The Second World War began 80 years ago – and in many ways its legacy is still with us. Here, eight experts investigates the factors behind our World War Two obsession, as well as the consequences of our failure to move on...

Today, the Second World War is a series of myths and memories that entrench old ideas and old power structures
Keith Lowe

In 1944, the renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes gave a landmark speech at the famous Bretton Woods conference. The Allies, he said, had proven that they could fight together; now it was time to show they could also live together. If they could achieve this, a genuine “brotherhood of man” was within their grasp.
The Second World War was such a vast catastrophe that by 1944 the need for global change was obvious to everyone. At Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and an element of the World Bank were created to promote peace and prosperity, and to prevent the kind of economic shocks that had led to war in the first place. The United Nations (UN), created the following year, was founded on the same noble principles.
But at the same time as trying to save the world from the scourge of future war, these organisations were also a perfect way to cement the powers and privileges of the major Allies.

It was the UK and the United States that set the agenda for Bretton Woods 75 years ago. Since then, the IMF has always been headed by a European, and the World Bank always by an American.

The UN is also in thrall to vested interests. The Security Council is dominated by the five permanent members – the US, the UK, France, Russia and China – whose privileged position is nothing but a throwback to the power structures of 1945. Our collective memory of the war allows us to indulge the idea that nations like Russia are still great powers, and that economic giants such as Germany and Japan do not deserve a leading role in world affairs. Huge emerging powers such as India do not even get a look in. The Second World War was once a catalyst for global change. Today it is a series of myths and memories that entrench old ideas and old power structures. Our inability to let go of its legacy now prevents us from any progress towards the “brotherhood of man” that, in 1944, even a hard-nosed economist such as Keynes dared to dream of.

Keith Lowe is a historian and author. His latest book is The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us (Viking, 2017).

Watch: Are we in denial about our role in WW2? Keith Lowe explains – in 60 seconds

Reviving memories of China’s wartime experience is a way of creating a new nationalism
Rana Mitter

History is still current affairs in China. Whether it’s the thoughts of Confucius or the legacy of the violent Opium Wars of the 19th century, China’s past shapes the thinking of its politicians, artists and thinkers. But outside observers sometimes don’t spot one of the parts of the past that has loomed ever larger in popular culture over the past three decades: China’s experience in the Second World War.

China was at war with Japan for eight years from 1937 to 1945, and a formal ally of the United States and the UK after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. During those years, it suffered more than 10 million deaths, saw 80 million or more Chinese forced to flee their homes, and experienced the destruction of its still fledgling systems of railways and roads. The war created the basis for the Communist revolution of 1949.
After 1949, there was relatively little mention of the war in Mao’s China. This was because his government found it politically inconvenient to point out that the leader he had defeated in the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist party, had borne the brunt of the fighting against the Japanese. That taboo began to fade in the 1980s after Mao’s death.

Today, endless soap operas on Chinese television show both Communist and Nationalist warriors in a positive light; what matters is that they are anti-Japanese patriots. China’s internet is awash with keyboard warriors (mostly male, it has to be said) who use text messages to debate the finer points of the battle of Shanghai in 1937 or Taierzhuang in 1938, expressing patriotic sentiments along the way. Schoolchildren are taken in their hundreds of thousands to Beijing’s unsubtly named Museum of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

Today, China provides its people with urban lifestyles unimaginable to previous generations. Reviving memories of China’s wartime experience is a way of creating a new nationalism that speaks to something beyond the attractions of consumerism.

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Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford. Author of China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (Allen Lane, 2013), he is currently writing a book on war and memory in contemporary China.

Britain hasn’t abandoned Europe; ties run deep – the ties forged in the fight for freedom during the Second World War
Helen Fry

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is arguably the most dramatic political and economic change since the Second World War, making life in the UK increasingly turbulent since 2016. But looking back across history, there is hope of a positive outcome.

During the Second World War, MI9, a branch of British military intelligence, ran clandestine escape lines across Nazi-occupied western Europe (and elsewhere) to bring Allied airmen and soldiers back to Britain. MI9 could succeed only because of the thousands of Belgian, Dutch and French citizens who risked their own lives. These helpers ran the escape lines, acting as couriers or guides taking escapees into neutral Spain and Portugal. It was a dangerous game, rife with betrayal and Gestapo informers. These men and women fought a clandestine war for liberation and democracy and, in so doing, established pan-European links that have become a positive legacy of the conflict.

The world can’t escape the grip of the Second World War precisely because today we are witnessing power struggles that have their roots in the reshaping of Europe’s borders in 1945. Tensions have arisen in recent years in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and which became democracies at the end of the Cold War. Russia’s present-day designs on Ukraine and its former satellite states – specifically its annexation of Crimea – are examples of an ideological power struggle between democracy and a totalitarian regime that threatens to recast the borders of Europe. And, recently, instability has wracked Hong Kong (once under British rule) over fears of Beijing-imposed restrictions on democracy.

