Few events are burned into the collective consciousness like the Second World War. The fact that it took place so soon after the First World War, involved so many of the same key players, and was fought largely for ideological reasons no doubt have contributed greatly to this, not to mention the sheer brutality of the Axis powers.
But there are increasingly fewer people left alive who remember these events firsthand. Those who do were likely children during the 1930s and '40s, and probably not participants on a political or military level. The one exception to this, and the main reason so many "remember" World War II so vividly, are victims of the Nazi deathcamps.
For decades many of these people, mostly Jews imprisoned by Hitler's regime, lived like ghosts in the free world. They went to work, raised children, and did their best to hide the insidious identification tattoos down their arms, much the way junkies hide their tracks.
The main difference is that junkies have something to be ashamed of, whereas the Jews in Hitler's Europe were imprisoned for no reason other than their ethnicity. They were considered "unclean" by the Nazis, and the Final Solution was developed to erase them from the face of the planet so that it could be "purified" for the Aryan race.
Funny thing is, the Aryan race is largely a fiction. In the 19th-century it was popular to be involved in really strange stuff, and there was a developing mythos concerning a pure master race of Europeans that white Westerners found very attractive as their nations continued to grab land from supposedly inferior races.
Among other things, this idea took root in the poisonous mind of Adolf Hitler, and by extension in the mind of the German people. Probably no small part of this was due to the social, economic, political, and moral depression that had washed over Deutschland in the wake of World War I and defeat.
There was a terrible synchronicity at work—the Germans needed a messiah, and Hitler desperately needed to be one. It didn't seem to matter that the messiah they chose was a sociopath who also wanted to kill people instead of saving lives. All that mattered was that he made them feel good, and promised them a golden future filled with prosperity and no undesirables.
But Germany wasn't the only place such horrifying symbiosis was forming. Japan's Emperor Hirohito used the indigenous religion, Shinto, to whip his people into a frenzy of bloodlust with visions of international conquest, and the atrocities that transpired in Japanese concentration camps and throughout China were easily as horrific as those of the Nazis. And of course there was Italy under Benito Mussolini, whose favorite place to commit mass murder was Africa.
These Axis powers achieved such global notoriety that Pres. George W. Bush was able to call the perpetrators of worldwide terrorism the "Axis of Evil" and have most people understand the reference. What seems to elude many, or simply to be thrust to the nether regions of forgetfulness, is the fact that there was plenty of atrocity perpetrated by Allied nations as well.
Most notable among these was Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, which in many ways simply served as the personal death machine of Josef Stalin. In about thirty years (1924-1953), Stalin slaughtered so many Russians, Georgians, Poles, Slavs, Ukrainians, and countless other ethnicities that he made Hitler seem inefficient and feckless.
Despite being in league with this monster, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill usually emerge from this tragic situation as spotless knights rescuing the world for freedom and democracy. And in many ways their efforts to stop the Axis war machine were heroic, and to his credit Churchill did renounce Stalin and his reign of terror.
Our purpose isn't to put Roosevelt or Churchill in the same category as these genocidal maniacs. What we do want to point out is that they used the same tactic as Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini, and Stalin to stem the tide of evil threatening to overtake the world—the cult of personality.
At the end of the day, the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians, the Russians, the Americans, and the British didn't follow their countries's flags to war simply for nationalistic or ideological reasons, but because their leaders were charismatic, forceful, and rhetorically gifted. They followed men as much as they followed the zeitgeist.
This isn't entirely a bad thing. We innately follow those who lead, and if they lead well and give great speeches the extent to which we'll follow them increases immensely. Fortunately for the world, the people following the men with the least destructive and hateful ideology had the best weapons and the most resources, and they won.
What if they hadn't? Such a prospect has long preoccupied historians, philosophers, sociologists, and their hoards of armchair counterparts. Theories have abounded, but one burning question remains: Will it all happen again? And the answer is, of course, Yes, it willl happen again.
Human nature doesn't change. And though some societies are more predisposed to critically evaluate the ravings of messianic sociopaths, many lack such objectivity or logical sharpness and allow themselves to be plunged into atrocity, deprivation, and moral insanity. Will our society be the next evil empire? Who knows? Some think it already is.
There's only one response to this human propensity for evil: Jesus Christ. Though it is the job of nations to prtoect their people, by force if necessary, it's the purpose of Christians to spread the good news of forgiveness for sin through the blood of Christ, and this is the only antidote to destruction and pain because Christ is the only one who can change hearts.
The twentieth century, and particularly World War II, seemed like a showcase of the ability of humans to harm each other, and the depths to which entire once-noble cultures could fall. Yet even for the worst offenders, the offer of forgiveness is not rescinded until death, and we must continue to work for the Gospel despite what others may do to us.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.