You are here

Global Order and the Second World War

S. Kalyanaraman was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 16, 2005

    Every war is waged to fashion a better and more acceptable peace. Peace, in the sense of a legitimate framework within which States can pursue their interests without recourse to arms. The fashioning of a better and legitimate peace is especially important in the wake of wars among Great Powers, which have an immense impact on the international system as a whole. In fact, some wars among Great Powers – like the Thirty Years’ War, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars – are expressly waged to determine a new framework for the conduct of international relations. Such wars occur when the old order is eroded, and the earlier equilibrium is upset, by transformations in the social, economic and political arenas leading to the phenomenon of ‘rise and decline’ of States. These wars result in the establishment of a new power equilibrium and a new framework for the conduct of international relations.

    The fundamental cause of the Second World War lies in the erosion of the framework that was established at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Its intermediate cause can be traced to the inconclusive nature of the First World War and the high-minded but impractical peace established at Versailles in 1919. And the immediate cause lies in Adolph Hitler’s violent overthrow of the peace terms imposed upon Germany as well as his fanatical determination to colonise Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to create lebensraum.

    Equilibrium among five Great Powers – Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia – as well as the legitimacy of the ancien regime were the bases on which the order established in 1815 rested. Prussia’s subsequent transformation into the German Empire, its emergence as a great industrial power and its ambition to acquire overseas colonies, combined with the rise of a unified Italy and its dreams of territorial acquisitions within and outside Europe, to upset this equilibrium. Outside of Europe, the United States and Japan emerged as Great Powers and sought to establish their respective spheres of influence. At this time, statesmen were animated by the idea of ‘living’ and ‘dying’ powers (to borrow Lord Salisbury’s characterisation) and extrapolated the Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ on to international relations. It was also a fashionable thesis at this time that the world would soon come to be composed of three or four World Empires, which further increased the jostling and competition among the aspirants for this exalted status. Thus, not only was the power equilibrium in the world upset by the rise of these new States, but also the framework established in 1815 became inadequate to mediate their competing ambitions. The result was the First World War.

    However, the First World War ended inconclusively in spite of the fact that it produced around 60 million casualties – both civilians and soldiers. Britain and France were exhausted after losing the flower of their youth in the trenches and among the barbed wires of the Western Front. The United States, which had emerged as the strongest economic, and hence also military, Power in the world, withdrew into its isolationist shell. Russia collapsed from within in revolution, and was consequently excluded from the framework established at the end of the war. It had also been at the receiving end of a harsh peace imposed by Germany, including the loss of a third of its European territory and the establishment of a German protectorate over Ukraine. The German military had actually stood undefeated and was in occupation of French and Belgian territory when the armistice was concluded. Yet, Germany was forced to give up territory, pay reparations, unilaterally disarm, and castigated as solely responsible for the war. No continental Power was eventually satisfied with the outcome of the conflict or the framework established to govern international relations. In spite of the great potential and justifiable motives for territorial revisionism in Germany and Russia, no mechanism was established to prevent major unilateral changes. It was presumed that the moral force of world public opinion would operate through the League of Nations to preserve peace. Another assumption that animated the framers of Versailles was that self-determination and the atomisation of political entities would be an effective antidote to military expansionism, dreams of empire and world power.

    The German attempt to discard the shackles of Versailles began in the 1920s and was initiated by Gustav Stresemann, Foreign Minister and later Chancellor. Stresemann’s policy was to pay off the reparations and in return obtain Allied guarantees of Germany’s western borders as well as their consent for German rearmament and the revision of the territorial status quo in the East. In effect, his goal was to restore Germany to its pre-War status, attain military parity with Britain and France, and conclude the union with Austria (Anschluss). Hitler discarded this peaceful approach and instead adopted a belligerent course. His goal was the creation of an empire akin to the Holy Roman Empire, but cleansed of Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Teutonic elements. For his part, Mussolini dreamt of creating an empire in the tradition of Rome, while the Japanese wished to establish a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. What all these meant was the creation of a new global order dominated by Germany, Italy and Japan. As for the Soviet Union, though contended for the time being with safeguarding ‘socialism in one country,’ it was intent on eventually bringing about world revolution. The United States shut itself off from entangling European rivalries, while Britain and France merely wished to be allowed to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of their empires.

