The Extraordinary Thing About WWII Is What Happened After

This video is a bit less than 20 minutes long. It has been making the rounds on Facebook and other social network sites, so it is possible you have seen it already. If you have not, you should. It is incredible.

Numbers surrounding the Second World War are always ripe for debate, of course, and if you view the comment thread on Vimeo you will see that the debates have already  started. The only revision I would make to the video does not concern the Second World War at all, but the An-Lushan Rebellion (755-753) fought a thousand years before it. This rebellion is often included in lists of the world’s deadliest wars and it shows up when Mr. Halloran compares the Second World War’s death toll to that of earlier conflicts of equal consequence.  

While it was surely a destructive event, I do not think there is proper evidence to prove that it was that destructive. The 36 million casualties number comes from Tang Dynasty censuses that showed the population of China just before and just after the rebellion, with 36 million being the difference. Many of those 36 million people surely died in the rebellion, but many more fled and moved to safer, more remote locales. The number should be properly understood not as the number of civilians killed, but as a measure for how badly the Tang government’s ability to monitor and control the Chinese population it governed had been damaged. It was a war from which the Tang would never recover. 

In this sense, it was a very different kind of conflict than the Second World War, a war whose legacy is now seen mostly in the realm of memory. The An-Lushan Rebellion was (from a Chinese perspective) a war that ravaged the known world and involved almost all of the important military powers of its day. While bright emperors like Xianzong (r. 805-820) would try to pull the Tang back together in the decades after the rebellion, the dynasty’s decline was terminal. The forces unleashed by the war eventually led to the complete disintegration of Tang power. This kind of collapse was not seen after the Second World War. The power that suffered the most was to emerge from the conflict as the world’s second strongest. But it was not just the Soviet Union that showed remarkable resilience–humanity as a whole weathered the destruction of two continents and the death of 70 million people barely worse for wear. This is a truly remarkable feat–perhaps one only possible in today’s Exponential Age. The Tang never recovered from the An-Lushan rebellion; Central Asia never blossomed like it did before the Mongol conquests; no new Roman empire rose from the ashes of the old. But the Second World War was not a precursor to a new dark age. Under the old rules of static civilization–where wealth was not created, but taken–catastrophes of this scale required centuries of recovery before old heights could be reclaimed. The history of the post-war world dramatically illustrates that this is no longer the case.

This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 6 June 2015.

12 thoughts on “The Extraordinary Thing About WWII Is What Happened After”

  1. The Second World War was far less destructive of civilization than the Welfare State which will probably destroy us.

  2. There must be cases of Empires falling with little damage, or even improvement – an example might be the fall off the Mughal Empire in India. Any others?

    Apart from the slaughter at independence, India survived the fall of the British Empire there pretty well; Pakistan less so, I suspect. But then that was a departure without war, or at least without war against the British.

    I suspect that much of Africa is worse off than it would otherwise be from the departure of the European empires, though they too departed without any major wars except in Algeria and Angola. Have I overlooked any? I’m viewing the Congo war as not against the departing Belgians but between the potential successor regimes.

    The point about the aftermath of the Second World War is well made: horrors such as the fate of Russians and others handed over to the Red Army, of Yugoslavs handed over to Tito, and to German civilians driven out of central and eastern Europe were, in the large picture, of short duration and limited extent.

    I suppose a good contrast would be of the Thirty Years War with the Napoleonic Wars. The years after the latter were in the exponential age, I guess?

  3. Pax Americana?

    The Cold War stalemate pushed America to extend it’s empire around the world, and this is primarily responsible for the so-called ‘Long Peace’. Now that America is in retreat, China is spilling into Eurasia, and the modern version of the Holy Alliance is returning to Europe, our brief peaceful respite may be ending.

    Also, obviously the Eastern Front was a terrible meat grinder, but any estimates of casualties are educated guesses at best. I would be more inclined to believe upper estimates for the Red Army and lower estimates for the Wehrmacht just because of the past decade of revisionism going on about the Soviet Union.

  4. One additional factor in German army deaths is the fact that most prisoners died. My friend the Marine fighter pilot I mentioned in another post, lost his father who was a German army soldier held by the Russians after the war had ended. His mother was able to visit him and, when she returned a few days later for another visit, she was told he had “died.”

    She managed to get out of Germany and to Minnesota where he grew up and went to college. He joined the Marine Corps out of college.

  5. More than a few times I’ve mused on what the world would look like if folks were able to avoid wars. Mind you, this musing did not happen in a sanitized vacuum. Meanies exist. The recognition of this and its outworking in shaping a person’s world/political view seems to me an evident litmus test of sanity. Further the immediate context of such musing usually happened upon encountering book or museum accounts. These often highlight the staggering costs in percentages of productivity and population waging war requires both victor and defeated to squander.

    But what if? Even if one acknowledges the startling reality of incredible advances in technology resulting in significant improvements in standards of living, what if that war had not happened?

  6. A remark attributed to Leonardo da Vinchi. ” War, if nothing else, is a prolific breeder of machinery.

  7. 1945-1990 was also a time (probably because of America’s government, vision, and power) that saw increased commerce and therefore scrutiny, visitors, limited transparency. Didn’t that let the ideas the victors represented permeate other countries? We were brought up thinking the UN was going to save all this. It’s hard to be idealistic about it now – but it may have been somewhat effective in reality but also stood for (in inchoate form) individual universal worth – a kind of personal dignity and divinity that undergirded our founders (as much as the need to limit power – as important and not always recognized a factor).

  8. “…t’s hard to be idealistic about it now – but it may have been somewhat effective in reality but also stood for (in inchoate form) individual universal worth…”

    At least that’s what the public relations wing of the UN would have those who foot the bill believe.

  9. “no new Roman empire rose from the ashes of the old”

    The American empire dominates the entire world. The American President Obama is the new Caesar who is above all laws which laws he makes at his every whim. His generals give orders to foreign potentates everywhere – on every continent. The American Presidents’ lackeys overthrow governments that stood for hundreds of years – regardless of whether or not their citizens support their rulers. Regardless of whether they are elected. Joyously he sends out drones to kill all who oppose him and all who have the misfortune of standing near by.

    This is the pox Americana and anyone who resists is dead.

    Eternal health to Obama!!!! (Roman salute)

  10. One could make a similar comment about World War I.

    WW I and its follow-on conflicts were most devastating in the Balkans, Russia, and the Middle East (Turkey had proportionally more deaths than any other country). And yet, by 1930, peace, civil order, and a modicum of prosperity had been re-established even in these areas.

    This year is the 200th anniversary of the end of the generation of devastating wars that followed the French Revolution. But European civilization did not collapse in the 1820s.

    Heck – Imperial China survived horrendous conflicts in the 1800s: the Tai Ping and Nien rebellions, and several others. (Some of these other rebellions had 1M death tolls, but are only footnotes.) China broke down politically in the 1900s, but that was due to the extreme political misfeasance of the Dowager Empress and her cronies.

    I think the lesson is that more modern societies have learned to limit damage, and that their civil order structures are more resilient. Printing may be a factor.

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