I’ve actually seen American history textbooks whose beginning-of-the-unit timeline says right there in print, “WORLD WAR II: 1941–45”. (The odd thing is that those same textbooks have to acknowledge that the war was already going on in 1940 so that they can teach Lend Lease and the Neutrality Act.) I would imagine there are Russian textbooks that say the same thing. Most Americans, I think, know that by the time the USA joined, the war between Britain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had already been raging for years, but we can still shake our head at the insularity of actually telling children in history class that the war didn’t start until America entered in 1941, when it in fact had begun in 1939.
… Or had it? (Dunh dunh duuuuunh.)
I was a teenager when I learnt that Japan and China went to war with each other in 1937. The expansion of the Asian war in 1941 to bring America and the British Commonwealth in on China’s side pretty closely parallels the expansion of the European war at the same time, with the Soviet Union and the USA being brought in on Britain’s side. For China and Japan, 1937–45 represents a period of continuous conflict in the same way that 1939–45 does for Britain, Germany and Occupied Europe. It bothered me that, though the two conflicts merged into a global World War II in December 1941, the name for the pre-1941 Asian conflict was “the Second Sino-Japanese War”, while the name for the pre-1941 European conflict is “World War II”. English-language histories of the war would include the Phoney War and the London Blitz, but wouldn’t include the Marco Polo Bridge Incident or the Rape of Nanjing.
For a long time it didn’t seem to be such a big deal. I would’ve liked the pre-41 European war to have its own name, but after Pearl Harbor, they both merged into a single global war, Axis vs. Allies, right?
… Or did they? (Dunh dunh duuuuuunh.)
Lately I’ve been thinking about how Anglo–Americentric it is to consider the Second World War a unified conflict after 1941. Even leaving aside that there was no coordination between the European Axis Powers and Japan, we can still look at the three major Allied Powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. One of the Allied Powers specifically.
After 22 June 1941, the war in Europe was fundamentally a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. In terms of men and materiel involved, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies’ participation in the war—the North African and Mediterranean theatres, the strategic bombing campaign, the D-Day campaign—became peripheral, and there’s a real sense in which, in terms of the grand strategic outcome of the war, our central contribution was in how much we could handicap Germany’s war effort in Russia. If the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow, or had won in Stalingrad and crossed the Volga and rolled into the Caucasus, and had been able to transfer its millions of soldiers back to the West, we can’t reasonably expect that we’d ever have been able to dislodge them from Europe. Even during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944–January 1945, when the Germans pumped hundreds of thousands of additional troops into the Western Front in their last great push to turn back the British and American advance into Germany and knock the Western Allies out of the war, the total number of German troops fighting in the West was still just a small fraction of the number fighting against the Russians in Poland and East Prussia. That’s part of why four million of the (very roughly) five million German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front; it’s part of why four hundred thousand Americans and four hundred fifty thousand Britons were killed during the war, but twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were.
Whereas if we look at the Soviet Union in the Pacific War: Russia shared an extensive land border with Japan (the only one of the Three Powers to do so), by way of Korea, at that time an outright Japanese possession, and Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1931; in Vladivostok, the Russians had a naval and air base within easy strike range of the Japanese Home Islands, far closer than anything the Commonwealth or the United States possessed. The two countries rubbed up against each other so closely that they were literally athwart each other’s supply lines: Vladivostok thrusts into the Sea of Japan between Japan to the east and Korea and Manchuria to the west, while the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok’s link to the rest of Russia, actually runs through Manchuria.
And yet the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace with each other throughout the Pacific War. Indeed, out of deference to the Soviet–Japanese neutrality pact of 1941, the Russians actually interned British and American airmen who landed in Soviet territory after conducting operations against Japanese targets, just as would happen to belligerent airmen who landed in neutral countries like Switzerland or Spain (though the Russians usually permitted interned Allied airmen to “escape” after a given period).
(Someone’s going to mention that the Soviet Union did ultimately declare war on Japan, on 9 August 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and six days before Japan did the same, finally ending the Second World War. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria of 1945 is an important event, and in fact I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it as I write this, but it had no effect on the outcome of the war on either continent and is irrelevant to the discussion here.)
Both the Soviet Union and Japan materially hindered their allies by refusing to go to war with each other from 1941 to 1945: peace along the Manchurian–Siberian border meant that Japan was freeing up Soviet troops to fight against Germany, while Russia was allowing Japan to divert all its best troops to the south to fight in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.
I just can’t see Europe and the Pacific as separate theatres of a single war when one of those theatres saw the Soviet Union locked in a death struggle in the bloodiest and most destructive war humanity has ever fought, while the other saw them remain at peace with the enemy for the duration. It’s bad historiography. It assumes that the Anglo–American experience, as the only two powers to conduct a unified war effort over both hemispheres, is the definitive one.
So I’m going to be calling them the Second World Wars. Like “Napoleonic Wars”, that seems to me a good umbrella term under which to gather several separate conflicts which were clearly very closely related and overlapped considerably, but which did not share unified causes, participants, outcomes or even date ranges. We acknowledge the separateness of, say, the Peninsular War, the War of the Fifth Coalition and the War of 1812, while also acknowledging how inextricably interlinked they are; we should be able to acknowledge the same thing about the wars in Europe and the Pacific.
The Second World Wars, then, to me include at least four conflicts: the European war of 1939–45, the Asian–Pacific war of 1937–45, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the Winter War of 1939–40. (Wikipedia’s article on the Napoleonic Wars groups the Anglo–American War of 1812 and the Latin American wars of independence as “subsidiary wars” of the Napoleonic conflicts, and I think that’s an excellent way to describe the Spanish Civil War‘s relationship to the war in Europe.)
And I mean, let’s be honest. We all already think of the Winter War, or the Battles of Khalkin Gol or the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, as part of “World War II”, the cataclysmic period of global upheaval; they’re just not formally included in the definitions of the war itself. By redefining the Second World Wars as an era rather than as a single conflict, we accord them a status we already know they should possess.