I don’t pretend that historical coincidences like this mean anything. But perhaps because I’ve just finished teaching a course on the history of World War II for the first time, I couldn’t help but notice a convergence of WWII-related anniversaries on my Twitter feed this morning:
I’m sure there’s something profound to note about this convergence. Mostly, I’m just struck that — in large part because of World War II — the world these men knew on January 30, 1945 was very different from the one that existed on these anniversary dates.
• The economy into which Franklin Roosevelt was born this day in 1882 — admittedly, into a peculiarly lofty stratum of it — was growing, but turbulent. That year it descended into a three-year recession that reduced industrial output and saw a major financial panic. Before that recession deepened, America was responsible for not quite 15% of the world’s manufacturing; by Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, it was producing almost half of everything produced in the world, a feat unequaled by any country in world history. Roosevelt’s America was protected by fewer than 40,000 troops; by 1945 over 16 million Americans had been mobilized to fight Germany and Japan, and the US military has never had fewer than 1.3 million active-duty personnel in the years since. (Today the total number of majors and lieutenant commanders alone dwarfs the total personnel of the 1880s.)
• This day in 1933 Adolf Hitler took control of a country that was not yet fifteen years removed from a world war that had claimed the lives of over two million German troops (not counting the hundreds of thousands of civilians who starved to death because of the British blockade) and left nearly ten million German-speakers living outside of Germany. While in the years following 1933 Hitler had temporarily fulfilled the hopes of his devoted followers, his decision to descend Europe into another war ultimately cost 8% of Germans their lives (plus millions more non-German lives — e.g., nearly 4% of Greeks, 7% of Yugoslavs, almost one in five Poles, and two in three European Jews). The day after the 12th anniversary of his ascent to power, the Red Army crossed the Oder, the last significant natural barrier separating it from Berlin. Hitler and his thousand-year Reich had mere months left to live.
• This day in 1965 Winston Churchill died a hero of Britain and the twentieth century, his state funeral (one of the largest in history) watched by 350 million people around the world. But the two decades between the end of WWII and the end of his distinguished life had not gone as he might have planned. Early in his tenure as prime minister, Churchill succeeded in rallying the British people behind a war few of them had wanted to fight, exhorting them to “bear [themselves] that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
It was, but they didn’t.
Voted out of office just after the war in Europe ended, Churchill could only watch as a Labour government completed Britain’s withdrawal from India. While he attempted to maintain the Empire on his return to power in 1951-1955, Conservative successors bowed to the inevitable and accelerated decolonization.
All of this had been anticipated, in a sense, by the man who guided India to independence. With other leaders of the Congress Party, Mohandas Gandhi stated in September 1939 both condemnation of Hitler’s cause (“It has been in fascism and Nazism the intensification of the principle of imperialism against which the Indian people have struggled for many years”) and unwillingness to wholeheartedly support “a war said to be for democracy when that very freedom is denied to her, and such limited freedom as she possesses taken away from her.” The Congress Party statement of Sept. 14, 1939 continued:
If Great Britain fights for the maintenance and extension of democracy, then she must necessarily end imperialism in her own possessions, establish full democracy in India, and the Indian people must have the right of self-determination….
The crisis that has overtaken Europe is not of Europe only but of humanity and will not pass like other crisis [sic] or wars leaving the essential structure of the present-day world intact. It is likely to refashion the world for good or ill, politically, socially, and economically.
All of which, of course, should remind us of one more event that happened this day in history: