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World War Two: Baddies And Goodies

Published: Tue 26 Mar 2024 03:30 PM
My earlier article – Can 'Good' be the Greater Evil? – looked at the issue of how wars should end, and how Good versus Evil framing of international conflicts makes it difficult for participants – especially those who are convinced they are the Good in an epic battle against an Evil – to bring hostilities to an end. This is especially pertinent if the side designated 'Evil' has a military advantage tantamount to 'winning'.World War Two
World War Two (WW2) is the one war that just about everyone has heard of, and which in the light of history is still understood in Good versus Evil terms. As part of the mythologising of WW2, it is commonly presented as a simple four-word trope: 'Hitler versus the Jews'. With Hitler being our historical byword for Evil, that trope automatically casts 'the Jews' as Good. Hence it is very confusing for many today when 'the Jews', in the form of Israel, reveal themselves to being somewhat less than angelic. And the great-grandparents and grandparents of Israel's present leaders were doing things of questionable morality in Palestine before hardly anyone in the anglosphere had ever heard of Hitler.
Here I identify eight 'personalities' from World War Two, and divide them into 'Evil' and 'Good'.
For my baddies, I make the obvious choices by including these fascist leaders: Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), and Hitler (Germany); and the totalitarian allegedly socialist leader of the Soviet Union (Stalin).
For my goodies, I choose the four 'victorious' allied political leaders: Churchill (United Kingdom), De Gaulle (France), Truman (United States), and Chiang Kai Shek (China).
We'll note that five countries were the victors of WW2, and these countries became the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. The leaders of these victor nations are one of our baddies (Stalin) and our four goodies. We need to note that, at its core, WW2 was never a clash between Germany and the United Kingdom, although it is true that in one year, 1941, United Kingdom was the only active sovereign opponent of Germany (and until December of that year that year China was the only serious sovereign opponent of Japan).
When we look at the core conflict of World War Two, we see that it was about lebensraum – 'living space' in Eastern Europe for Germany – and hence the core conflict was the German Third Reich versus the Soviet Union. Hence, the supreme winner of WW2 – the 'Great Patriotic War' – was Stalin's Soviet Union.Mussolini
Fascism is an Italian word, and Mussolini was the prototype fascist. Mussolini came to power in 1922 in a coup rather than through an election. He effectively established a brutal 'one-party-state'. In the 1930s he became renown as a North African imperialist. In 1938 he formed a military axis with Hitler's Third Reich. He was deposed and killed in 1943, having become a 'puppet' of Hitler. As baddies go, he was pretty bad; although Hitler thought that he was insufficiently anti-Jewish at a time when anti-Jewish sentiment was widespread in Western Europe. After 21 years of fascist power in Italy, eventually Good prevailed over Evil.Franco
Franco was Europe's second fascist dictator. He came to power in Spain by waging a Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, against the elected government. Franco had support from much of the old elite is Spain, including the Catholic Church, and depended militarily on soldiers from Morocco, under Spanish control.
The Spanish Civil War has much in common with the present Ukraine-Russian War, not least the fact that it became a cause-celebre for the progressive politics of the left in the liberal west. The International Brigades, fighting against Franco, drew on many idealist young men from places as far from Spain as New Zealand. Yet in the end, as George Orwell documented in Homage to Catalonia, the progressive government side defeated itself, through factional in-fighting. Good wasn't always good. Further the fascists in Italy and Germany used Spain as a military training ground, with atrocities that included Hitler's gratuitous carpet-bombing of Guernica in April 1937.
During and after the uncivil Spanish Civil War, atrocities were committed on a massive scale, and many progressive Spaniards had to flee for their lives to places such as Mexico.
The Spanish War was won by Evil. And Franco remained dictator of Spain until his death in 1975.
Yet progressive Spain did not die forever. Indeed, Spain is arguably the most progressive country in the European Union in 2024. As a 21-year-old I spent a few days in Franco's Spain, in 1974; I visited Barcellona, Madrid, Granada and Seville, before going on to Portugal. Certainly, the country was clearly poorer then than say France or Netherlands, and there was an awareness of a day-to-day military presence. But it was a country with good people, much human potential, and welcoming to tourists.
While Bad won the Spanish war, the long-run outcome was not-at-all bad. Further, Spain, tired from conflict, refused to join World War Two. As a neutral country, access to Spain from Occupied France was crucial to the eventual outcome of the western WW2.Hitler
We need say little more. He – the face of Evil – lost the War in Europe. Good won, in the West. But it is worth imagining how the war in the west might have ended had events taken a different turn. Yet, even if Hitler had become emperor of all Europe, the world still would not have ended. And West Europe most likely would have evolved – as did Spain – back to some form of liberal democracy.Stalin
The core war was not in the west. While the Jewish question was an important and sinister backgrounder to Hitler's war, the main Nazi agenda was to appropriate the Slavic lands, and indeed turn the Slavs into effective slaves.
