Bestselling historian Keith Lowe's The Fear and the Freedom looks at the astonishing innovations that sprang from World War II and how they changed the world.
The Fear and the Freedom is Keith Lowe’s follow-up to Savage Continent. While that book painted a picture of Europe in all its horror as World War II was ending, The Fear and the Freedom looks at all that has happened since, focusing on the changes that were brought about because of World War IIsimultaneously one of the most catastrophic and most innovative events in history. It killed millions and eradicated empires, creating the idea of human rights, and giving birth to the UN. It was because of the war that penicillin was first mass-produced, computers were developed, and rockets first sent to the edge of space. The war created new philosophies, new ways of living, new architecture: this was the era of Le Corbusier, Simone de Beauvoir and Chairman Mao.
But amidst the waves of revolution and idealism there were also fears of globalization, a dread of the atom bomb, and an unexpressed longing for a past forever gone. All of these things and more came about as direct consequences of the war and continue to affect the world that we live in today. The Fear and the Freedom is the first book to look at all of the changes brought about because of World War II. Based on research from five continents, Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom tells the very human story of how the war not only transformed our world but also changed the very way we think about ourselves.
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The End of the World
On the morning of 6 August 1945, a Japanese lecturer named Ogura Toyofumi was making his way into the city of Hiroshima when he witnessed a sight that would change history. About four kilometres away, over the centre of town, he saw a blinding flash of light: it was bluish white, like the light from a photographer's magnesium flash, but on such a scale that it seemed to have split the sky open. In astonishment, he threw himself down on the ground and watched. The flash was followed by a huge column of red flame and smoke, 'like lava from a volcano that had erupted in midair', rising miles into the sky.
The sight was as beautiful as it was terrifying. 'I don't know how to describe it. A massive cloud column defying all description appeared, boiling violently and seething upward. It was so big it blotted out much of the blue sky. Then the top of it began to spill down, like the breakup of some vast thundercloud, and the whole thing started to seep out and spread to the sides ... Its shape was constantly changing and its colours were kaleidoscopic. Here and there it glittered with some small explosions.'
Never having seen anything like this before, he imagined himself for a moment in the presence of some divine event: the pillar of fire seen by Moses in the Old Testament, perhaps, or a manifestation of the Buddhist shumisen cosmos. But as religious and mythical images passed rapidly through his mind, he realized that none of them came close to the awesome sight that was unfolding before him. 'The unsophisticated concepts and fantasies dreamed up by the ancients were useless to describe this horrible pageant of clouds and lights staged in the firmament.'
Moments later Ogura was hit by the atomic blast, which he weathered by pressing himself flat to the ground. All around him he could hear 'tremendous ripping, slamming and crashing sounds as houses and buildings were torn apart'. He also thought he could hear screams, although afterwards he was never sure if these had been real or were just products of his imagination.
By the time Ogura was able to rise to his feet again, just a few moments later, his environment had been utterly transformed. Where once there had been a thriving city – the seventh largest in Japan – there was now suddenly nothing but rubble, skeletons of houses, blackened ruins. In a state of shock he climbed to the top of a nearby hill to survey the damage, before heading off into the city centre to get a closer look.
What he saw astonished him. 'Hiroshima had ceased to exist ... I couldn't believe it. All around me was a vast sea of smoking rubble and debris, with a few concrete buildings rising here and there like pale tombstones, many of them shrouded in smoke. That's all there was, as far as the eye could see ... There was no difference at all between the distant view and the scene close-up ... No matter how far I walked, the sea of ruins stretching back on both sides of the road still burned and smoked ... I had expected to see a great deal of devastation, but I was dumbfounded to see that the area had been completely obliterated.'
Ogura's description of Hiroshima was one of the first to be published in Japan. Written in the form of a series of letters to his wife, who had been killed in the blast, it is an attempt to understand how the author's home town was transformed instantaneously from a world of the living into a world of the dead. It is filled with hellish scenes of grotesquely deformed corpses and survivors so horrifically injured that they are barely recognizable as human beings. There are regular references to the 'inferno', to the 'Buddhist versions of hell' and to the 'fiery end of Sodom and Gomorrah'. In the final pages there is even mention of a typhoon that hit Hiroshima a month after the war was over, which reminded the author of 'the Flood of Noah's time'. The implication is that what Ogura had experienced was not merely the destruction of a single city, but something akin to Armageddon itself, as the English title of his book, Letters from the End of the World, testifies.
Such apocalyptic visions were common amongst Hiroshima survivors. The novelist Ota Yoko, who wrote another of the earliest accounts of the bombing, could find no other reasonable explanation for the speed with which everything had been vaporized: 'I just could not understand why our surroundings had changed so greatly in one instant ... I thought it might have been something which had nothing to do with the war, the collapse of the earth which it was said would take place at the end of the world, and which I had read about as a child.'
Like Ogura, she groped for supernatural causes, wondering if the whole of the war were not a kind of 'cosmic phenomenon' brought about by some vast phantasm intent on destroying the world.
