World War II was the biggest and arguably even the most destructive war in history. It shaped the world our grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in. And its shadows still haven’t receded. Like a ghost lingering in the darkness, many stories remain hidden and buried and have yet to find their way into the light.
As a ginormous and complex historical event, WWII is hard to describe. Each individual, nation, municipality and ethnic group tends to focus the narrative on their own self-interests and how they were personally or collectively affected by war. Authors, storytellers and historians; by pinpointing the pivotal importance of certain events, tend to diminish the interconnected reality of the nature of war with some even going as far as to say that there is now almost no aspect of the war that remains unexplored.
Is that even possible? Statistics of WWII are at best estimations and not absolute truths. One consensus, however, that has been repeatedly recognised is that WWII is a war that has its roots in the first World War. Nevertheless, explaining the origin of any conflict is not an easy task. Why are we fighting? How did we start fighting? And most importantly, why did we continue fighting in the wake of a tremendous number of casualties?
The events of war are all woven together by long, complex and unseen threads that criss-cross together behind-the-scenes. It is misleading and short-sighted to consider any single episode, person or event as the sole cause–no matter how significant the event and no matter how deep the wounds. On one hand, we have records of particular battles, campaigns and historical figures. On the other hand, due to the interconnected web that characterises life, we must use a magnifying glass–and perhaps even a shovel–to ascertain how these records relate to the preexisting conditions which led to unforeseeable consequences.
There is the role that the machinery of war played. There are the individual stories of the participants who were involved. There were events that occurred on land, at sea, and in the air. There were the loud actions of larger-than-life individuals and the silent contributions of countless men and women who participated in the war efforts.
WWII irrefutably goes down in modern history as the greatest of all struggles and whose ripple effects can still be felt today.
Reparations are generally understood as compensation given for an abuse or injury. It is a concept with a long history which centres around making the defeated party pay a war indemnity. During ancient times, the imposition of reparations on a defeated enemy was the beginning of forcing an enemy to pay a regular tribute. Indemnity is a contractual obligation. It requires one party to compensate the loss incurred to the other party due to the acts of the indemnitor or any other party. War reparations, in particular, refers to money or goods changing hands and generally excludes the annexation of land. In practise, reaching a consensus regarding how this should be achieved is a contentious one.
In the years after WWII, a new Japan and a new Germany rose from the ashes of defeat. Japan became a constitutional democracy and Germany became a model European democracy. While the allies were in agreement that they should be compensated for WWII, they each implemented their reparation policies in their own way.
The measures employed in both Germany and Japan were carried out with the intention of making the defeated nations financially incapable of waging war. By the end of 1947, it became clear that some of the policies that were implemented were creating a politically dangerous quagmire. Rampant impoverishment had, in effect, made the populace susceptible to communism; which was viewed as a significant threat. This led to a reversal in the policy towards ‘the former enemy’. The rationale being that an economy that was well-fed and gainfully employed would be impervious to the attractions of communism as a solution to their woes and worries. This in turn laid the foundations for a genuine, self-sustaining economic recovery for those who had been defeated and consequently humiliated in the aftermath of war.
War, by nature, is an interconnected and complex web of events. WWII weakened the hold of European nations on their colonies. All across the globe, liberation movements sprang up that demanded independence. As the former colonial powers were exhausted from the wars that they had fought on their own frontiers; their armed forces were too thinly spread and thus could not control or suppress the national movements that were finding a strong foothold in its colonies. These demands became impossible to ignore and led to the old imperial order fading away. The granting of independence, however, came at a terrible price.
Millions fled to new frontiers. New nations were formed. Some struggles for self-determination turned into an open war. Victory should bring with it liberation, but instead, it brought further conflict and violence. The seeds for bitterness were thus planted and some of the conflict that ensued still continues on in many countries.
Wars, by their very nature, are clouded in moral ambiguity. A narrative and historical event that has no clear-cut ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ makes moral judgments difficult. In hindsight, WWII appears to be a war among rivals for conquest and glory and a war between powers unable to reconcile their fears, interests… and perhaps even their honour.
Conflict is rooted in many opposing forces and interests coming together to create unprecedented chaos. The only legitimate outcome of any war is to weaken the military potential of the enemy. Nations who fight in the name of self-defence need only to weaken the military potential of the aggressor sufficiently to preserve their interests. By utilising humiliation, torture and greed as an impetus for war, we will unfortunately only be sowing the seeds for a conflict whose ripple effects will needlessly reverberate for generations to come.