The point of studying WW2
LAURENCE REES: There are lots of reasons to study the Second World War. And if you look at the interviews I conducted with all the other historians on WW2History.com you’ll see that each of them gives their own personal reasons as to why it’s worth knowing this history.
One huge reason, though, is that you can’t understand what is happening today in terms of the big international issues without understanding what also happened in the Second World War. The attitude of Russia to the rest of the world, in particular, is a mystery unless you understand the role and suffering of the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
But, as I said earlier, there was always something more to this history for me. I guess that’s because, as I just said, I could meet and question so many people who were involved in the conflict. That was particularly fascinating because what interests me, fundamentally, is trying to see how far it is possible to understand the human condition. Why are we who we are? What’s the point of being here? And, crucially in the context of the war, how do human beings behave when they are pushed to the extreme?
If I can digress for a moment, but hopefully in a way that further explains what I’ve just mentioned, I’ve thought for a long time that the basic paradox of our lives is this: we have a mind that is capable of memory, language and a sense of self, but we are trapped in the body of an animal. And, of course, all animal bodies are subject to decay, but our consciousness – our mind – can scarcely imagine our own death; that one day, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in fifty years, we will simply cease to exist on this earth. So how can we reconcile these two things? How can we live as animals, but as animals that know they must die? How, given the knowledge and certainty of our own death ahead of us, can we make sense of ourselves?
These are issues that are brilliantly explored in Ernest Becker’s ‘Denial of Death’ – one of the most important books I’ve ever read – and also in the philosophy of Kierkegaard. And all of this seems particularly relevant to me in the context of a study of the Second World War, because both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin each thought they had found an answer to this question of the meaning of existence. They didn’t promise an after-life, like many of the great religious figures of history had done, but they did say your life had meaning because you were part of something much bigger. They offered a powerful ideology that people felt they could emotionally and intellectually shelter in whilst they lived.
Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were loathsome, but we mustn't forget that they did offer meaning to many people at the time. And, equally, many of the British, American and other soldiers from Western democracies who fought in the war also found meaning in their lives during the fierce struggle against the Third Reich or the Japanese Empire. Indeed, as Martin Luther King – the single person in history I most admire – put it: ‘A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.’
I don’t think it an accident either that the astonishing book by Viktor Frankl detailing the conclusions he reached about the human condition, after his imprisonment in various Nazi camps, was entitled ‘Man’s search for meaning’. And I often think about his famous insight that ‘between stimulus and response comes choice.’
It seems to me that the ‘search for meaning’ in the face of ‘denial’ of death is an important task. And, personally, I find the best possible insight into these bigger issues can be gained by a study of the Second World War and the people who experienced it.