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Life after Armageddon: the deep psychological impact of the Second World War

Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom is an intimate portrayal of how human beings carry on when their world has changed for ever.

The Second World War was not just another event – it changed everything.” Even more than the Great War of 1914-18, Keith Lowe argues, the Second World War altered human experience fundamentally. In one way or another it affected more human beings than any other violent conflict in history. Over a hundred million men and women were mobilised, and yet the number of civilians killed was greater than the number of soldiers by tens of millions. Four times as many people were killed as during the First World War. But the effects ranged far beyond the numbers of dead. For everyone who died, dozens of others found their lives changed irrevocably. Whether as refugees and exiles in the great displacement of people that followed the war, or else as factory workers, slave labourers or targets for the protagonists in the conflict, uncountable human beings were caught up in the devastation wreaked by this unprecedented upheaval.

Terrible as it was, the impact of the war was not entirely negative. In much of the world the postwar era was energised by an idea of freedom and a feeling of hope. The generation of leaders that emerged was old enough to remember the Great Depression, and determined that nothing like it would happen again. Ideas of social reconstruction through government planning were applied on a large scale, producing welfare states and managed economies in which living standards were improved for much of the population. The global scale of the conflict produced new international institutions, such as the United Nations, in which the nations of the world could co-operate on free and equal terms. In Africa and Asia, the end of the war gave anti-colonial movements increased ambition and vitality. Scientists were gripped by dreams of using the technologies that the war had spawned to enhance human life everywhere.

But beneath the hope there was a sense of unease and a new fear. “As soon as the war was over,” Lowe writes, “people began to eye their former allies with mistrust again.” (In fact, there had been mistrust between the Soviet Union and the Western allies throughout much of the war.) Many feared a nuclear Armageddon. The Cold War followed, along with proxy hot wars between the great powers that were as savage as the 1939-45 war itself. By the time the Korean War ended in July 1953, after three years of conflict that included atrocities by both sides, it had claimed roughly 1.25 million lives, most of them civilians. The Korean armistice recognised a border between North and South not far from the line where the war had begun, and both parts of the peninsula were governed by dictatorships. As Lowe notes, the war had achieved nothing.

These were the effects, at the level of national politics and global geopolitics, of the mixture of hope for freedom and fear of the future that the Second World War produced. But Lowe’s book isn’t another dry scholarly study of these vast events. Using the lives and testimonies of those who lived through the conflict, it is an exploration of the impact of the war on the inner lives of individual human beings. Georgina Sand, interviewed by Lowe when she was well into her eighties, left Prague and escaped from the Nazis under the British Kindertransport programme to settle in London, but has never ceased to feel a stranger. Garry Davis, an American B-17 bomber pilot who became an ardent evangelist for world federalism and was lionised by the New Yorker in 1948 as being “in step with the universe”, was still, at the time of his death in 2013, campaigning for the end of the nation state.

They are joined by Eugene Rabinowitch, a Russian-born scientist who became a member of the atomic bomb project in 1943 and hoped the enormous destructive power of the new weapon would have the effect of “scaring men into rationality”; the Indian artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, who captured the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 in pictures of skeletal beggars and argued that: “If anyone is in a position to learn anything from life, it is against the background of death”; S K Trimurti, a teacher and journalist who fought against Dutch and Japanese colonialism in Indonesia, only to be arrested and charged with being a communist even though she was in fact a member of the moderate Labour Party; and Waruhiu Itote, a Kikuyu man from Kenya who in January 1942, not long before his 20th birthday, enlisted in the King’s African Rifles but who later became “General China”, a leader of the Mau Mau guerrilla uprising.

There are many more such microhistories of the war and its human impact in The Fear and the Freedom. Lowe’s book is a compelling work of historical scholarship – but, more than that, it is an intimate portrayal of how human beings carry on when their world has changed for ever.

Using ideas gleaned from Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm, the German sociologist and psychoanalyst whose book The Fear of Freedom (1941) was one of the first to attempt to probe the origins of totalitarianism in human psychology, Lowe uncovers the deeper responses produced by the war and its aftermath. Not everybody reacted with unmixed horror to the scale of the destruction they witnessed. For some, it had a terrible grandeur. A German survivor of the Allied bombing of Hamburg confessed to willing the bombers on in the hope of seeing the total destruction of his city, even though he was stricken with terror by the sight.

This joy in destruction – which Freud explained as an expression of Thanatos, a death instinct – was evident in some of those who played a part in enabling the destruction to take place. Lowe reports that when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the A-bomb test at Los Alamos and quoted the words of the god Vishnu from the Bhagavadgita (“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”) he did so not with the restrained solemnity with which he would repeat them in later years, but “accompanied them with a strut, like Gary Cooper in the Hollywood western High Noon”. Other reports record Oppenheimer’s fellow workers reacting to the sight of the atomic bomb exploding with triumphant whoops of excitement.

Lowe explains the appeal of destruction in terms of apocalyptic myths, which can give meaning to people’s lives by framing them in a cataclysmic struggle between good and evil. As he points out, these are not simply myths of world destruction. Pointing to a future in which the old world is gone, they open the way to a hopeful myth of a better future: there was, Lowe argues, “something comforting about the thought that in wartime life as it was known came to such a violent end”. But when the destruction was over, many were disappointed to find that life went on much as it had done before the war.

The belief that they had entered a new world gave people a sense of meaning as they emerged from the fighting with their old lives beyond repair. Much of his book, Lowe writes, “is about what the people of all nations reached for in order to fill the void that ‘freedom’ presented to them at the end of the war”. But the evils they hoped would be consigned to the past did not fade away. They were renewed, with the great powers using institutions such as the United Nations to continue their rivalries and conflicts. Later, in the post-Cold War era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fear of freedom that Fromm had found in interwar totalitarianism returned to Europe in a resurgence of far-right movements.