Stalin prevailed in this most brutal of all wars; far more brutal than the war in the West. But Stalin, in totalitarian power since 1924, had already waged his own war against many of his own people. The famine in Ukraine in the 1930s is a particular example. In addition, the Zionist Jews who settled in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s were substantially refugees from Stalin. Stalin arguably contributed more than Hitler to the problems that Palestine faces today.
Stalin was an Evil, little doubt about that; though as an ally of the West many progressive westerners (including my parents) refused to see this. So it is not true to say that the outcome of World War Two was a victory of Good over Evil; far from it. And the harm resulting from that war is far from over; as indicated by the present war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Eastern Europe survives, and has had – and still has – many hopeful moments. No nuclear weapons have as yet been used in anger in Eastern Europe / Western Russia. Evil has had a good run in that region, but as the Lesser Evil. There is still hope.The Four 'Goodies'
In the years 1951 and 1952, four of the five named victors were heads of state of the permanent members of the Security Council: Stalin, Churchill, Truman and Chiang Kai Shek. (De Gaulle did not become head of state in post-war France until 1958.)
How Good was Churchill? He made the decision in 1940 to keep United Kingdom in the war at a time when Britain could have opted for Irish-style neutrality. And he was not a party to some of the quite cynical decisions made by the Conservative British Government in the late 1930s. But he had been part of the problem in World War One, including the architect of the Gallipoli campaign.
He was also very much part of the conservative 'old guard'; an old imperial political elite which exacerbated the Israel-Palestine problems through its cynical manoeuvres against Egypt that created the 1956 Suez crisis. That was when the first massacre of Khan Younis took place.
I feel that, while Britain did end up on the winning side of WW2, Churchill falls far short of the mantle of Good. Much that is good in the liberal west happened despite Churchill rather than because of him. And there's much in the liberal west that is not good.
What about Truman? He came to power in the United States in 1945, just before the end of WW2. But he had played an important war role in the United States since 1941, through the 'Truman Committee'. He saw through the surrenders of both Germany and Japan. We know enough about this 'Good' man that he resorted to nuclear weapons to achieve the surrender of Japan, and to head off Stalin who had entered the Pacific War after the surrender of Germany in May 1945. Truman started the Cold War, which was a nuclear war though in which nuclear weapons were not fired subsequently in anger. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be understood as both ending WW2 and starting the Cold War. We should be careful in casting Truman as a Good in the battle against Evil.
De Gaulle, like Churchill, was a strongman of the European imperial world. His moment of inglory came in the 1960s, with the colonial resistance to the decolonisation of Algeria. This was one of the most brutal wars of decolonisation, ever; only to be overshadowed by the Vietnam War waged by Truman's successors after an earlier phase waged by De Gaulle's predecessors.
Finally, Chiang Kai Shek. Although listed here as Good, in many ways he was a Franco-like figure, though operating in China on a larger scale than Franco ever could in Spain. And, while militarily defeating Japan, he lost the subsequent civil war in China. Today's legacy of his misdeeds is the China-Taiwan debacle that threatens to set off a new global Pacific War.Conclusion
When the Baddies won, the eventual outcomes weren't always bad (though the immediate outcomes were bad). And when the Goodies won, the eventual outcomes weren't necessarily good. Indeed, adverse consequences today for the western lands of the former Russian Empire have been a result of the twentieth century misdeeds of both 'Evil' and 'Good'. Warring political elites are mischievous by their very nature. War itself is a Greater Evil, especially when it becomes global in scope and can bring about fatal consequences for combatants and non-combatants alike. The ultimate 'good' is to act in ways that help to pull the world back from existential consequences. Peace, not Perfection, is the Greater Good.
Spain is a peaceful nation state today; a country which plays a constructive role in the European Union; it is peaceful and progressive despite the last victor of the last war in Spain having been undisputedly 'Bad'.
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Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
Keith Rankin
Political Economist, Scoop Columnist
Keith Rankin taught economics at Unitec in Mt Albert since 1999. An economic historian by training, his research has included an analysis of labour supply in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and has included estimates of New Zealand's GNP going back to the 1850s.
Keith believes that many of the economic issues that beguile us cannot be understood by relying on the orthodox interpretations of our social science disciplines. Keith favours a critical approach that emphasises new perspectives rather than simply opposing those practices and policies that we don't like.
Keith retired in 2020 and lives with his family in Glen Eden, Auckland.
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