The history of MI9 teaches us, though, that all is not lost. Britain has not abandoned Europe. Ties remain: the same ties forged in the fight for freedom during the Second World War. Below the surface, MI9’s legacy is etched into the consciousness of those countries occupied by the Nazis before and during that conflict. Britain’s new independence could enable her to be the guardian of democracy should the unthinkable ever happen again.

Helen Fry is a historian and author. Her latest book is The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II (Yale, 2019).

We continue to talk about the Holocaust because the genocide of Europe’s Jews has enormous contemporary resonance
Rebecca Clifford

The Second World War continues to resonate widely today – and perhaps the most intensely examined subject is the Holocaust. In novels and films, in memorials and in the classroom, we constantly encounter its history
and memory. Only a rare person in 21st-century Britain could be unaware of the basic details of the attempt, by the Nazis and their collaborators, to annihilate Europe’s Jewish populations during the Second World War.

However, this was not always the case. In fact, the term ‘Holocaust’ (as we use it now) entered common parlance only in the 1970s, and the widespread commemoration of the Holocaust, which is now part of the fabric of contemporary Western societies, developed in the 1990s. It was the specific context of the end of the Cold War that led to this shift. During the Cold War, when Western countries were locked into an alliance against the Soviet bloc, it was politically difficult to have a public discussion about war-era crimes against humanity, because Germany was a key ally.

This changed as the Cold War ended after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the crimes against civilian populations that were one of the hallmarks of the Second World War entered powerfully into public discourse. The 1990s was a key decade in terms of the public memory of the Holocaust, but that was nearly 30 years ago. Why, then, do we continue to talk so much about the Holocaust? The simple answer is that the genocide of Europe’s Jews has enormous contemporary resonance.

Over the past two years, we have seen the return of populist politics globally, often accompanied by xenophobia, racism and a general rise in intolerance against ethnic minority groups. At the same time, we have seen that anti-Semitism remains very much alive on both the extreme right and the extreme left – and as long as that is the case, we will fail to escape the grip of the Second World War. We are all too aware of where such ideas end.

Rebecca Clifford is associate professor of modern history at Swansea University. Her new book, Orphans of the Storm: Children After the Holocaust, will be published by Yale University Press in 2020.

The American narrative is heroic – the country strides in to rescue Britain, arm Russia and liberate Europe – and satisfying
Henry Hemming

In 2017 – shortly before Remembrance Day, 11 November (known in the United States as Veterans Day) – the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins called for an alternative: “a Forgetting Day, a Move On Day, a Fresh Start Day”. Unsurprisingly, his proposal fell on deaf ears.

Eighty years on, most countries involved in the Second World War remain fixated by this particular conflict – especially the United States. It is taught extensively in American high schools. Many museums across the US are devoted to it, while many more allocate it generous space in their displays. Each year, thousands of new studies are published on the subject, while novelists continue to choose it as a historical backdrop.

But it is on screen that the scale of America’s obsession with the Second World War becomes clear. Aside from the large number of television dramas and documentaries produced each year, there are now so many feature films on the subject – most of them American-made – that the full list spans multiple Wikipedia pages. And this is not about to change. After tailing off in the late 20th century, the number of films about the Second World War produced each year is climbing again.

Why can’t the US escape the grip of the Second World War? Mainly because of the way this story is told. The American narrative is not only heroic – the country strides in to rescue Britain, arm Russia and liberate Europe – it is also satisfying, with justice meted out to the Japanese in response to the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

In addition, this conflict seems to be imbued with Manichean clarity. Unlike modern-day wars on drugs or terror, there is no ambiguity about where or who the bad guys are, and when or how the conflict ends.
In our more fractured Trumpian age, perhaps the overwhelming allure of the Second World War is that it allows us to remember a time when millions of Americans set aside their political differences and came together as one.

Henry Hemming is an author specialising in history and spying. His new book is Our Man in New York: The British Plot to Bring America into the Second World War (Quercus, 2019).

Russian authorities today use the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as an antidote to public protest
Robert Service

Every country that took a direct part in the war has continuing memories of its traumas, and the Russian Federation is no exception. In each of Russia’s big cities an ‘Immortal Regiment’ parade is held each 9 May, in which family members carry photos of parents and grandparents to show pride in their wartime valour; the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, himself usually joins the throngs in Moscow.

The current Kremlin administration prolongs the preoccupation with the war that prevailed under communism. The difference is that, whereas Marxism-Leninism was the central pivot of state ideology until the late 1980s, today’s rulers now choose to focus on Russian achievements during 1941–45. The dates are important. The Soviet Union did not enter the struggle against the Third Reich until it was attacked by Germany – indeed, Stalin and Adolf Hitler were allies in all but word before the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. Once invaded, however, the country survived extraordinary tribulations before sending its armies to Berlin and overthrowing the Nazis. It was the Red Army that broke the spine of the Third Reich.

