Few events have had such a deep impact on world history as the conflict that griped the international system seventy years ago. As all great power wars in the last five hundred years it started in Europe, with a bid a for hegemony made by a Germany, the second in twenty-five years, but it soon spread to North Africa, the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. World War II was a total war, the second in less than a generation, and as such it involved attacks on civilians and genocide. From a military and strategic point of view it was a total war, as the aim of the war was the re-ordering of the entire international system and the destruction of some of its members; its scope was not limited to the European continent, it saw an unprecedented level of societal mobilization for the war effort in every country involved and it was prosecuted with every means available, culminating in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
From a political point of view World War II was a hegemonic war – a war which determines which state or states will be dominant and govern the international system; the subsequent peace treaty reorders the political, territorial and basis of the international system (Gilpin, 1983, p. 15). The main function of a hegemonic war is thus to determine the hierarchy of prestige – understood here as a state’s reputation for power – and thereby who “governs” or dominates the international system (Gilpin, 1983, p.33). The French philosopher and political scientist Raymond Aron described the phenomenon of hegemonic war as “characterized less by its immediate causes or its explicit purposes than by its extent and the stakes involved. It affected all the political units inside one system of relations between sovereign states. Let us call it for want of a better term a war of hegemony, hegemony being, if not the conscious motive, at any rate the inevitable consequence of the victory of at least one of the states or groups”(Aron, 1964, p. 359). World War II fits these two definitions very well: it was started by Germany in order to achieve hegemony over Europe, but instead it lead to the destruction of the European great power system and its replacement by the bipolar world of the Cold War, dominated by United States and the Soviet Union. As for the states involved, the Allied camp was joined by the end of the war by 59 states, while the Axis side was supported by around 30 states and political entities.
The outcome of the war was a total re-structuring of the international system which saw the disappearance from the political map of some states (the Baltic States, Germany until the 1950s), the demise of the European colonial system and the appearance of new states, mostly former colonies. Furthermore the old order dominated by the European powers disappeared, with Britain, France and Germany becoming in the post-war world second rate powers. The clear winners and shapers of the post-war world were the powers on the fringes of the European system: the traditionally isolationist but increasingly active United States and the former outcast, the USSR. These two states fundamentally shaped the international system and imposed an international “order” that they deemed acceptable to their interests and congruent with the post-war distribution of power in the international system. Bear in mind that we are still living in a world shaped by the consequences of this war: the borders of Europe are more or less the same those that have been established at Yalta and Potsdam, the United Nations is the by-product of World War II and the global economy is still governed to a certain extent, by the Bretton Woods agreements. What does not fit the definition of hegemonic war proposed by Aron and later Robert Gilpin is the fact that post-war international system was not dominated by a single state (hegemonic), but was characterized by a political, ideological, military and economic struggle between the two victors: the United States and the Soviet Union. Some international scholars have argued that the United States was the hegemonic state of the post-war international system because of its economic potential. However such an analysis ignores the Soviet Union which challenged American power in political, military and economic terms for nearly fifty years after the end of World War II.
I will use the opportunity of the commemorations of the start of World War II to explore some of the controversial issues of this conflict. In a series of articles published on this blog during this month, I will deal with the issues of appeasement, the German-Soviet pact and the consequences of World War II for the world in which we live in today.