Problematizing World War II

Few are the events experienced by human collectivities that – due to their amplitude, intensity and repercussion – affect different countries, entire nationalities, and have the capacity to mark the memory of societies for the following decades. World War II, we believe, was one of those episodes.

Source: Troops of the Wehrmacht, the military forces of Nazi Germany, unloading cargo and horses from a ship in the harbour of Oslo, Norway in 1940, during the German invasion and occupation of Norway in World War II. Henriksen & Steen (Photographers in Oslo, Norway) / National Library of Norway

Although the theme is constantly revisited by historians under the most different interests and approaches, there seem to be certain issues that are not openly discussed.

Source: 063 – ZIL-131 ‘Katyusha’. Richard Allen 2021

For example, why did Italians, even under the fascist regime, not show anti-Jewish sentiments, while in France latent anti-Semitism rose after the German occupation, allowing the Vichy regime to promote arbitrariness, arrests and mass deportations? Lack of safe information for calmer discussions or topics that, like taboos, are prohibited, prohibitive? Marc Ferro, co-editor of Annales magazine and known for his studies in contemporary history, is a supporter of the second alternative.

Choosing 11 questions and treating them as a problem-history, in accordance with the tradition inaugurated by Marc Bloch and Lucien Fevbre, the author, in History of the Second War, explores still controversial, divergent and, some of them, taboo subjects. Among the most controversial issues, without a doubt, is how to define Nazism. Fascist, “totalitarian”…? For Ferro, the process of trivialization of Nazism with the use of expressions like these is disturbing, particularly if we consider the contribution of scholars themselves.

An initial effort to define fascism came from the first Frankfurt School which, using psychoanalysis, explained the phenomenon through sexual frustration, the appeal of the authoritarian “personality”, among other mechanisms of the unconscious. Such explanations became so popular that, in the 1960s, in any society, even the most democratic ones, it was enough for a political authority to assert itself and then be qualified as “fascist”.

The excessive vulgarization of the term, therefore, minimized Nazism and, in the same movement, diluted the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich. In the expression “totalitarianism”, the underestimation of the particularities of Nazism is even more evident. If before World War II only the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini defined themselves as totalitarian, after 1945 the concept was also extended to the former Soviet Union.

Source: Albert Ganzenmüller (Center, with map) with his staff and secretary on the Dnieper River (July 1943). Ganzenmüller, Deputy State Railroad Director and State Secretary in the Reich Transport Ministry, inspected the progress of railway construction work in the area of Kherson. There, nearby the town of Aleshki (Russian: Алешки, 1928 renamed to Tsiurupynsk), the largest railway war bridge of the second world war is created in 1943. It is built by German railway pioneers. Walter Hollnagel, 2021.

With Hannah Arendt, but above all with Carl Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Ernst Nolte, the equation of the Nazi death camps with the Soviet gulags covered up racism, one of the basic points of Hitler’s policy. In several studies, the surprising conclusion is that Nazism, as an extreme form of fascism, emerged in reaction to Soviet “totalitarianism” and, to defend itself, was forced to imitate it in the genocides.

A flagrant contradiction, says Ferro. In the impossibility of denying the existence of the gas chambers, although they had the audacity, the “revisionist” and “denialist” interpretations blamed the USSR for the great massacres and, for this breach, excused Nazism, presenting varied examples of genocides: in the European colonies, in the North American Western or in the dictatorships of poor countries, among other examples, the exterminations of entire populations also took place.

Therefore, we reach the advanced stage of normalization of Nazism – in Brazil, even Getúlio Vargas has been considered a “totalitarian” politician. For the author, defining the III Reich as “fascist” or by generalizations as “totalitarian” is to cover up the central characteristic of the regime: racial hatred and the project of mass decimation not only of Jews, but also of Slavs, Gypsies, the disabled physical, cardiac, among others.

