Is the Second World War Over?

On the one hand, this is the pointless question; of course WW2 is over. The last shots of the war rang out 75 years ago. On the other hand, however, many of us treat it as if it had ended only yesterday. Or as if it never ended at all. In any event, the Second World War is not a resolved matter in the context of history.

We obviously live in the context of the images and ideas, as well as the conflicts of the Second World War. It is often accepted that Russia is too deeply worried about such historical events, and too often appeals to them, comparing current events with past ones. However, these peculiarities are not unique to Russia. As it turns out, contemporary world art, cinema, political and public speeches are simply filled with various images of the Second World War. This is, first and foremost, because so many problems that somehow played a role in the outbreak of World War II havent gone anywhere. Although I believe this isnt the only reason (about this a little lower); we addressed this during the Valdai Club discussion titled Ideological Constructs of the Second World War in Modern Discourse, which took place in mid-April.

Examples of the world's unusual concern for the problems of World War II are innumerable. For example, a significant part of a very popular Scandinavian detective story is permeated with Second World War themes, discussions about the nature of collaboration and about how the support of a grandfather for Norwegian puppet leader Vidkun Quisling in the family influenced, for example, the behaviour of a grandson who became a sadist and a murderer. Or how harmful the money earned by the Scandinavians who collaborated with the SS is and how it leads to racial intolerance and hate crimes in the 21st century.

In a recent mystical detective novel, Haruki Murakami's Killing Commendatore, the main storyline starts with events in Austria which took place during the Anschluss in 1938, just before World War II. And what happened then, according to the author and his heroes, influenced the development of art in modern Japan and, in general, the state of affairs. The fact is that one of the heroes of the novel, an outstanding modern Japanese artist who founded a whole trend in art, was in Vienna in 1938 and was drawn into a fascist conspiracy, in a series of terrible deeds. The consequences of this experience turned out to be so serious that even today, we cannot overcome them completely. Characteristically, a participant of the already-mentioned Valdai Club discussion about the Second World War, the former Prime Minister of Japan Yukio Hatoyama, noted that in a certain sense, and not only in art, his country, the Second World War never ended completely. Yukio Hatayama also attributed the current division of the Korean Peninsula to the aftermath of World War II.

 Most modern cinema is filled with a kind of reminiscence of World War II. Interestingly, this often takes place in the form of a kind of alternative history, a phantasmagoria. This, by the way, is a rather important indication of a kind of return to the conflicts of the Second World War. The 2020 series Conspiracy Against America depicts an alternate version of the 1940s, where Charles Lindberg, an aviator who was very pro-Nazi, defeats Roosevelt in the US election. And this, of course, leads to very impressive consequences, including a radical increase in anti-Semitism. Another modern American series, “The Hunters,” tells us about the search for German fascists who moved to the United States, who deftly pretend to be American politicians and statesmen. I must say that, in general, the line of threat of the return of the “Third Reich”, in one form or another, with its misanthropic ideas, is generally widely represented both in literature and in films. The most well-known incarnation of this plot formula can be found in the films "Iron Sky" and "Iron Sky-2", which tells about the fate of the Nazis, who hid after 1945 on the dark side of the Moon and dreamed of conquering Earth.

In general, there are multitudinous examples of the unusual deep-rootedness of World War II in art.

And it is clear that in the political and, more broadly, public discourse, the images of the Second World War are much more widespread. Banalities like accusations of  “fascism” or “Nazism” among political opponents should not even be taken into account. They are used widely and everywhere. Other WWII references are more interesting. For example, the fact that Paul McCartney, at the recent "One World: Together at Home" concert in support of doctors and medical workers fighting COVID-19 compared their heroism to that seen in the Second World War. McCartney recalled his mother, who was a nurse at the time. And shortly before that, Queen Elizabeth II (who herself was an auto mechanic during the war) said that, as victory was won during World War II, the coronavirus will be defeated. And there are so many such references.

I repeat, there is no great need to prove that the images of the Second World War are alive (I don’t know if this is good or bad). And not just alive, but to some extent coordinated to align with the modern world. It is clear that there are real reasons for this. For example, anti-Semitism, which, alas, has not gone away. There are plenty of other forms of intolerance. The division of the Korean Peninsula isn’t alone in being considered the result of World War II;  some of the conflicts in the Middle East are also a result. The Arab-Israeli confrontation began, of course, earlier than World War II, but it was due to the influence of the war’s outcome that it largely acquired its modern form. The question of relations between the victorious countries and the defeated countries, and between their peoples, can also be considered not completely resolved (to say the least). This is quite noticeable both in Germany and in Japan, and not only there.  In general, many more examples of this kind can be cited.

But the depth, power of influence of the images of the Second World War, of course, cannot be reduced to purely rational factors. The fact is that World War II, the war against fascism, turned out to be an epic, central ideological construct of modernity, a sense-forming myth, if you will.

The basis of any culture, any society, community, is the definition of what is evil and what is good. And in this sense, World War II turned out to be an epic struggle that set the coordinates of good and evil. Tolkien in his "Lord of the Rings" books portrayed this epic unusually distinctly: the opposition of absolute, unalloyed evil to good, which, incidentally, does not possess such absoluteness. There is nothing comparable in terms of confronting evil and the threat of evil with World War II. Of course, history is full of significant events, but most of them, while they may excite us, are firmly grounded in the past.

The images of World War II are still here. First, I repeat, because many of the conflicts that led to this war or resulted from it are still here. Second, and this is more important, because many of the qualities of people that allowed to start the war still remain in people, in ourselves, if you like: wild greed, intolerance, a bestial thirst for power, hatred, aggression, and the like. The Strugatsky brothers, in the novel “Burdened with Evil or 40 Years Later” (1986-1988) wrote, of course, not about World War II, but about the state of the world forty years later. They wrote about people, about contradictions in them and between them, about what this could lead to. The Second World War was between people and was started by people. And have people really changed after it, have we improved much? Is it really so difficult to turn people into an army of enraged beings, obeying their possessed leaders, full of anger and hatred? We, I am afraid, have no clear answers to these questions. Therefore the artistic world has been provided with a passionate muse, precisely in connection with the Second World War.

Because the images of the Second World War permeate our whole life, in many ways set its discourse. Forgetting the Second World War, letting it "go" into "history" is almost impossible. Moreover, precisely because of the extraordinary prevalence of images of the Second World War, the diversity of their use, knowledge of the Second World War should possibly be codified, written down and fixed as much as possible.

So all that remains is to carefully observe ourselves, and understand how the images of the Second World War model our lives in order to soften the contradictions between us and within us as much as possible, to find solutions to avoid conflicts and provoke the most sinister aspects of human nature. The world is still very fragile.