Remembrance Day is forever remembered as the day in 1918 when World War One came to an end, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. As far as WWI is concerned, I am grateful for only one thing: that the last of the veterans who fought in that war are no longer with us.
Soldiers, of course, cannot be blamed for the wars they fight in. We should grieve for every soldier who was killed or wounded in WWI, along with every widow and every orphan and every soldier who fought and survived and indeed every civilian who lived through and suffered from that war. Wars are terrible things and we do well to remember that and to keep alive the memory of that most terrible of wars.
But I am grateful that there are no more living veterans of World War One because that frees us all to speak the truth about that ‘Great War’; the ‘War to End All Wars’: it was fought for nothing. Millions upon millions of people dead, four years of unimaginable bloodshed and destruction, engulfing an entire continent…for nothing. Wars are very stupid things, and this war was the stupidest of them all: armies in holes and trenches, gunning each other down by the hundreds of thousands, day after day, in the vain attempt to gain a few feet of territory from each other. And after four years of carnage, everyone was more or less right back where they started.
Of course many, if not most, wars are just the same: a clash of egos or ideologies or national ‘pride’ that leaves a trail of death and destruction – and to what end? Normally the result is that the men of war finally sit down and negotiate some sort of agreement that ends the war – an agreement they could have just as easily sat down and negotiated without the war, were it not for the egos and ideologies and national pride that got in the way first…
That is why I am proud to call myself a ‘pacifist’. I believe war is a stupid and outmoded way of dealing with human affairs and the sooner we rid the world of the scourge of war the better. I am not an ‘absolute’ pacifist because I do not discount the possibility that wars are sometimes a necessary evil and that I might find myself supporting, or even fighting, in such a war. But World War One was not a necessary evil, it was just plain evil. And the sooner we, collectively, acknowledge that fact and own up to the consequences of acknowledging that fact, the better.
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The above was written in 2012 for Remembrance Day and I still stand by every word of it. However what I then wrote about WWII at that time I have now decided was wrong. I tried to square the circle and argue that although WWI was an utterly stupid war fought for no justifiable reason, WWII was on the other hand a ‘just’ and necessary war against the evil of Fascism. Many people of course still hold that view, but I do not, for the reasons below…
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What about World War Two then? Was WWII was a necessary evil? It was a war to free the world from Fascism, and Fascism, especially its Nazi branch, is an ideology of war: it glorifies war and can only survive by making war. It is an economy of war, a politics of war, an enculturation of war. For Hitler and his cronies, it was of course not just a war against the rest of Europe, it was a war against all Jews, against all Slavs, all gays, all disabled people and many other categories of their own people.
Let’s be quite clear, Hitler and Naziism could have been stopped without a world war. There were many occasions in the lead up to World War Two when the German people could have said no and they didn’t, and there is much to learn from that, not just for Germans but for all of us. But once the malignant tumour had taken control and its poison had begun to spread and blood was already being spilt: once the Nazi war machine was up and running, could anything have stopped it at that point, except war itself?
Of course there were opposition and underground movements all over Europe and even in Germany, secretly rescuing Jews, undermining Nazi rule and fighting back nonviolently. There is also much to learn from these experiences and we now know that many a dictator and seemingly impervious regime has fallen purely through the nonviolent resistance of the people without a shot being fired. We know it can be done!
But in the case of Nazi Germany, it was surely far too late by 1939 for any kind of nonviolent resistance to have stopped Hitler and his war machine. The ‘appeasement’ policy of Neville Chamberlain appeared to give him more encouragement rather than curtail his ambitions. To rid the world of this hateful ideology, the world needed to be willing to fight back at that point, fight and beat the Nazi war machine. But how?
Unfortunately, the very fact that Fascism is an ideology of war means that it feeds off war, it lives off war, it thrives from war. To declare war on Hitler was exactly what he wanted and needed to keep himself in power and in full control of the Nazi machinery. War keeps everyone in a state of constant fear and willing to do whatever they are told for the protection and preservation of their ‘nation’.
Let us be quite clear about this. Hitler and the Nazis were doing terrible things by 1939. Jews were being persecuted, attacked, beaten and killed on the streets, their shops and homes were being burnt, they were being rounded up and put into concentration camps. But there were no gas chambers at that point, no ovens, no mass murder on an industrial scale. Hitler’s so-called ‘Final Solution’ only took place within the context of total war and did not begin until the middle of 1941. It was not the precursor or pretext for that war. We will never know if it would have even been possible to carry out the mass murder of Jews in Europe had there not been a second world war.
But the Nazis were also not the only party to commit atrocities or deliberately target and kill large numbers of civilians during WWII. Estimates of the numbers killed by aerial bombing vary enormously. In the case of the Blitz, the numbers of civilians deliberated targeted and killed in London and other British cities range from 20,000 – 60,000. The numbers of civilians deliberately targeted and killed by British bombing of German cities are estimated at 200,000-600,000, or roughly ten times the number killed in Britain. Even before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, estimates of the number of Japanese civilians deliberately targeted and killed range from 240,000 to 900,000.
The truth is that WWII dehumanised all sides and made us all accomplices in mass murder and the commitment of crimes against humanity. It fuelled the Fascism and Naziism it was meant to destroy, provided a cover for the worst genocide in human history and may well have prolonged the Third Reich longer than it would otherwise have lasted. And it led to the deaths of tens of millions of people, mostly innocent civilians who played no part in the fighting. Were there alternatives to all that slaughter and destruction available at the time? Perhaps it is too much to expect that the leaders of the day could have had the foresight to come up with them, but we need to learn the lessons of history and recognise in hindsight that there are always alternatives if we have but the courage, tenacity and creativity to seek them out.
Of course it is pointless to blame the generation who lived through WWII and had to make those very difficult choices and decisions about whether to fight and how to respond to the nightmare unfolding around them. It is not our role to judge them or indeed to belittle the sacrifices which they made in the honest belief that they were doing the right thing. Let us honour the dead and grieve for all those who suffered from the horrors of WWII as well as those who suffered from WWI and all other wars. But let us not at the same time fall into the trap of accepting war – even WWII – as a ‘necessary evil’. It is time to move on from that, and to move on from war, full stop.
Tim Wallis, 11 November 2015