By giving excessive power to propaganda techniques and political terror, the theory of “totalitarianism” also diverts attention from another topic discussed by Marc Ferro: collaboration with Nazism in the countries occupied by Germany. Some types are analyzed by the author. In the first, Denmark, Norway and Belgium, there were frankly racist and Nazi-friendly political movements and leaders even before the invasion of the German armies.
The swastika, in those countries, was not exactly a novelty. The second case, French, Ferro defines as “state collaboration”, personified in Prime Minister Pierre Laval. The third encompasses the satellite countries of Germany that showed different variations, from the open collaboration of the governments of Slovakia and Romania to the more modest of Bulgarian.

The populations of the Czech Republic and much of Croatia, in turn, resisted the invader. Finally, the case of Ukraine, where the German divisions were received by the population as “liberators”. In this case, the collaboration followed a patriotic strategy: obtaining independence from Moscow. The Ukrainian leaders constituted an army that initially fought the Red Army, then the Germans, and, at the end of the war, again the Soviets. Adherence to Nazism, but also refusal, is another issue explored by the author.

Source: Red Army Soldiers in Bulgaria 1944. Wikimedia commons, 2021.

Again, the complexity of situations does not allow for abstract theoretical models, devoid of historicity. There have been cases, such as Poland, where resistance occurred shortly after the German occupation. For the Poles, an ancient tradition used them to reject any foreign invasion. In France, the experiences were quite diverse.

The defeat was so humiliating that any reaction seemed ridiculous. Pétain and De Gaulle, for example, advised against confrontations. Only in 1942, when the occupation created the Compulsory Labor Service, recruiting young people to work in the military industries in Germany, did the French resistance acquire an offensive and mass character. Armed resistance, often heroic, as in Yugoslav and northern Italy, but also veiled, manifested in collective refusals and civil disobedience.

In Holland, doctors, in repudiation of the fascistization of their union, founded another one, clandestine; in Norway, teachers, Supreme Court justices and, later, the Church’s upper hierarchy resigned when Quisling, a political leader who adhered to Nazism, came to power. In Denmark, workers dropped their beer glasses and left bars as soon as a Nazi officer arrived; even in that country 7,000 Jews were transferred from Copenhagen to Sweden during a single night, with the help and complicity of the population.

In Germany itself there was resistance. German women protested when they saw their Jewish husbands in prison. The Protestant and Catholic Churches forced Hitler to suspend the extermination of the physically handicapped and, although they did not show the same determination towards the Jews, they baptized large numbers of them in an attempt to save them. The various military attacks to assassinate Hitler demonstrate that his power was not “total”.

Between collaborationism and resistance, Marc Ferro also discusses in the book the difficult, and perhaps embarrassing, situation of the French Communist Party. The news of the German-Soviet pact reverberated among the French communists, but not only among them, with great impact. Although the anti-communist and anti-Soviet wave swept the country, the PCF approved the pact and blamed the British and German capitalists for the threat of war.

Not satisfied, the PCF leaders, following the policy outlined by the Komintern, abandoned the anti-fascist campaign and began to preach the fight against the war, accusing the Anglo-French warmongering alliance and sparing Germany. The malaise in the party’s bases and, above all, in the unions was general. When the USSR invaded Poland, the image of the communists became critical: agents of the Soviets, but also of the Germans.

After the French defeat by Germany, the PCF leaders did not show any reaction and even asked the German authorities responsible for the occupation for permission to legally publish their newspaper, L’Humanité. Only in June 1941, when the USSR was attacked by Germany, did the French communists decide for armed resistance. It is not enough to explain the PCF’s misconceptions about its dependence on the Komintern, although the alignment with Moscow was unconditional.

According to Marc Ferro, the communist leaders devised their own political strategies comparing the situation of pre-revolutionary Russia with that of invaded France. In both cases, the PCF leaders believed, a power vacuum would have occurred, allowing for the emergence of revolutionary forces. In occupied France, therefore, the Bolshevik revolution was a possible and near event, imagined the Communists.

The historical parallel, however, concealed the difficult situation of the party. The repression unleashed in 1939 reduced its cadres from 318,000 to 180 to 200 militants when Germany invaded the country. In any case, in 1945, the PCF leaders were sued for lack of patriotism. Communists, however, did not form a separate community in French society.

