Blogs > Cliopatria > Pick a date, any date

Oct 16, 2006 1:21 pm

Pick a date, any date

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

In a comment to an earlier post of mine at Airminded, Jonathan Dresner quite legitimately took exception to my use of the term 'interwar' to refer to the period 1919-1939:

From an Asian history perspective, the Japanese use of chemical weapons in China isn’t really “interwar,” as major combat operations began in late ‘37 (leading to the Nanjing Massacre, etc.) and ran continuously through ‘45.

While Jonathan is conveniently distracted, I thought I'd address the issue he raised -- essentially that of when did the Second World War start? Of course, this is a hoary old question, and the answer usually depends on where you're from. Australia's war started on 3 September 1939, the same date that Britain, France and New Zealand declared war on Germany. So we were in it from the start. Well, the start, bar the two days during which Poland was fighting alone. Or possibly the start, bar the two and a bit years since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, as Jonathan suggests. (I hope we can all agree that the United States was too late to the party to have much of a say in when it really started.)

I have three (count 'em, three) responses to this. The first is an objective one. Standing from outside the Universe (as one does), looking at the war as a single event in space-time, it's clear that Jonathan is right. There's no question that China and Japan were fighting on opposite sides in the war; they were the first of the participants to start fighting; they started fighting in 1937; therefore the war started in 1937. 7 July 1937, to be precise.

The second is a subjective one. As an historian of Britain, and one who is largely concerned with the ways in which the next war was anticipated, it is more useful for me to take the point of view of the British people themselves. And very few of them thought that the Sino-Japanese War was the start of the next war, or even a prelude to it. It certainly showed Japan to be an aggressive, expansionist power, which one day might clash with the British Empire. And it also confirmed some ideas about the brutality of modern warfare, and added to the volatile atmosphere of the time. But it was essentially seen as 'a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing', as Chamberlain was soon to say about somewhere else. It was a war alright, but not Britain's. (If there was a prelude which threatened to pull Britain into a general war, it was the Spanish Civil War, but this possibility faded over time and it never did join up with the larger, later war.) So from this (my) point of view, 3 September 1939 is the start of the war, as that's when Britons thought their war started, and this is the date I will use in practice.

The third and final response is, ummm, a geographical one? If we are talking about a world war, then presumably it has to be fought on a world scale. That rules out 1937, and it rules out 1939 too (because it was not yet joined with the fighting in China, and leaving aside skirmishes like the Battle of the River Plate). As a rule of thumb, we could perhaps say that there needs to be the possibility of intensive ground combat on at least two continents for it to be considered a world war. For the Second World War, this would be when Italy declared war on Britain and France. That opened up Africa as a potential combat zone, in both the north and the east of the continent. And so on this basis, 10 June 1940 was the start of the Second World War.

So, there's three dates: 7 July 1937, 3 September 1939, and 10 June 1940. I'll stick with the middle one as it's most useful to me, and I make no apologies for that. But by the same token, others can and will have different dates in mind. What would you pick, and why?

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Jonathan Dresner - 10/23/2006

Actually, I've always kind of liked the Japanese/Chinese convention of dating the start of the war to the Manchurian Intervention of 1931, and the term "Fifteen Years War" that came out of it. Looking at it from the standpoint of colonial agressions would allow you to use the Italian-Ethiopian conflict, and the Ruhr valley conflict (maybe) as earlier markers of the start of hostilities, but perhaps then we're getting into the question of where 'war' itself begins and ends.

I have a colleague who teaches a course on the 'WWII era' and that's wonderfully vague and useful....

p.s. If I'm lucky, this will be comment number one-hundred-thousand...

Alex Feinberg - 10/19/2006

Paul Johnson, in _History of Modern Times_, does state that there was a British plan, in the very early stages of the war -- prior to Operation Barbarossa and during the Molotov von Ribbentrop pact -- to bomb Soviet oilfields, as they were still supplying oil for the German war machine. That would have been an example of an early start of Asian land war (given that the said oilfields likely lay in Asian territory).

Brett Holman - 10/17/2006

I think the problem with looking for causes and saying this is when the war started is that, as you point out, there are so many of them. It's hard to pick one over the others, especially the further back you go. That's because they only work in hindsight -- you couldn't say a world war was inevitable after 1931, for example, crucial turning point though that year was.

That's why I prefer to look at it in terms of what people at the time thought and felt; it's less ahistorical. But it does depend upon your purpose. Obviously, for Japan, the interwar period ended in 1937 because, well, it was at war. But nobody in Britain started digging trenches and practicing air raid precautions because China had been invaded, so it's not a useful perspective for me to think in terms of the end of Britain's interwar period being 1937. (Dan Todman suggested Munich, and that's a much better candidate, in the British context, than anything else.)

(Having said that, in my own work I do see a distinct break point in 1931-2, but that's another story ...)

Brett Holman - 10/17/2006

Polish lancers charging across the Siberian steppes -- the mind boggles!

But yes, the actual date when the non-European theatre became active is a useful way to look at it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/17/2006

Criteria and necessity are the key.
If one is talking about when the people of the time became conscious of it being a world war then, I think September 1939 is logical. Given the European colonies, a European war was, by necessity a world war, and I think many Europeans saw it this way immediately.

However, if one is looking for causation, then earlier dates can be revealing. The Japanese invasion of China is one such point.

If one considers the breakdown of the League of Nations as a significant point on the movement toward war, then Italy's invasion of Ethiopia becomes an interesting moment. I believe that, after that, there is no significant attempt to use the League of Nations to restrain agression.

That leads us to my favorite; the Japanese conquest of Manchuria. This idea came from my ninth grade World (that is, Western) History teacher, Miss Schulke. A teacher of the old school, she could inspire fear in the desks; she certainly inspired it in us.

And she believed that the war began when Japan invaded Manchuria, because it was the first act of aggression by one of the Axis powers and because the League and the US both failed to address it in meaningful ways.

If you go back beyond that, then you reside among the theorists who say that there was a thirty years war with a long break.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 10/16/2006

For that matter, you could look at when conflict manifested itself outside the continental/regional theaters onto the global stage. The British sinking of the French Fleet (July 3, 1940) in North Africa would be an appopriate starting point.

On the last criteria, Sept 10, USSR's invasion of Poland, would be an erlier date because of the possibility, no matter how slight, of fighting in Asia. ;)