Unthinkable devastation

After World War II, the US emerged as the number one economic, political  and military power, displacing Britain and Germany. 

Seventy years ago, World War II officially ended on August 15, 1945 with the surrender of Japan, following  the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some historians like to call 1945 as “The Year Zero” as it was also the beginning of a post-war “new world order”.

How was the world like in Year Zero?  Most of the people living today were not even born seven decades ago. Some of those who were born, like me (who was one year old at that time) had no direct recollections. All the stories I heard subsequently about the war were from my father and relatives.

These  included the unthinkable  devastation and loss of lives brought about by the war, the barbarism of the Nazis under Hitler, the spirited leadership and oratory of Churchill , the landing of “Allied Forces” at Normandy on D-Day, defeat of Germans at the hands of the Russian “Red army”, suicide by Hitler in the bunker, the fleeing of Indians from Burma, arrival of “Yankee” (American) soldiers in Calcutta, the exodus of people from cities to their ancestral homes in smaller towns and villages to escape possible Japanese bombing, the exploits of the INA led by Netaji Subhash Bose and the Great Bengal famine considered a collateral damage caused by  the war.

First, the role of Japan and the   atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers. Since the Japanese were defeated before they could enter India, Indians were not exposed to them, except the Indian soldiers fighting along the British forces. The Chinese, Koreans and people in South-East Asia occupied by the Japanese forces had the first-hand experience of Japanese brutalities in the form of mass killings and rape of civilians.

This underlines the fact that people of all nationalities (specially when driven by the feelings of racial superiority as the Japanese had, like the Germans) can commit horrendous atrocities in war situations. Though, in my childhood, I had heard so many stories of crimes against humanity by  the Germans, the Japanese atrocities were seldom  mentioned. May be because the Indians had a soft corner for the Japanese as they – an Asian race – were fighting the British – our European colonisers – and the INA led by Netaji was  taking the help of the Japanese to free India from the British.

Second, the prevalence of scarcities.  We have all heard of the millions dying in the Great Bengal famine of 1943.  But what is not so well known to the present generation was the acute scarcity of  food and basic consumer goods (like cloth) during and after the war, because of diversion of resources (food, materials and labour) towards the military, disruption of transportation and distribution systems and wilful starvation of people by the occupation forces as ‘punishment’.

Millions had died of hunger even in Europe, specially in some parts of the Soviet union, not to mention the starvation and death as a matter of policy in the German concentration camps. Rationing and black marketing was the order of the day all over the world, though the situation was much less severe in America whose physical infrastructure was not devastated by the war.

Thirst for revenge

Third, the thirst for revenge. Just as the Germans and the Japanese committed barbarities, the liberators in many cases also went for an ‘eye for an eye’. The Germans were particularly savage in their treatment of the Russians during the war which the Russian liberation forces gave them back after they entered Germany. The alleged collaborators with the enemy were in many cases summarily executed.

The trials like the Nuremburg trials, following a legal process, was kept reserved mostly for high ranking officers. The dropping of atom bombs on two Japanese cities, killing around 2,00,000 unarmed civilians, was treated as acts of war and not crimes against humanity.

Fourth, the seeds of many subsequent political developments were sown in Year Zero. Winston Churchill, considered the greatest wartime prime minister, was defeated by the Labour Party led by Clement Atlee in July 1945. With Churchill out of power – he was not willing “to preside over the dissolution of the British empire” – and the Labour Party, much more sympathetic to the freedom movements in the colonies, the independence of India was hastened. The bitter experience of foreign occupation in Europe also weakened the moral and the political strength of all colonial nations (like British, French, Dutch) and forced them to loosen their grip over the colonies.

Following the “holocaust”, the need for Jews for a “homeland” got a momentum that led to the creation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israel hostilities over decades. As the War was regarded by many people as the product of aggressive capitalism (in Germany) and feudalism (in Japan) and the need for rapid industrialisation and reconstruction in the midst of acute  scarcity of resources was felt in many parts of the world, socialist ideals – including the need for planning of economic activities by the state – gained in popularity.

Russia, taking the first mover advantage of liberating East Europe from the Germans, ruled East Europe through its puppet regimes. For many East Europeans, the Second World War effectively ended only after they became free from the grip of USSR in the early 1990s.

The US emerged as the number one economic, political  and military power, displacing Britain and Germany. The UN was born with the ideal of  ensuring a war-free world but in reality, it became the stage for fighting the so-called  ‘cold war’ between the Soviet and the Western blocs. Both Germany and Japan  were forced to forego the right to have armies and became  effectively the protectorates of US and its allies. Neo-colonialism, by influencing  policies of nations, replaced the old-fashioned colonialism by  physical occupation.

(The author is a former Professor of Economics, IIM- Calcutta)

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