    The Axis Powers’ grasp for world power inevitably led to the outbreak of the Second World War. In one respect, this was a unique conflict – it was the first war in which civilians became direct, as opposed to incidental, targets made possible by the advent of the aeroplane. The climax came in the form of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cost of the conflict in terms of lives lost was truly horrendous. The Soviet Union lost more than 20 million people. German casualties numbered 4.5 million, including about one million civilians. Hitler’s policy of exterminating non-Teutonic elements resulted in genocide; five million Jews, four million non-Jewish civilians and a million Yugoslavs were murdered in cold blood. Japanese casualties were about two million, while the figure for China is variously estimated at between three and 13.5 million. The grand total was a stupendous 50 million or so.

    India too played an important part, as part of the British Empire, in the course of the two World Wars. In the First World War, more than 53,000 Indians laid down their lives, and over 64,000 were injured. During the Second World War, the size of the Indian Army stood at 2.5 million – the largest volunteer army in history till that time. India became a direct victim in this war, when Japanese troops invaded through Burma. The Indian Army stopped the Japanese advance in the Battle of Kohima (April-June 1944), which also marked a turning point in the land war against Japan. In addition, the Indian military also played a significant role in the South East Asian and Middle Eastern theatres. Its casualties numbered over 24,000 dead and about 64,000 wounded.

    At the political level, however, the Indian National Congress had insisted that it would throw the full weight of the country behind the war effort only if Britain were to grant immediate independence to India. Otherwise, in its view, there was no difference between British imperialism and fascist authoritarianism. This, of course, did not mean that the Congress was sympathetic to the Axis cause. Nehru, for example, felt that there was “an element of vulgarity” about Hitler and the ideas espoused in Mein Kampf. He also expressed the need for India to help China resist Japanese aggression. But such antipathy and the consequent unwillingness to cooperate with the Axis Powers were not universal in India. Subhas Chandra Bose, a former Congress leader, co-operated first with Germany and later with Japan to organise captured Indian prisoners-of-war in an Indian National Army. The goal was to thereby liberate India from British imperial rule. In its final incarnation in South East Asia, this army could muster only 45,000 troops to its cause and participated in the failed siege of Imphal, including the Battle of Kohima. Bose himself died in the last days of the war. Several of his lieutenants were tried and some sentenced for their role in these events.

    Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States were the principal victors of this war. As Stalin purportedly stated, Britain provided ‘time,’ the United States ‘money,’ and the Soviet Union ‘blood’ to win the war. But at the end of the war an exhausted Britain could no longer fulfil its various commitments. This task began to devolve upon the United States, which had emerged as the most powerful economic and military power. While the Soviet Union had undoubtedly established itself as a military superpower, its economy was still that of a middling Power. The German question was settled through a policy of occupation and division. Japan too was occupied and subsequently rebuilt under American tutelage. American commitment to self-determination and insistence on the abolition of colonial empires, the Soviet Union’s ideological support for this enterprise, and European inability to hold on to colonies, saw the birth of the Third World. Roosevelt’s concept of the “Four Policemen” who would collectively enforce peace and security eventually became, with the addition of France upon British insistence, the Security Council of the United Nations. However, the ideological differences between the superpowers and mutual suspicions about each other’s intent and motives quickly gave way to the Cold War. The result was the coming into being of two blocs, each dominated by a superpower with distinct economic and military systems. Consequently, international relations came to be dominated and influenced by the Cold War and the structuring of a legitimate worldwide order became impossible.

    With the collapse of the communist challenge, the United States has emerged as the undisputed superpower in the world today. And the economic and political framework that Washington espoused since the end of the Second World War now encompasses the whole world. However, it is inevitable that the phenomenon of the ‘rise and decline’ of States would result in disequilibria in the global balance of power and in the erosion of the current framework. Like in the past, non-accommodation of rising Powers could lead to global conflict. It is therefore imperative, especially in the nuclear age, to establish mechanisms that would help in effecting peaceful transformation of the global order. This is the chief lesson of the First and the Second World Wars.