Not a “good war”: Thoughts on World War II

Not a “good war”: We should mourn, not celebrate the victory of violence in World War II

Ted Grimsrud

Originally published in The Mennonite (June 13, 1995), 10.


In the past year the media have been full of remembrances and celebrations of the end of World War II, by common consensus the last “good war.”  Part of the consensus, it appears, is the assumption that World War II “worked,” that its violence was redemptive.

Like many Mennonites, I am a committed pacifist.  I believe war is always wrong.  But also, like many Mennonites, I have been brought up to be glad about World War II.  These two beliefs create a tension.  How can a pacifist be glad about a war?  But I am no longer glad about World War II.  It did not work, if by work we mean contribute to human well-being.

World War II is generally seen as a justifiable war, given the obvious evils of Nazism.  However, this assumption masks some ambiguities.  For one thing, the treatment of Germany after World War I was punitive and vindictive and helped create the spawning ground for Nazism.  A more just treatment of Germany (advocated, by the way, by many pacifists and progressives) in the 1920s would have probably kept Nazism from spreading as it did.  As the Nazis rose in power, they were treated with kid gloves by many Allied leaders.

For example, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has been vilified for his policy of appeasement of Hitler.  But what is often forgotten is that Chamberlain was a right-wing Tory who was sympathetic with Nazism because it was seen as a helpful bulwark against the “Red Threat.”  Again, the most outspoken opponents of Nazism in the early 1930s tended to be pacifists and progressives.

The Allies were hostile to Democratic Socialists in Germany from 1918 until Hitler took over and rendered the Socialists and Communists obsolete.  Perhaps the immediate rationale for the war in 1939 (to stop the Nazis, who were out of control) was justifiable, but only because the Allies had been irresponsible earlier.

The justification of saving the Jews was not one that shaped the Allied entry into the war.  In fact, all the Allied nations refused to do much of anything to save the Jews when they had the opportunity before the war–including refusing entry to shiploads of Jews seeking asylum.

As to whether the conduct of the war was just, only die-hard supporters of the just-war approach argue that it was.  Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaugherhouse Five disabused me of that belief even before I was a pacifist.  The Allies self-consciously broke almost every rule of just conduct, most blatantly the rules against intentionally destroying civilian life (again, read Vonnegut’s account of the bombing of Dresden) and against fighting longer than necessary (the insistence upon unconditional surrender after the war was for all intents and purposes won no doubt cost millions of lives).

Who won World War II?  Was Nazism defeated?  Violence won World War II.  It is true that some particular Nazi leaders were defeated.  Nazism as an explicit form of government was (for the time being) eradicated. But in many ways the spirit of Nazism was victorious.  The German arms builders (the I.G. Farben conglomerate) came through the war unscathed and continue to prosper today.  The German scientists who sold their souls to the Nazis were then recruited to sell their souls to the Allied nuclear idols.

One of the main tenets of Nazism, rule by brute power, has been since World War II the defining principle for U.S. foreign policy and most other political systems in the world.  I don’t men to say that this wasn’t the case before, but fighting Nazi brute power with Allied brute power accelerated the reign of brute power.  In the course of history, that will be far more significant than whatever direct effect on the world Hitler might have had.

Life is too ambiguous to paint the World War II experience as black and white.  My father was an officer during that war and served five years with distinction.  He remained proud of that service to his dying day. He was a gentle, loving person.  Nonetheless, I am aware of irretrievable losses even he experienced.

For the loved ones of the millions upon millions of people who were killed in that war the irretrievable losses were much more immediate.  When we consider World War II we rarely think of the incredible loss to the world this unleashed violence caused.  We don’t know what the Nazis would have done if not opposed militarily.  I can’t imagine that they would possibly have killed even a fraction of as many people as the war did.  And I’m confident the Nazi system would have collapsed under its own weight at least as quickly as Communism.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on World War II conscientious objectors.  Their experience, for our society only a tiny footnote in the war experience, was also full of ambiguity.  But that witness was an important aspect of what happened during the war.

That tiny group of pacifists (in the United States there were 12,000 COs who performed alternative service and 6,000 who went to prison) may have performed a service analogous to the prophet who wrote Isaiah 40–55.  That prophet, writing in the chaos of brute force following Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem, kept a flicker of light alive with his vision of God’s peace still having the final say.  Those who refused to add to the spiral of total brute force (even if “justifiable” because the Nazis were so evil) kept a similar flicker of light alive and served a crucial service of keeping violence from totally dominating the world.

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