Analysis: Wars backfire on aggressors

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Sept. 4, 2002 at 8:03 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Wars backfire on those who start them, whether their motives are wholly evil or idealistically pure. When Adolf Hitler went to war against Poland 63 years ago this week, he did not dream the way the world would change. But then, nobody did.

The Nazi Panzer armies crossed into Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Two days later, on Sept. 3, the British government reluctantly declared war on Hitler's Third Reich. So did France.

The 6 years of global war that followed killed an estimated 50 million people. Some analysts put the total killed directly or indirectly by the war, history's bloodiest conflict to date, as high as 80 million. Out of that seething cauldron poured the modern world.

It was a world that in almost all respects was the very opposite of the one Hitler thought he was creating when he launched his tank armies east that fateful day.

The Nazi leader thought he was creating a racist German Empire that would last 1,000 years. Less than 6 years after he began the war, he shot himself as his once-proud imperial capital, Berlin, burned around him -- flattened by night and day Allied air raids and the artillery of the victorious Soviet Red Army.

The British military historian Anthony Beevor, in his classic recent account, "The Fall of Berlin," notes that vengeful Red Army soldiers raped literally millions of German women -- usually repeatedly -- as they swept across half of Germany in 1945.

Hitler thought he had a divine mission to crush communism and enslave the Slav peoples. Instead, the outcome of the war left the Soviet Union the mightiest conventional military power on Earth and one of the two superpowers that would decide the destinies of the globe for the next half century.

Hitler sought to annihilate the Jewish people in his so-called Final Solution. At least 6 million people perished under the most nightmarish conditions in what became known as "The Holocaust."

But out of that unprecedented bloodbath, the survivors established a militant state of Israel that became embroiled with its neighbors in a series of conflicts that again loom large in this 21st century.

To Hitler, the very idea that the colonized peoples of Africa and South Asia could manage their own affairs would have seemed ludicrous. But only a few years after his Third Reich crashed to destruction, the exhausted nations of Western Europe responded to what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called "a Wind of Change" and withdrew -- sometimes bowing to necessity, sometimes only after bitter guerrilla wars -- from their vast empires.

Hitler would also have loathed the changes that transformed Germany itself, although the German people themselves welcomed their transformation. The arrogant, militant conquering power of 1939 rose rapidly from the ashes of its defeat in 1945 -- the time Germans themselves called "Year Zero." But it revived as a peaceful, stable and prosperous federal republic.

When Germany reunified during the collapse of communism in 1989-90, it did so not through the military conquests and arrogant displays of power so beloved by Otto von Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II or Hitler, but through peaceful, democratic politics and cautious, humane processes of compromise.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who as a teenager had seen other boys hanged from lampposts as deserters and traitors by the Nazi SS, rewrote the lessons of history inscribed 130 years earlier by Otto von Bismarck that Germany could only be united and made great by "Blood and Iron." He did it through peace and democracy.

Hitler would have hated it.

Hitler foresaw a world where social justice and mercy would become faint, unattainable memories. Instead, the world his war produced saw the emancipation of the oppressed peoples of the globe. The Arab, Africa and Asian peoples attained a new freedom and dignity. The United States, which Hitler had despised as a mongrel hybrid of inferior races, became the world's supreme power. American and Russian scientists succeeded where Hitler's Nazis had failed in taming the power of the atom itself.

All these developments were unimaginable in 1939. But by 1945, most of them were unavoidable.

The great upheavals of history, once thoughtlessly launched, usually produce the opposite of what their initiators intended. The policymakers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire believed they needed to crush tiny Serbia in July 1914 in order to save their empire. Instead, they doomed it.

Currently, Bush administration policymakers are energetically arguing that only a preemptive war against Iraq will remove its danger to mighty America. They promise a short, swift war with minimum casualties that will presumably be all over by the next State of the Union message, if not by Christmas.

The millions who enthusiastically marched to their deaths in the armies of warring Europe in 1914 all thought the same thing, whatever side of the conflict they were on.

The exhausted, despairing world of 1919 was unimaginable in July 1914. The war that Hitler so thoughtlessly launched when he invaded Poland 63 years ago this week produced results that would have filled that evil, loathsome man with the horror and despair he well deserved.

Major wars, it seems, almost always rebound disastrously on the heads of those who start them -- and on the hundreds of millions of innocent people who have the bad luck to be caught up in their petty ambitions and unachievable dreams.

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