This is an ambitious book, covering a wide range of events and arguing for large conclusions. In the first of its six sections, the author examines myths of heroism generated during the war. Allied soldiers were not always brave, disciplined or gallant. One British artillery officer was appalled after witnessing the destruction of a French farmer’s house by his fellow soldiers: “Three hundred Germans, apparently, had lived hereabouts and respected the owner’s livestock, property and goods. How would he on his return react to this outrage except to curse his liberators?” In their treatment of women, the Allied forces – many of them “battle-hardened and sexually frustrated young men, mostly barely out of their teens” – were at times brutally rapacious. The US army has been accused of raping over 17,000 women in Europe and North Africa between 1942 and 1945, and the British were not much better. This may be a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of women raped by Soviet soldiers in Germany and eastern Europe, but it is a similar pattern of behaviour.

In the second and third sections, Lowe considers the utopias that were in the air after the war and what became of them. A vision of world government possessed many, such as Garry Davis, who believed that the war had been caused by unbridled nationalism. But the UN was set up on the principle of national self-determination, and nation states were as free to persecute minorities as they had been before the war. The fourth and fifth sections deal with the polarisation of international relations between the US and the USSR, and the varieties of nationalism that developed in Africa, Asia, Israel and Europe. In the last section of the book, Lowe considers the world of outcasts and globalised peoples that the Second World War prefigured and helped to create.

His conclusions are far-reaching. He sees the war and its aftermath as confirming human irrationality:

Those who think of history as a progressive force, leading us slowly but surely towards a better, more rational world, underestimate man’s capacity for irrationality. History is driven as much by our collective emotions as it is by any rational march towards “progress”. Some of the most powerful forces driving our world were either born during the Second World War, or arose from our reactions to the consequences of that war. It is only by understanding where these collective emotions have come from that we have any hope of preventing ourselves from being swept away by them.

It is by demystifying our view of history, Lowe urges, that we can prevent a repetition of its tragedies and crimes. “We have wrapped ourselves up in a blanket of myth; and it is only by peeling this away that we can get at the roots of the fear, indignation and self-righteousness that drive so much of our thinking.” If nations acknowledge their traumas, rather than elevating them into something sacred and believing their suffering was all the fault of someone else, perhaps we can avert a fatal recurrence of the past.

Lowe is right that war and politics are driven by collective emotions. But the idea that the chief obstacle to progress or civilisation is outbreaks of mass irrationality overlooks some awkward facts.

Soviet communism and Maoism were both dreams of reason which aimed to replace the haphazard societies of the past with alternatives that were consciously designed. The human cost of these regimes – maybe not quite as great as that of the Second World War, but in the same league – came from forcing whole populations to accept a rational model of society that could not possibly work. Even Nazism, which committed the worst crimes, was not wholly a cult of unreason. The genocide it perpetrated was based, in part, on theories that claimed to be scientific – the racist anthropology that had been part of European thinking since the late 19th century, which had been invoked in public debates to justify the campaign of extermination launched against the Herero people in German West Africa at the start of the 20th century. Of course, this science was bogus. But “scientific racism” was part of a culture that thought of itself as increasing in knowledge and rationality, and when the theory was abandoned it was not because its fraudulence had been recognised scientifically, but because the regime in which it was embodied was defeated and destroyed.

If some of the 20th century’s monstrous crimes were nightmares of reason, it is also true that resistance to the regimes that perpetrated them was fuelled by myth and emotion. Apparently sympathetic to Hannah Arendt’s questionable view that Adolf Eichmann was “neither monstrous nor demonic” but merely banal, Lowe suggests that we need to challenge “the perception of the Holocaust as the struggle between good, blameless people and a vast, unstoppable evil which has lodged itself firmly in our own collective unconscious”. Yet many noble men and women went to their death fighting Nazism because of their passionate revulsion against a regime and an ideology they could not help seeing as quintessentially malevolent. If Nazi evil was ever in any sense mythical, it is a myth that enabled Nazism to be defeated.

A liberal rationalist disturbed by the persistence of unreason in politics, Lowe believes that progress can be made more secure by deconstructing myths. But not all myths should be demolished by rational criticism. Some express the better side of humanity, and may help us when we face the return of old evils. 

The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us
Keith Lowe
Viking, 561pp, £25

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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Moss Side Public Laundry, 1979

A new poem by Pippa Little.

Childless I arrive with a rucksack,
own no Silver Cross steered topple-high
by the bare-legged women in check coats
and bulging shoes who load and unload
ropes of wet sheets, wring them out
to rams’ horns while heat-slap of steam
dries to tinsel in our hair, frizzles our lips
gritty with Daz sherbert dabs and the mangle,
wide as a room-size remnant, never stops groaning
one slip and you’re done for…

In the boom and echo of it, their calls swoop
over Cross-your-Hearts, Man. City socks,
crimplene pinks and snagged underskirts,
Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out! blasts
from across the park, whole streets
get knocked out like teeth,
in a back alley on the way a man
jumped me, shocked as I was
by the fuck off! I didn’t know was in me

but which I try out now to make them laugh, these women
who scrub blood and beer and come
with red-brick soap, quick-starch a party dress
while dryers flop and roar
before their kids fly out of school,
flock outside for a smoke’s sweet rest
from the future bearing down of four walls and one man.

Pippa Little’s collection Overwintering (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. Her new book, Twist, was published in March by Arc. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder