Fact: World War II started seventy years ago, on September 1, 1939.
Or did it? Historians spend a lot of time thinking about dates, about issues of “periodization.” Questions like “When did the Renaissance start?” or “When did the Great Depression end?” are our bread and butter. With that in mind, let’s talk for a moment about 1939.
Certainly, a case can be made that Nazi Germany’s unprovoked invasion of Poland was the curtain raiser, the first act in the great conflict that would rage for the next six years. Every student of the war knows it: two days after the first Panzers crossed the border, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, and the world was at war.
Or was it? In September 1939, the “world” was hardly at war. Some of Europe was at war, to be sure. But even here, we should exercise caution. Unlike 1914, Russia was not yet involved directly (although it was assisting the Germans with supplies and raw materials, and it did send forces into eastern Poland two weeks into the campaign). Austria-Hungary no longer existed, and its successor states hung back. As in 1914, the Italians vacillated and would not enter the war until the second year. Another great power, the United States of America, still stood aloof , although FDR had already made it known he would do whatever he could to assist the Allies. The scope of the fighting was surprisingly limited. Most of the early action would be confined to a relatively small area of eastern Europe, and after the German conquest of Poland there was no land fighting at all for six full months–the “Phoney War” to Americans, the “Sitzkrieg” to the Germans.
A war certainly did start in 1939, but it was a limited one, fought in a limited way in a limited theater. The Germans were right to call it a “sitting war.” The armed forces on all sides mostly sat. After all those years of pundits predicting devastation from the air by strategic bombing in the first fifteen minutes of a new war, all of the homelands remained pretty much untouched. German “action” against France was limited mainly to loudspeaker broadcasts opposite the Maginot Line. The British did send bombers over the Ruhr, but only to drop anti-Hitler leaflets.
So, did “the war “ start in 1939? Maybe, but I’d say it took a couple of years for this one to become “World War II.”
Next time: let’s look at Asia and Africa.