Thousands of other survivors also believed, for a while at least, that what they were witnessing was the end of days. Any researcher making a detailed study of eyewitness accounts from Hiroshima will come across the same phrases again and again: 'scenes from hell', 'a living hell', 'hell on earth', 'the world of the dead', 'it felt like the sun had fallen out of the sky', 'I had a terrible lonely feeling that everybody else in the world was dead'. Some survivors are still unable to reconcile what they saw that day with the world as it had been before the bombing, or indeed with the world as it has since become: it is as if they had witnessed something in an alternative reality entirely unrelated to our own. 'Looking back to that day,' wrote one survivor forty years later, 'I feel that it was not a human world, and that what I saw was the hell of another world.'
Such thoughts echo the experiences of countless other witnesses to countless other events during the Second World War across the globe. Horrific though the experience of Hiroshima was, it was still only a single event in a worldwide conflict that had already been taking place for many years. As the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, made clear on the day after Hiroshima, there was something terrifyingly familiar about the atomic bomb: it was just the final episode in a war that seemed to have no end to its 'apocalyptic surprises'. Even some of those who experienced the atomic bomb were forced to admit that it was merely the 'ugly after-echo of a war that had already ended'. In her memoir, Ota Yoko conceded that what she had experienced was only the symptom of something much greater, and much more horrific: a single catastrophe in a never-ending chain of 'suffocating, apocalyptic horror'.
The experiences of civilians in Germany were similar to those in Japan. Germany was never subjected to the atomic bomb, but its cities, even more than Japan's, suffered years of conventional bombing that was no less catastrophic. Hamburg, for example, was virtually wiped from the face of the map in 1943 when a combination of high explosives and incendiary bombs caused a firestorm to engulf the city. In the days after the bombing, the novelist Hans Erich Nossack described his return to Hamburg as a 'descent into the underworld'. His book about the experience was entitled, succinctly, Der Untergang ('The End').
By the end of the war, apocalyptic imagery, particularly biblical imagery, was omnipresent: Dresden, like Hiroshima, was consumed by a 'biblical pillar of fire'; Munich looked like the scene of the 'Last Judgement'; Dusseldorf was 'not even a ghost'. The authorities in Krefeld referred to their bomb shelters as 'Noah's Ark' – the implication being that the few who found refuge there would be saved from an apocalypse that would inexorably consume the rest of the world. The same imagery appears with virtually every city destroyed during the war. Stalingrad was 'the city of the dead'. Warsaw was a 'city of vampires', so badly destroyed that 'it seemed as if the world had fallen apart'. The liberation of Manila in the Philippines was 'Just shells and bombs and shrapnels ... we thought it was the end of the world!'
People used such language because they could find no other way to express the magnitude of the trauma they had experienced. Many of those who wrote memoirs of the war, even professional writers, lament the inadequacy of ordinary language to describe the experience of such total loss. They know that the word 'hell' is a cliché, but can find no alternative.
It was not only individuals who reacted to the war in this way: communal reactions were equally uncomprehending. The newspapers of 1944 and 1945 regularly portrayed the war as something so all-encompassing, and so unprecedented, that it seemed to have destroyed the prewar world entirely. A particularly good example appeared in The New York Times Magazine in March 1945. Their correspondent Cyrus Sulzberger declared Europe to be the new 'dark continent', before painting a picture of unprecedented destruction 'which no American can hope to comprehend'. The language used in his article was remarkably similar to that used by Ogura Toyofumi to describe Hiroshima after the atom bomb. In an astonishingly short time, according to Sulzberger, the civilized Europe that he had known before the war had simply ceased to exist. In its place was a new, alien landscape of moral and physical devastation, where the everyday experience of ordinary people was one of 'battle, civil war, imprisonment, famine or disease'. Markets did 'not exist in large areas'. The continent's youth had been indoctrinated with ideas 'which biblical philosophers would have associated with Antichrist'. After the wholesale genocide of the war years there was 'not yet any way of knowing just how many Europeans have slaughtered each other'. In short, Europe resembled 'a Luca Signorelli Day of Judgment fresco', and the entire continent, from its centre to its periphery, had been filled with 'all the horrors envisioned centuries before in the Book of Revelation'.
As with Ogura Toyofumi's description of Hiroshima, Sulzberger's article was replete with biblical and apocalyptic imagery – indeed, it was illustrated with a half-page drawing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Other newspapers around the world did likewise, as did institutions and governments. They reacted in this way because, much like the individuals who were caught up in the worst episodes of the war, they were incapable of expressing, or even understanding, events on this scale.
After 1945 a wide variety of national and international institutions compiled studies on the physical, economic and human damage caused by the war, but the statistics they produced made no sense on a human level. The devastation was presented as a series of snapshots: Berlin was 33 per cent destroyed, Tokyo was 65 per cent destroyed, Warsaw was 93 per cent destroyed; France lost more than three-quarters of its railway trains, Greece lost two-thirds of its shipping, the Philippines lost at least two-thirds of its schools and so on, city after city, country after country, like items on some baleful inventory. In an attempt to engage our imagination, government statisticians tried to break the numbers down into manageable chunks: we were told that the bombing of Dresden produced 42.8 cubic metres of rubble for every surviving inhabitant, and that the $1.6 trillion spent on the war represented $640 for every man, woman and child on the planet. But what this meant in reality – what the totality of the physical and economic devastation was really like – was always beyond imagining.
