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The Causes and Consequences of World War II, Part 1

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When World War II ended in 1945, most of Europe lay in ruins. German cities like Dresden and Hamburg had practically been cremated from day-and-night Allied fire-bombings. Warsaw had been almost leveled to the ground by the Germans. The scorched-earth policies of both the Nazis and the Soviets had left much of European Russia, the Ukraine and the Baltic States almost totally destroyed. The Nazi death camps had consumed not only the lives of six million Jews, but an equivalent number of Poles, Gypsies and other undesirables.

Two Japanese cities — Hiroshima and Nagasaki — lay incinerated from atomic blasts. Eight years of war and Japanese occupation in China had uprooted millions of Chinese who had taken refuge in the wild and hostile regions of western China; and tens of thousands had died trying to make their escape.

Fifty million lives were consumed by the war.

The words of English historian Robert Mackenzie, in describing Europe at the beginning of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, are even more apt in expressing the events of the Second World War: “The interests of peace withered in the storm; the energies of all nations, the fruits of all industries were poured forth in the effort to destroy. From the utmost North to the shores of the Mediterranean, from the confines of Asia to the Atlantic, men toiled to bum each other’s cities, to waste each other’s fields, to destroy each other’s lives. In some lands there was heard the shout of victory, in some the wail of defeat. In all lands waste of war had produced bitter poverty; grief and fear were in every home.”

Why? For what cause, for what purpose, did men set loose the forces of destruction in this bonfire of the insanities? The answers are simple: collectivism and nationalism; utopian visions and ideological fanaticism; and the will to power.

The classical-liberal world of individual rights, private property and civil liberty had died in World War I. Every one of the cherished and hard-won freedoms of the 19th century were sacrificed on the altar of winning victory in that war. And when the war was over, liberty, as it turned out, was the ultimate victim. Behind the wartime slogans of “making the world safe for democracy,” “the right to national self-determination,” and “a league of nations for the securing of world peace,” nation-states had grown large with power. Wartime controls had replaced free enterprise; exchange controls and import-export regulations had replaced free trade; confiscatory taxation and inflation had undermined the sanctity of property and eaten up the accumulated wealth of millions. The individual and his freedom had shrunk … and the state and its power were now gigantic.

And the demons had been set loose on the world. Before the war had even come to a close, Russia was swept by revolution. Tired and hungry, the Russian people wanted peace. The Czar abdicated in February 1917. But the provisional government of center-left political forces that replaced the monarchy insisted upon pursuing the war on the Allied side against Germany. This gave the Bolsheviks under Lenin the opportunity to play to the masses with the slogan “peace, bread and land.”

In November 1917, in a coup, the Bolsheviks took power. When free elections resulted in the Bolsheviks’ winning only a small number of seats to the new Parliament Lenin shut it down after only one day of being in session. Lenin and the Bolsheviks intended to bring the people to socialism, in spite of the people’s own desires. Then, the Marxian path to the paradise-to-come was travelled even further under Stalin with forced collectivization of land, central planning, mass purges of all “enemies of the people,” and the Gulag.

In Italy, social unrest, communist agitation and disillusionment with the war created the conditions for the emergence of Mussolini and his fascist movement. The “march an Rome” in 1922 brought the fascists to power. Within a few years, they were instituting their version of the collectivist utopia of the future: corporativism. All industry and trade were subordinate to the interests of the nation. The state was supreme — and the individual was the means to its end. To express this concept, Mussolini coined the term “totalitarianism.”

In the 1920s, a weak, democratic government in Germany served as the background for the emergence of radical political movements. Hitler and the Nazis insisted that Germany had been victimized by the Allied powers, who had labeled Germany as the sole aggressor in World War 1. And Germany was now burdened by oppressive reparations payments caused by the “betrayal” of the German people by the social democrats. With rising unemployment and economic dislocation following the start of the Great Depression in 1929, the Nazis came to power in 1933. They promised to bring economic recovery, to purge Germany of the “alien Jewish element,” and to reestablish Germany’s rightful place in the world. By 1936, the Nazis had put into place their own version of the corporativist planned-economy. Moreover, through state education and a vast propaganda machine, they had instituted their ideology of racism and territorial aggrandizement.

But the tide of collectivist ideology was not limited to the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany. Except for Czechoslovakia, all of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were controlled by authoritarian regimes — characterized by regulated economics and denial of civil liberties.

And in Western Europe, the political course of events was no different. Both the Conservative and Labor Parties in Great Britain were dedicated to the interventionist-welfare state. After 1931, Great Britain was off the gold standard, free trade was replaced by protectionism, and public-works projects were used to fight unemployment. And in France, center-left governments followed similar policies.

In Asia, China was ruled by the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party under Chiang Kai-Shek, who was attempting to introduce “modernization” through state economic intervention and fascist-type planning. At the same time, large areas of the country were controlled either by local warlords or Mao Tse-tung’s communist forces. And Japan, with its own fascist-style economic order, was attempting to establish its own imperial empire in Manchuria and the rest of China.

In the United States, collectivism was triumphant as well. In the 1920s, the Republican administrations, in spite of free-enterprise rhetoric, established various government-business partnerships in the name of economic “rationalization.” Federal Reserve central-banking policy was geared to managing the economy through monetary manipulation. And when the fruits of central-bank, monetary central-planning resulted in the “great crash” of October 1929, the Hoover administration responded with even greater state intervention and governmental spending. The result was the Great Depression.

With the coming of the New Deal in 1933, following the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, America was subjected to its own brand of economic fascism, as the government imposed comprehensive controls and regulations on practically every aspect of economic life. The New Deal experience even led Mussolini to say that he greatly admired Franklin Roosevelt because with these policies, Roosevelt had shown that he, too, was a “social fascist.”

By the middle of the 1930s, collectivism was triumphant. Hardly a comer of the world was left which was not under the control of governments dedicated to a planned economy — dedicated to expanded state power. And the conditions were now in place for conflict and war.

The politicizing of economic and social life meant that every dispute — every disagreement in the world arena — were now matters of national interest and ideological victory or defeat. Every nation-state made itself an economic fortress, surrounded with trade barriers and economic weapons of way. And matching the economic weapons of nationalist rivalry was the growth of a vast armaments race.

The political means used by all of these nation-states were similar. What separated them were the ends for which these means were being applied. For the Soviets, the goal was Marxist revolution and communism. For the fascists, it was nationalist power and imperialism. For the Nazis, it was racial supremacy and “living room” for the German people. For the British and the French, it was maintenance of their colonial empires and economic domination of world trade. For Japan, it was an economic empire in China and political domination of East Asia. For the United States, it was the consolidation of the “achievements” of the New Deal at home and, by the late 1930s, the spreading of New Deal ideology to the rest of the world.

The events of the 1930s — events that brought the world into total war — were the natural results of the emergence of the total collectivist state. With the demise of classical liberalism — and its philosophy of limited government and individual liberty — the demons of statolatry encompassed the globe. The competing collectivisms were inevitably bound to clash in the struggle for ideological supremacy. And the clashes of these competing statisms formed the backdrop for the beginning of World War II.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).