On September 1st of this year we will commemorate yet another sad anniversary of the bloody horror show that was the Twentieth Century. On that day, eighty years ago, armed forces of Nazi Germany invaded Poland on the pretext of protecting an ethnic minority- the German citizens of the Free City of Danzig, now Gdansk, on the Baltic coast of Poland. Advanced subversive Nazi agents and local SA and SS members had sparked an altercation with the employees and volunteers at the post office, which was a nucleus of local Polish community activity.
The armed defense of the post office was the grounds for the invasion by the Third Reich. Poland, a much poorer and less industrialized or militarized nation than Germany at the time, held out for six weeks under assault by land, sea, and air. It could have lasted longer if Hitler’s ally, Stalin, had not invaded the eastern half of the country sixteen days after the Germans did.
The United Kingdom and France gave Germany a time limit for withdrawal from Poland, and when the warning was ignored, declared war on Germany. The British Empire was brought into the conflict, and the independent Dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand soon declared war on the Axis powers as well. The United States stayed neutral until it was attacked directly by the Empire of Japan on December 7th, 1941. Meanwhile, the Nazis invaded their erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, on June 22nd, 1941, bringing that nation onto the side of the Western Allies. Nationalist China was already an ally, having been attacked by Japan in 1937, after losing Manchuria to that Empire in 1931.
After the United States entered the war, and revived its huge industrial capacity, bedraggled and depreciated by over a decade of economic depression, millions more men and women, and many thousands of airplanes, ships, tanks, and other armaments came into the fight against fascist aggression, and the war was eventually won. Over seventy million people died, and over fourteen million of them in dozens of death camps operated by the Nazis, or in ad hoc massacres.
Anyone who did not fit into the Nazi vision of a future ‘Aryan’ superstate was annihilated on an industrial scale: Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Socialists, assorted ‘lesser “races”’, critics, opposition politicians or activists, various resistors, nonconformists, devout Christians, homosexuals; ‘degenerates’; writers, artists, and musicians; prisoners of war, and anyone who got in the way. Torture and horrific medical ‘experiments’ were performed. Japan also operated a smaller number of death camps and conducted similar ‘experiments’.
None of this had to happen. There were several earlier events which could have brought about strong opposition from democratic powers. But, political fecklessness and inability to understand the absolute and extreme, uncompromising nature of the radical Nazi and Imperial Japanese ideologies led to giving ground and conceding much that allowed the despots to gain more resources and more power, until it required what came to be called ‘total war’ to defeat them. The failure to act made the war far more likely, and far more destructive and deadly later on.
In October 1933, Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments. This was a key indication of the Nazis’ intention to become militarily aggressive. In January 1935, Germany annexed the Saarland, after a plebiscite which supposedly showed its inhabitants wanted to rejoin the Fatherland, which had ceded it after World War I. In March of that year, Germany broke its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the earlier World War, by announcing it would expand military conscription and rearm, as France refused to allow its military parity.
In June 1935, Britain signed a treaty that Germany would be allowed to add submarines to its navy again, and have as many ships as the United Kingdom. In September, the Nuremberg Laws made Jews and others de facto non-citizens and potential political detainees. In 1939, the Third Reich signed alliances with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, known as the Pact of Steel. In March 1938, Hitler annexed his home country, Austria, with local subversion and contrived ‘popular uprisings’ to support the action. In September of that year, Germany annexed what it called the ‘Sudetenland’, a region of western Czechoslovakia with a majority of German-speakers in return for an agreement in Munich with the Western democracies declaring that this was its last territorial acquisition in Europe. Also, in November of 1938, Kristallnacht occurred, in which Jews were killed or arrested and their homes, businesses, and synagogues were torched, looted, and seized.
Germany soon abrogated the Munich pact with the invasion of the entire remnant of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. With the signing of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in August of 1939, Hitler neutralized a potential enemy and secretly divided up Poland ahead of the invasion.
Future British war leader Winston Churchill was one of the few voices warning of the rising threat of Nazi aggression and brutal oppression of its regime throughout the nineteen-thirties. He was not ignored, but he was not heeded either. While the West finally realized the enormity and severity of the threat eventually, it came too late. As soon as the Nazi regime started rearming, direct opposition and confrontation by France and Britain could have made any conflict far less severe or costly. Even at the point where Czechoslovakia was threatened, action to aid the Prague government could have been enough to slow down, if not outright stop Hitler, as the Czechs had a strong army, and their nation was industrialized and relatively modern in infrastructure. Its landlocked physical location and dearth of strong alliances were proximate causes of the lack of Western aid.