At a time when Russian people have lasting material and social complaints, the Russian authorities use the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as an antidote to public protest. Putin and his ministers like to bathe in the patriotic sunlight. They tend to downplay the role played by the other peoples of the Soviet Union who resisted Nazism, and emphasise Russian – not
Soviet – patriotism. They also use the wartime annals of Russia’s soldiers, sailors, intelligence agents and factory workers to bolster support for the military initiatives that the Kremlin has taken since 2014 in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria.

The link that binds Russian politicians and the Russian people concerning the Second World War is not an artificial one. But Putin, as Boris Yeltsin did before him, reinforces the connection. As thousands of young Russians take to Moscow streets in anti-Putin demos, the likelihood is that the Kremlin will want to increase its patriotic propaganda – and the memory of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ will remain at its core.

Robert Service is emeritus professor of Russian history at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and the author of a number of books. His latest, Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin, will be published in October by Picador.

The extirpation of the most evil regime in history was always going to provide lessons that last for centuries
Andrew Roberts

We can’t escape the grip of the Second World War, because the overall global architecture was created in its wake. Nor should we want to, because it was a virtuous settlement – and the world will bitterly regret the outcome when it has been overthrown by a future generation careless of the sacrifices of 1939–45 and ignorant of the issues involved.

The extirpation of the most evil regime in human history, at the cost of more than 20 million lives, was always going to provide lessons that last for centuries, and in many ways they are as powerful today as ever before. The need for strong defences in the democratic western powers against aggressive totalitarian forces is as important when facing modern China, Russia and Iran as it was in the 1930s when dealing with Germany, Japan and Italy. It is not because of its present economic power that China has a seat on the UN Security Council, but because of the oft-forgotten 15 million Chinese who died fighting forces allied with fascism, and President Franklin D Roosevelt’s insistence that China should be represented there.

Our economically open, generally free-trading global architecture was created by late-war conferences such as Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods, with institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade being founded as a direct response to the war and its causes and ravages. It is impossible to appreciate the founding notions of these vital international bodies unless one understands the conflict that gave them birth. Similarly, the bodies that underpin British national security were almost all born in the 1938–49 period dominated by the Second World War, including Nato, GCHQ, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing operation, Anglo-American nuclear cooperation, and so on.

The Second World War rightly and thankfully shapes our assumptions and the far happier world we live in today. It was of the Boer War that Rudyard Kipling wrote: “We have had no end of a lesson/ It will do us no end of good,” but it is much more true of the Second World War.

Andrew Roberts is a historian and author. His latest book is Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018).

The war is remembered as a time Britain put aside differences and pulled together to fight for freedom
Emma Hanna

In contrast with the First World War, the 1939–45 conflict has been perceived in the UK as a ‘good’ war resulting in the triumph of western democracies over evil fascist regimes. It is therefore unsurprising that memories of the ‘finest hour’ have been frequently invoked in the British media, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty. The fascination with the Battle of Britain continues, together with the mythology of the Blitz and the now ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster (which was never actually deployed during the war but is now seen on mugs, tea towels and countless other products).

Television, in particular, has repeatedly returned to the conflict. After 1945 Britain’s television service grew quickly and began to create and co-produce epic documentaries such as Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years (ABC/BBC, 1960–61). The major 26-part BBC series The Great War (1964) attracted more than eight million British viewers, while The World at War (ITV, 1973–74), exploring the Second World War over 26 episodes through the testimony of key participants, was at the time the most expensive British television series ever made.

From the late 1990s, broadcasters crossed established documentary modes with re-enactment, reconstruction and reality. Viewers saw British family life in The 1940s House (Channel 4, 2001), and how pilots could be trained in Spitfire Ace (Channel 4, 2004) and Bomber Crew (Channel 4, 2004). The nostalgic evocation of British society at war provided material for television dramas such as Foyle’s War (ITV, 2002–15) and comedies including Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968–77), It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (BBC, 1974–81) and ’Allo ’Allo (BBC, 1982–92). In comparison, only one comedy series about 1914–18 has been made for mainstream television: Blackadder Goes Forth (BBC, 1989).

The memory of the ‘Great War’ is seen as sacred – a national tragedy that resulted in the loss of a generation for no apparent cause. The Second World War, despite its many hardships and historians’ subsequent findings to the contrary, is remembered as a time the nation put aside differences and pulled together to fight for freedom. Since the end of that conflict the media have continued to mine wartime stories for political, social or simply commercial reasons.

Emma Hanna is a lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent.


This article is from the October/November 2019 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine. To gain more insight into how our world has been impacted by the past, subscribe to BBC World Histories Magazine today and save up to 60% off the shop price.