WW1 & WW2 War Memorial, Gibraltar. Inscription reads "In Glorious Memory of those who died for the Empire"

War & Society Part 2: From WW1 to WW2

12 January 2023
Posted in: Humanities

This article is the second in a 4-part series exploring the history of war and examining the link between war and society, and how warfare has evolved over time.


War and society have always been linked. We see evidence of this around the world recorded on cave walls, stone buildings, papyrus and more recently, on paper.

Indeed, City Lit rose from the ashes of war. Established after the First World War to offer learning opportunities in the humanities. Veterans were amongst our first leaners. Our courses also ran in air raid shelters during the Second World War. For City Lit, like the rest of the world, war has been part of our journey.

Read as we continue to review the past, examine the present, and try to gauge the future.

From steam and horses towards oil, tanks and planes

Grayscale image of wooden crosses with poppy flowers and words "In Rememberance" written on the crosses.Grayscale image of wooden crosses with poppy flowers and words "In Rememberance" written on the crosses.
One of the most common commemorative symbols.

The First World War: A war of steam and horses

Starting in 1914, the First World War was caused by the combination of factors. An alliance system criss-crossing Europe, and regional tensions in the Balkans built on the grievances from previous wars and imperial projects are well known factors.

The imperial arms race led by the British and the Germans was also a significant factor. Most famously are possibly the dreadnoughts and submarines.

More imperial soldiers that fought for empire and were since erased from the national commemorations of the British empire.

However, we also need to consider the growing tension between the colonial and imperial powers as they ‘ran out’ of places to colonise and increasingly faced other imperial powers instead. This global imperial dimension of the war also extended to the importance of the millions of colonial troops who fought for the different imperial powers.

A war of steam and horses, the First World War led to the loss of 15-20 million lives. Additionally, the Russian Empire, Imperial Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire all collapsed, creating an estimated 12 million refugees and a series of new nation states with about 25-30 million people now forced to live as unwelcome minority communities. The post-war famine was also felt the hardest where the fiercest fighting had taken place.

War is not only part of our past and present, but also our future. In very different ways, war affects and imposes on us all.

Soaked in empire, the war also created inter- and intra-imperial intergenerational memories and a national commemoration politics.

Perhaps for that reason, it seems increasingly commonplace that the further the war into the past and the closer to power the narrative gets, the more glorious the war and the less significant the losses and sacrifices appear.

Particularly the efforts and sacrifices of the millions of soldiers from the colonial territories have still to be fully recognised, both in memory politics and their marginalisation in death via unmarked mass graves.

Not long after the war, most of the major imperial powers signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 to outlaw war. However, peace was not to be.

They did their part when called upon but have since been forgotten in the official memory politics of the imperial metropole.

The Second World War: A war of oil and mobility

In East Asia, British support allowed the British arms industry to provide the Japanese empire with additional technology and arms in its capacity as an ally from 1902 to 1922. In turn, this partly enabled the increasingly militaristic Japanese empire to expand into the Korean Peninsula while allied and later to occupy of parts of China in the 1930s and then attack the US in Pearl Harbor.

It's worth noting that Japan’s militarism and imperial policies were partly informed by its grievances from not being recognised as an equal imperial power by the ‘white’ imperial powers.

Related: Asian history courses at City Lit

In Europe, the imperial politics of the ‘peace agreement’ from the First World War had planted the seeds for war in Germany. In the context of the socio-economic devastation brought about by both the peace agreement and the Depression, the Nazi party was able to weaponise the myths of the First World War defeat, erase the fact that 80,000 of the 100,000 Jewish German soldiers in the imperial army had fought for the German Empire in the First World War and build a society around an increasingly violent anti-Semitic racism. Using this platform, the Nazi regime expanded state power and its military forces before going to war to realise its imperial ambitions with Europe and its racist genocidal policies.

These wars coalesced and once again, imperial designs and influence on global politics led to another global war.

Women of Kenya it's up to you. Your services are needed. She who hesitates is lost. Volunteer now and back up the Navy - Army - Airforce to Victory.Women of Kenya it's up to you. Your services are needed. She who hesitates is lost. Volunteer now and back up the Navy - Army - Airforce to Victory.
A British call for Kenyan women to sign up to defend the empire during the Second World War. Unknown (artist), KWEO, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The legacy of WW2

A war of oil and mobility, the Second World War was fought across more battlefields, in more campaigns across more theatres of war with more vehicles, aircraft and ships as well as soldiers than any previous war. Combined with the imperial designs of the warring factions, these amplifying factors led to an estimated 41 million deaths and left 175 million people displaced as refugees.

Recognised as a world war, the war is nevertheless remembered differently in different places. For example, the Holocaust and the fight for democracy and/or liberty rather than the preservation of empire have become central tenets in collective memory in Western Europe and the US.

In Eastern and Central Europe, the memories of the war are irrefutably linked to how the Soviet Union insisted its 50-year long presence constituted a so-called ‘liberation’ from Nazism. In the former Yugoslavia, the war facilitated the making of a new and multi-ethnic state, which came to provide the basis for national identity until its disintegration in the late 1980s. In the Soviet Union, the Second World War also became the cornerstone of national identity and even more so in Russia after 1991

In most of colonial South-East Asia and Africa, the war efforts failed to herald the promised era of independence. In many places, people therefore rose up to gain their independence. Each nation would then recall the Second World War differently after independence. Often, the new national commemorative politics understandably emphasized the longer struggle for independence, inserting the war into those frameworks.

In Japan, the defeat of empire did not lead to a reckoning with its violent imperial past in Taiwan, Korea and China. Rather, the memory of the war remains mostly defined by the American shift from conventional to nuclear war in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Also pushed to the background of most commemorative practices are the enormous efforts women around the world made both during and after the wars in terms of keeping families, communities and societies alive, fed, running and armed to mention just some things. Also overlooked is the centrality of women to the emergence of peace movements and transnational civic work. The Monument to the Women of World War II was only put up near Whitehall in London in 2005.

Image of the Monument to the Women of World War II in Whitehall, London.Image of the Monument to the Women of World War II in Whitehall, London.
Monument to the Women of World War II. Whitehall, London. This memorial was unveiled just recently in 2005.

Imperial wars, both World Wars not only generated visions of post-war global politics, independence and gender equality, but also a swath of different memories that would be shaped by local and national circumstances.

Moreover, the impacts and legacies of the wars in the broader international system would also come to influence the decades after 1945 in ways historians are still arguing about.


Continue reading from this series

Exploring the link between war and society throughout history.

War & Society - Part 1

Early skirmishes to 1910

War & Society - Part 3

1945 to 1989

Coming soon

War & Society - Part 4

1989 to 2022

Coming soon

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