. Whether the ideological aims of political parties were ever causes of events, or whether they were, rather, responses to events — symptoms of a disease, as it were — may be a chicken-and-egg problem.

Original caption: “Treu der Kosaken-Tradition Oberfeldwebel Nicolas Balanowski, kämpft wie viele seiner Landsleute, in den Reihen der landeseigenen Verbände gegen seine früheren Unterdrücker, den Bolschewisten. Getreu der alten Kosakentradition, trägt er noch immer die Kosaken-Mütze.” In English: “True to the Cossack tradition, Sergeant Nicolas Balanowski, like many of his compatriots, fights in the ranks of the state’s associations against his former oppressors, the Bolsheviks. True to the old Cossack tradition, he still wears the Cossack hat.”

The Second World War was many wars — Theodore Ropp wrote that, “The Second World War consisted of four related major wars, each presenting separate military-political problems.” (War in the Modern World, New York: Collier, 1971, p. 314) — and these many wars of the Second World war each had a distinctive character, hence even more diversity and multiplicity than are typically to be found in smaller conflicts. On the western front, it was a straight-forward political war of the kind that had repeatedly erupted between Germany and France; on the eastern front it was a war of extermination, not unlike the German campaign in German Southwest Africa or the British campaign against the Boers during the Boer War. On the northern front, it was a static war of occupation in Norway, while on the North African front it was a mobile war of mechanized armor against mechanized armor, and in the Pacific Theater further complexities were added by the multiplicity of colonial powers and their subject peoples who were involved.

One useful distinction that can be made among kinds of war is that between methods of war on the one hand, and, on the other hand, kinds of war based on causes and objectives (which, for purposes of brevity, I will call causal taxonomies). In my post Hybrid Warfare I included a list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO — Antisubmarine Warfare, Biological Warfare, Chemical Warfare, Directed-Energy Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, Irregular Warfare, Mine Warfare (also called Land Mine Warfare), Multinational Warfare, Naval Coastal Warfare, Naval Expeditionary Warfare, Naval Special Warfare, Nuclear Warfare (also called Atomic Warfare), Surface Warfare, Unconventional Warfare, and Under Sea Warfare — all of which are methods of warfare, constituting a methodological taxonomy. Needless to say, the US DOD and NATO do not recognize wars of extermination as a distinct mode of warfare, but it could be conceived as such. More importantly, these methods of war tell us very little about causal taxonomies of war, even when methods and outcomes are mutually implicated (as in genocidal wars of extermination). The taxonomy of war employed by Ian Clark, discussed above, clearly draws a connection between methodological taxonomies and causal taxonomies, as each kind of war suggests methods of waging war, or methods of mitigating war, but for Clark, as I read him, it is the causal taxonomies that are fundamental, and the methods of waging war follow from these causal imperatives. Methodological taxonomies may satisfy war planners and unify soldiers and command structures, but they do not touch on the motivations of the mass societies of planetary civilization to wage war.

Planetary-scale war like the Second World War was not possible until there was planetary-scale civilization. The planetary-scale war that was the Second World War was both enabled by planetary-scale civilization and ultimately extended planetary-scale civilization (suggesting Clark’s war as social change), as became clear in the post-war period when there was a new impetus to create planetary institutions — the UN, the EU, and eventually the WTO and the World Criminal Court, inter alia. As I have argued on many occasions, our planetary-scale civilization is not politically or legally unified, although it is culturally, technologically, economically, and scientifically unified. Within a planetary-scale civilization, Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis is meaningless, and therefore stillborn. On a planet well on the way to integrating planetary-scale civilization there could be wars that break out between and among partially assimilated remnants of civilizations (formerly isolated regional civilization), which would constitute the trailing edge of Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and which latter could be said to have peaked in the 16th or 17th century. In this planetary context one can certainly imagine conflicts over control of Makinder’s world-island (“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the World.”), which would be essentially planetary-scale wars with planetary-scale methods and objectives, but which were not wars breaking out along the fault lines of civilizations.

Another way to think about wars in terms of outcomes (causal taxonomies) is that at least part of what makes a war the kind of war that it is, is the kind of peace that is possible following upon the end of the war (the actual outcome in contradistinction to the envisioned outcome, i.e., the war aim). While a war may begin with clear war aims, the war itself may cloud these war aims or make their achievement impossible, so that the actual outcome of the war is no longer recognizably related to the war aims of any of the parties to the conflict at the initiation of hostilities. In the case of the Second World War, the peace that followed was itself a war: the Cold War. Planetary-scale peace at the end of planetary-scale war came at the cost of small-scale regional wars and an arms race on a planetary scale. The decisive defeat of the Axis Powers was an unambiguously achieved war aim, but it was achieved by allies that were as ideologically opposed to each other as they were opposed to the Axis Powers. This set the stage for the conflicts to follow. Peace and reconstruction was geographically regional (not on a planetary scale, like the war itself) and was ideologically driven to a much greater extent than the pragmatic conduct of the war itself. Before the war was over Ernst Jünger had written, “It may safely be said that this war has been humanity’s first joint effort. The peace that ends it must be the second.” (The Peace, Hinsdale: Henry Regnery, 1948, p. 19) This was not to be the case, though FDR and the US tried to realize this ideal.

Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt in Paris.

A familiar narrative (especially to Americans) is that the Second World War was “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” (i.e., it was a just war, to invoke an Augustinian conception). This propagandistic conception of the Second World War is, in a sense, the mirror image of the Second World War as a great ideological conflict between lofty ideals on the one hand, and, on the other hand, naked evil, belies the pragmatism with which the war was fought and alliances were made, in which the war was rather a conflict driven by geopolitical imperatives — admittedly, geopolitical concerns extrapolated to a planetary scale, but still a conflict more about the distribution of ocean basins and mountain ranges than about ideology. The narrative of the Second World War as “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” elides the catastrophic policy failures of both the First and Second World Wars, and the peace settlements that followed upon them, which were arguably invidious to the grand strategies of the western nation-states. The Cold War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the Second World War in the same way that the Second World War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the First World War. However, it is at least arguable that the Cold War was fought more effectively than the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The General Assembly of the United Nations Convenes for the first time on 10 January 1946 in London.

The ability of human beings to conceptualize and to act upon planetary-scale ideals is noble and inspiring, but a failure to distinguish between ideals that can be brought into being at the present, and ideals that must wait for another time, when conditions are right for their realization, constitutes a failure of wisdom at least proportional to nobility of conceptualizing an unattainable ideal. When Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919, and when FDR traveled to Yalta in 1945, both American presidents were prepared to make major strategic concessions in order to bring robust international institutions into being, and this willingness to sacrifice US national interests to a larger vision for peace on a planetary scale, following upon war on a planetary scale, put the US at a disadvantage. The outcome could well have been better for all if these presidents had exclusively focused on US national interests and the national interests of US allies rather than upon a trans-national ideal. Other parties to the negotiations in Paris and Yalta cannot be blamed for taking advantage of US willingness to bargain away its interests, and the interests of its allies, in order to secure the future of international institutions, which no one else took seriously. Of course, it must also be noted that both Wilson and FDR believed that the successful implementation of these international institutions would be in the strategic interest of the US, and many would argue that the US, as the leading post-war international power, got at least part of what it bargained for in the form of international institutions.

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