Wellesley Historians Discuss How the Legacy of World War II Still Shapes Current Events

October 6, 2015
A photo from V-E Day, WWII ended 70 years ago this year

World War II formally ended in 1945, yet its legacy still shapes the narratives and current events of Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States. On September 30, students, faculty, and local residents packed the Lecture Room in Clapp Library to hear a panel discussion and Q&A on “The End of WWII: 70 Years Later,” hosted by the Department of History.

Moderator Andrew Shennan, provost and dean of the College and a historian specializing in modern France, opened the event with a personal reflection. “I was drawn to this history because of the colossal dislocation the war caused in millions of families, including my own,” he said. “My father lived in Liverpool as a boy and was sent to live in the countryside because of the bombing. During his evacuation, he lost his father. My mother grew up in Malaya; her father was imprisoned by the Japanese authorities, and she and her mother escaped to Australia.”

Both sides of Shennan’s family were permanently fractured, just as many nations were forever changed. “Historians continue to renew our understanding of what the war meant, and Wellesley College has some of the finest historians working on this,” he said.

Quinn Slobodian, associate professor of history, then spoke about present-day Germany, where the memory of World War II is not invoked in public discussions as often as in some other nations, and visitors sense an absence of 1945 in German consciousness.

Slobodian offered three explanations for that, beginning with what he called “the bad explanation”: that Germany has amnesia or is unwilling to remember its crimes. “In truth, there is a memory fatigue,” he said, explaining that the 40-year division of East and West Germany that followed the country’s wartime defeat made 1945 a “political football” as each side accused the other of being the heir to the defeated fascist regime.

A better argument for Germany’s selective memory, said Slobodian, is that the nation now has new dates to focus on: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the decision to adopt the Euro in 1992. “Germany sees itself as having a mandate to manage prosperity for Europe as a whole,” he said. “The current problem is one of quasi-imperial power and how to manage it.”

A third, more provocative explanation for Germany’s focus on the present rather than the past is that the nation has come close to achieving a form of the continental power it had last in 1945 and can now continue that hegemony.

Panelist Y. Tak Matsusaka, professor of history, explained that modern-day Japan is a pluralistic society with contested views about its role during World War II and whether the country should rearm. Those on the left acknowledge Japan’s atrocities during the war and its role as aggressor; they oppose armament and believe that patriotism means pacifism—“never again.” Those on the right see the war as an unfortunate but unavoidable conflict that resulted from Japan exercising its legitimate rights as a nation-state. They support rearmament and believe that Japan needs to meet its own security needs and its international responsibilities in collective security efforts.

“Japanese views of the war were generally critical and more self-reflective in the first few years after the war,” Matsusaka said. “The U.S. occupation initially encouraged such views. With the onset of the Cold War, however, the rehabilitation of wartime leaders by U.S. occupation authorities looking for reliable allies within Japan contributed to the rehabilitation of the war itself and strengthened the position of the right.”

When asked if the Japanese have forgiven the United States for dropping the atomic bombs, Matsusaka explained that after 1945, Japanese anger was directed at its own leadership. “There wasn’t much vindictive sentiment because people blamed their militarist government for the destruction their country suffered as a result of the war,” he said. “Today, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are viewed as monuments to peace.”

Nina Tumarkin, professor of history, then explained how the extraordinary success and heavy cost of the USSR’s victories during World War II—more than 27 million casualties, compared with 400,000 for the United States—contributed to a master narrative that declared its wartime ordeal to have been at once salvational and redemptive.

“In 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, which suffered the greatest military disaster in the history of modern warfare,” she said. “But by 1945 the Red Army was responsible for some 75 percent of all German casualties.”

From 1965 until the USSR’s collapse, an extravagant cult of the “Great Patriotic War” sacralized and celebrated the war as a reservoir of national suffering and national pride, to be tapped again and again. Its purported lesson was that war was unthinkable, and that the USSR served as the guardian of world peace.

This year, the Kremlin celebrated the 70th anniversary not as a commemoration of the war and its victorious end, but as a celebration of the victory only. The Soviet war cult had said, “Never again!” The current victory cult proclaims, “We can do it again!”

“Today, World War II is portrayed as a victory of absolute good over absolute evil, and this shapes Russia’s view of the Ukraine war,” Tumarkin said. “‘We defeated a tyrant [Germany] in the past and we can do it again [defeating Kiev and even Washington],’” said Tumarkin. “In Russia, myth, memory, and history truly matter.”

Brenna Greer, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and assistant professor of history, concluded the panel presentation by contrasting lavish 70th anniversary celebrations in Russia, Asia, and Europe with the paucity of commemorations and media coverage in the United States, even in Washington, D.C. “The presumption of our national position of power and goodness is articulated and dramatized daily, which is why we didn’t need to commemorate the anniversary of WWII,” she said.

“The war accounts for our rise as a world power because the U.S. got the credit for ending the war, and at that time was the only nuclear power. This bolstered a notion of American exceptionalism that became the basis for postwar campaigns to exert our influence globally,” she said. That exceptionalism was a primary tool we used in fighting the Cold War and now the global war on terror, she said, despite the fact that our currency of exceptionalism conflicts with this nation’s high rates of poverty, incarceration, and economic disparity.