Is World War II history still relevant?
Is World War II history still relevant?

As the world marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, when German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, is the history still relevant? Does it have contemporary meaning? Or is it destined to fade away, as the wartime generation of soldiers, eyewitnesses, and survivors reaches the twilight of their lives?

There are, I believe, five enduring lessons of this defining period in modern history.

First, a failure of imagination can be catastrophic.

That’s precisely what happened to many Western leaders during the fateful years from Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933 until 1939. They consistently, and shamefully, underestimated the true nature of the Third Reich. They ignored the repeated warnings, convinced themselves that the regime would follow a moderate course, and tried to go about business as usual.

American Secretary of State Cordell Hull said as early as April 1933: “Mistreatment of Jews in Germany may be considered virtually eliminated.” Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George observed, in 1936, that “Germany has no desire to attack any country in Europe…” And George Fielding Eliot, an American military specialist, declared as late as May 1939: “The chances of Germany making a quick job of overwhelming Poland are not good.”

The way some world leaders speak today about, say, Iran or Russia makes me wonder if this defining 20th century lesson has been internalized.

Second, appeasement does not work with aggressors.

As the legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once recounted: “One day, President (Franklin) Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle [World War I].”

What Churchill was saying was precisely what he tried in vain to convey during his years in the British political wilderness, while Prime Ministers Macdonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain, together with their French counterparts, pursued a policy of appeasement towards Hitler. Every time Britain and France looked away as Hitler egregiously violated the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, the message was all too clear: We have no will to fight. Do what you please.

And then came the ultimate act of appeasement – Munich 1938 – and Chamberlain’s haunting words; “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his [Hitler’s] face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”

How totally delusional on Chamberlain’s part, and what a high cost was paid as a result.

Could self-delusion on such a mega-scale happen again? I fear the answer is yes.

Third, never trust totalitarian regimes of any stripe.

Hitler was purportedly anti-communist. He railed against the Bolsheviks through the 1920s and 1930s. They were near the top of his enemies’ list.

Until August 1939, that is, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement and, lo and behold, they were suddenly partners. All previous mutual rancor and antipathy magically vanished overnight. Of course, neither side could fully trust the other, but for two years the pact more or less held, long enough for the Soviet Red Army to invade Poland from the east on September 17, 1939 and stab it in the back. The most brazen exception, of course, was the Soviet massacre of thousands of Poles, in 1940, at Katyn, while lying that it was committed by the German Nazis.

Then, of course, the tables turned on June 22, 1941, but Moscow, now on the side of the Allied nations, still had its sights set on the eventual occupation and domination of Poland, which is precisely what happened by war’s end – and after the notorious failure of the Yalta Conference to ensure Poland’s sovereign independence.

Left or right, totalitarianism is totalitarianism.

Fourth, resistance is possible.

No country exemplified this principle during the war more than Poland. Though brutally occupied for nearly six years, the Polish Underground was remarkably resilient, courageous, and determined. Indeed, it set an example for all of Europe, culminating in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the Polish Home Army battled the more powerful Nazi forces for 63 days, while the Soviet Red Army looked on passively.

Unlike France, Norway, and other occupied countries in Europe, there was no Polish equivalent of collaborationists like Petain and Quisling. And while a significant number of Poles participated in the resistance in their country, many thousands of others fought bravely in key war theaters from the Battle of Britain to Montecasino, Italy.

It was the same Polish spirit that, decades later, helped topple communism and usher in a new post-Cold War era. 

And fifth, dehumanization of a people can lead to its destruction.

Antisemitism in Europe did not begin in 1933, with Hitler’s ascent to power. It existed for centuries and was expressed in a variety of forms – from the ghettos to the Inquisitions, from expulsions to forced conversions. It manifested itself in every European country, including Poland, where Jews lived.

But the Third Reich took antisemitism to an entirely different level with the adoption of the Final Solution in January 1942. The goal was to annihilate the nine million Jews in Europe.

No one knows this better than Poland, on whose occupied territory Nazi Germany built death and slave labor camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and elsewhere. Millions of Jews were slaughtered in those camps, while hundreds of thousands died of disease and starvation in the ghettos. Too many in the world averted their eyes to this unprecedented crime against humanity.

The enduring lesson is to take words seriously when they are directed at an entire people or group, and to remember where those words can lead. It is also to recall the Jewish teaching that “He who saves one life has saved the world.” Even at risk to their own lives, nearly 7,000 Poles, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, saved Jews, even as many others, for a variety of reasons, looked the other way.

In today’s world, where hate is again on the rise, including both in Europe and the United States, the examples of individuals like Jan Karski, Witold Pilecki, Irena Sendler, the Ulma family, and an underground group like Żegota, remind us of the capacity of the human spirit to defend our highest values.

Yes, the history of what happened 80 years ago continues to matter a great deal.

David Harris is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and has been honored twice by Polish governments for his work to support Poland’s admission to NATO and to advance Polish-Jewish relations.  This piece originally appeared in Rzeczpospolita,To access the Polish version, click here.