When one looks simply at the numbers of deaths that were caused by World War II the sheer destructiveness of the war becomes immediately apparent. Military deaths across all countries totaled almost 24 million people. This was exposed by civilian deaths – 33,963 (approximate) citizens exposed to horrific bombing campaigns, disease, forced relocation, exposure, and Nazi genocide lost their lives.
However, it should be noted that the Allies themselves also made mistakes that would lead to huge civilian casualties – and there were instances that Allied soldiers were also guilty of great savagery towards civilians.
However, humankind’s memory seems to be short. By the 1950s WWII had already entered popular imagination as ‘The Good or ‘Just’ war.’ There was a clearly defined enemy. It was Good vs. Evil. It was an effort to keep the Barbarians from the Gate. It was viewed as the war that would prevent further conflict. Just as it punished those responsible for war crimes.
The narrative of the ‘Good War’ was to a certain degree encouraged by the government during the wartime years. An unrelenting public relations campaign had gloried the horrors of war and framed in terms of heroism and sacrifice. This is not to say that this was not often the case, brave men and women died for their beliefs in these intangibles.
There can be no question that the Allies had the moral high ground – and that the common soldier was fighting against what he or she is pure evil. But if we look back from our viewpoint based on 20/20 hindsight and evaluate the consequences of WWII can it be called the ‘Good War?’ What were the short and long term consequences of the conflict?
The consequences for the human population of those countries which were subjected to unrelenting bombing raids was horrific. The numbers tell the story. About one in every five German homes was destroyed. 2.2 Million homes were destroyed in Japan. The list goes on.
The consequences for those who were displaced by the bombing were deadly. Five million people from eastern Germany and the Baltic States were to die from exposure and starvation. The British repatriated thousands of those who had fled the borders of what was to become the Soviet Union – it was a death sentence.
The cost of the war in historical dollars was estimated at around $4 trillion. However, the true cost of the war was estimated at over four times the direct costs. The economies of countries across the globe were changed forever. In the United States, almost every tax was raised and income tax became one of governments bluntest instruments when it came to funding its activities. This was in part due to the fact that five million people were added to that country’s tax roll during the war.
Dissent was also limited and the U.S. government become more actively involved in policing the activities of individuals as well as businesses. The United States also supported the Soviet Union during WWII – and could be said to have been pivotal in enabling the establishment of the Soviet Union. There is broad agreement among historians that American President Roosevelt knew what Joseph Stalin had in mind, politically and economically. Stalin would sentence over 20 million people to death – either in Gulag’s, famines caused by state planning and various purges.
The lens of time may cause us to view WWII as the ‘Good War’. However, it can be argued that there is no such thing. There are no winners. Everyone loses.