The same was true of the scale of the killing, which has never been properly quantified: some historians guess a figure of around 50 million while others suggest 60 or 70 million, but nobody pretends that they really know. In a sense the absolute numbers do not really matter – 50 million or 70 million or 500 million, it all sounds like the end of the world. Human beings do not – cannot – understand such numbers objectively. Much like Ogura, or any of the other millions of people who experienced the trauma of the Second World War, we reach for absolutes in an attempt to express the inexpressible.
As a consequence, much of the terminology used to describe the war still has a portentous quality today. The word 'holocaust', for example, originally meant the burning of a sacrifice until it was entirely consumed by fire: to many people today the term is understood not as a metaphor but as a literal description of what happened to European Jewry during the Second World War (an impression that is only enhanced by references to Jews being sent 'to the ovens', 'to the crematoria', or being turned into 'ashes'). Likewise the term 'total war', famously coined by the German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, is pregnant with ominous promise: it implies an inexorable process towards 'total devastation' and 'total death'. Historians today regularly write about the war in these terms: indeed, one internationally bestselling historian entitled his book about the final months of the war Armageddon. Documentary film-makers do likewise: a ground-breaking French series on the Second World War, for example, which was aired around the world, bore the title Apocalypse. The Second World War was 'the greatest catastrophe in human history', the 'world-historical global cataclysm', the 'greatest man-made disaster in history' – to quote three best-selling historians. In the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin it was a 'burning storm' that 'ravaged not only through Europe, but also through Asian and African nations'. According to China's President Hu Jintao, it brought 'an untold disaster to the world and an unparalleled catastrophe to human civilization'. The impression conveyed by such statements is not the traditional message that 'the end of the world is nigh', but that, on the contrary, the end of the world has already happened.
Of course, objectively speaking, the world did not end. Large areas of the globe experienced no destruction at all, including the whole of mainland North America as well as Central and South America. The vast bulk of sub-Saharan Africa also remained physically untouched, and although Australians were shocked by the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the rest of their continent experienced almost nothing at all of the war's devastation. Large parts of Europe and east Asia, where the conflict was at its most intense, remained steadfastly undestroyed. A large proportion of Germany's small towns and villages remained havens of peace right up until the end of the war, despite the comprehensive desolation of its cities. Even the likes of Dresden, the ruins of which postwar planners believed would take 'at least seventy years' to rebuild, were patched up and functioning again within just a few years of the armistice.
The loss of life, though horrific, did not constitute an end of the world either. Despite Nazi boasts of a 'final solution' to the Jewish question, even the most pessimistic estimates of Jewish mortality show that they failed: at least a third of Europe's Jews would live to remember the crimes that were committed against their families. A cold look at the statistics shows that other races and nationalities fared proportionally better. About one in every eleven German people lost their lives during the war, one in twenty-five Japanese, one in thirty Chinese, one in eighty Frenchmen, around one in 160 British people and less than one in three hundred Americans. On a global scale, the Second World War certainly put a sizeable dent in the world's population, but it was still only a dent: 70 million deaths represents about 3 per cent of the world's prewar population – a sickening thought, certainly, but still not Armageddon.
Why, then, do we persist in characterizing the war in this way? It is true that the idea of the end of the world has a symbolic and emotional resonance that no mere statistics can replicate. And it is also true that some parts of the world still, even now, have not come to terms with the trauma they experienced during those catastrophic years. But the fact that images of the apocalypse continue to be so popular, and so widespread, suggests that there is also something else going on, that there is in fact something comforting about the thought that in wartime life as it was known came to such a violent end.
There are two explanations for this. Firstly, as the coming chapters will show, the myth of apocalypse does not exist in isolation: it is merely one part of a network of mythology which also allows other, more hopeful myths to thrive. In particular, it allows us to believe that the old, rotten prewar system was entirely purged, leaving a blank slate for us to rebuild a new, purer, happier world. There is nothing more comforting than the belief that we have created our own universe, untainted by the failed ideas of our predecessors that led us to war in the first place. It allows us to believe that we, wiser than they, will not repeat their mistakes.
Excerpted from "The Fear and the Freedom"
Copyright © 2017 Keith Lowe.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I – Myths and Legends
1. The End of the World
5. The Beginning of the World
Part II – Utopias
7. Planned Utopias
9. Freedom and Belonging
Part II – One World
10. World Economy
11. World Government
12. World Law
Part III – Two Superpowers
13. The USA
14. The USSR
15. World Polarisation
Part IV – Two Hundred Nations
16. The Birth of an Asian Nation
17. The Birth of an African Nation
18. Democracy in Latin America
19. Israel: Nation of Archetypes
20. The Fall and Rise of Nationalism in Europe
Part V – Ten Thousand Fragments
24. The Globalisation of Peoples