Similarly, the Empire of Japan was not subtle in its actions or intentions. It wanted to bring about something it called the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, with Tokyo as its capital, and the conquered nations of East and South-east Asia bringing tribute to it in the form of natural resources and forced labour. In 1931, Japanese armed forces seized Manchuria, a large territory in northeast China rich in coal and other minerals, and over the next several years, annexed more and more Chinese land towards the West and South. In 1937 it launched a full-scale attack and invasion of the Chinese heartland, in Shanghai and beyond. After much mayhem and destruction, by 1941 it was in control of most of populated China.
All this military activity required a lot of fuel, which was not produced in adequate amounts in its existing conquered territories. The United States, the largest oil producer and exporter at this time, wary of further Japanese expansion and aware of its alliance with Germany and Italy, threatened an oil embargo on Japan if it did not cease its hostilities, which were now nearing the Philippines, a US territory at the time. Japan had to acquire the oilfields of northern Borneo, in the Dutch East Indies and needed the rubber plantations in British Malaya, Burma, or French Indo-China. So the fateful decision was made to attack the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to forestall American action against their invasion of Southeast Asia. Just as the Nazis over-reached and went beyond their capabilities, so too did Imperial Japan, which was eventually defeated.
Again, there were several steps in Japan’s march to in-gloriousness where strong intervention by foreign powers could have slowed or stopped its murderous ‘progress’. Britain did try to help, by strengthening its garrisons in Hong Kong and Singapore, but these were inadequate to the task. France and the Netherlands were occupied by Germany, and so did not defend Indochina or the Dutch East Indies vigorously. The United States was still trying to avoid being sucked into another costly global war and sitting on a fence between neutrality and active opposition to military aggression, so it did not physically intervene. There may have been ‘better’ reasons for the weak response to Japan’s expansion than for Western dithering over Nazi Germany’s antics, but the result was that it became far too costly, longer, and more bloody to stop both evil empires.
As with the lead-up to World War I, it is not entirely clear that the lessons of the march of the dictators through the 1930’s has informed our political leaders or our civil societies, opinion, and ‘thought leaders’. The wobbly support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and its role as a bulwark against Soviet, and now Russian aggression, subversion, and expansionism, is ever-eroding, despite US President Trump’s largely successful hectoring of members to step up their military spending. Yet nothing NATO nor its constituent states said or did stopped Russia from invading Georgia, annexing Crimea from Ukraine, nor from invading Eastern Ukraine and engaging in cyber attacks against Baltic republics and other nations. Russia is making Germany dependent on its natural gas with a new pipeline, Nord Stream 2, that will bring in much-needed foreign currency to that despotic regime, as well.
Similarly, precious little was done as China asserted its dominion over the South China Sea, and threatened Japan, now a strong Western ally, over islands in the East China Sea. When Japan and China had an armed confrontation over those islands in 2010, Beijing unilaterally embargoed its exports of rare earth metals to Japan, and by extension, to all other nations that use them to make permanent magnets for electric cars and wind turbines, and many other uses. Nothing was done to develop alternative sources of those minerals.
In 2016, China punished Korean businesses after South Korea installed a US missile air defense system to counter North Korean missile development. The Philippines took China to international court over its territorial expansion into its marine territory, only to give in to Beijing after a new president in Manila decided it did not make sense to antagonize the regional superpower. Vietnam strenuously opposed Chinese oil drilling in what are its own territorial waters, with no other nation coming to its aid. China continues to build up and militarize several rocks, reefs, shoals, and islets in the South China Sea to project its power far beyond its recognized boundaries. Nothing was done to stop this militarization, and now it makes China the de facto ruler of vital commercial and strategic sea lanes.
In 2019, China arbitrarily incarcerated two Canadian expatriates and enacted prohibitions on Canadian agricultural imports for the transgression of daring to observe extradition treaty obligations by detaining an executive of Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment maker. China also imprisons ethnic and religious minorities in its own borders, the Uighurs, and enacts extensive surveillance on that group, Tibetans, and many urban Chinese in general.
Abroad, it seeks to extend its economic, commercial, industrial, and financial power via its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative; its cultural power via its ‘Confucius Institutes’ on foreign university campuses; and its political power via compelling students, researchers, and other Chinese on foreign soil to be its observers, spies, and vocal supporters. It also engages in hostile military and industrial espionage and computer hacking, as well as theft and forced sharing of intellectual property. The current trade war with the United States is one they are determined to win, as they will not concede anything substantial that would undermine their announced goal of eventual world domination; i.e., superseding the United States.
The hostile, duplicitous, or larcenous actions, attitudes, policy, and other manifestations of Russian and Chinese hostility to Western norms of peaceful, honest, reciprocal cultural, commercial, academic, personal, and other interchange and interaction make them de facto adversaries requiring robust and resolute defiance and counter-action when they break laws and cause harm, or look to do so. To refrain from immediate, deliberate, and carefully calibrated action against aggressors is to invite them to take more and more antagonistic and destruction actions, leading to worse consequences in the future if nothing is done. That is the primary lesson from what was not done prior to September 1st, 1939.