After all, the initial victories of Hitler and Mussolini fascinated much of the population of France. Using cinema as a source, one of his specialties, Ferro reconstitutes, in another chapter of the book, the social expectations of countries that were later involved in the war. In France, films produced between 1937 and 1938, as a rule, presented themes and characters marked by latent Anglophobia and often explicit anti-Semitism.

English in the films was unreliable and collaboration with Germany emerged as something possible. Nazism, not by chance, was practically absent from movie screens. Collaborationism, therefore, was a political and cultural fact in French society even before the German invasion. In the United States, the situation was different.

Although North American society showed strong isolationism, the rulers were strict about fascism. Roosevelt and his advisers established a systematic and subsidized film incentive program to discredit fascism. The great dictator, Casablanca and countless other films are situated in this context. In the Soviet Union, filmmakers also condemned the Nazis’ anti-Semitism and denounced the enemy who would later attack the country.

However, excessively concerned with education, government and society did not give as much importance to cinema as to the written word. The Nazis, unlike the Soviets, made cinema the basis of their political propaganda. Nazi film production explored three major themes: anglophobia, like the films that recalled the “genocide” practiced by England against the Irish; solidarity with the oppressed peoples, such as the Boers threatened with cruelty by British imperialism; and, of course, anti-Semitism.

In the latter case, the film The Jew Süss had such a violently racist and anti-Jewish message that its screening in Marseilles in 1941 sparked pogroms, a situation that had never before occurred in the city. More than the anti-Semitic feeling of the French and Germans, the genocide of millions of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis is, without a doubt, one of the central issues of World War II, being also discussed by Marc Ferro. Who knew and what was known about the massacres, asks the author.

Today, after so much information about Nazi crimes, it is difficult, if not unthinkable, to believe that, at the time, no one “knew anything” except the direct executioners. So, should we trust the belief of the past – “they knew very little” – or that of the present – “they knew everything”? Again generalizations are difficult. In Italy, Germany’s ally, neither Mussolini nor the regime were, in fact, anti-Semitic.

The fascist party had Jewish militants in its ranks who, in synagogues, commemorated the military victory over Ethiopia. The Duce has repeatedly condemned German anti-Semitism. It was only in 1937, with the constitution of the Axis, that Mussolini elaborated a policy against the Jews, but whose laws were few and poorly applied. In the Italian zone of occupied France, for example, the carabinieri helped Jews escape the Vichy police. In Denmark, a country occupied by Germany, the resistance of the king and the population to anti-Semitic measures were exemplary.

Danish police would rather die in concentration camps than persecute Jews. In France, unlike fascist Italy, the anti-Semitic campaign was already echoing even before the invasion and only increased with the arrival of the Germans. Right-wing French political organizations and newspapers attacked Jews with the worst offenses: “Death to the Jews! Death to villainy, duplicity, Jewish cunning! Death to the Jewish Argument! Death to Jewish Usury! Death to Jewish demagoguery! Death to everything false, ugly, dirty, disgusting, black, mestizo, Jew!”, preached the French newspaper Au Pilari, in 1941.

The Vichy collaborationist government not only adopted humiliating measures, such as the mandatory use of yellow stars and the stamp on documents, but promoted mass arrests and deportations. Although the Vichy regime stated that only Jews without French nationality would be persecuted, those of French origin living in the occupied regions were also deported.

Thus, both in Germany and in the invaded countries it was known that Jews were sent in railway cars somewhere. But did they know where and for what? It is true that there was no explicit order from Hitler or Goebbels for the extermination – an argument much used by the “revisionists”. But it wasn’t necessary. Nazism took a multitude of measures that, isolated and juxtaposed, allowed the Germans to ignore, or wish to ignore, what was happening, says Ferro.

The compartmentalization of activities involving extermination, from the starting point to the arrival, ensured that one professional did not know the exact function of the other. But how could the railway workers be unaware of the fate of the passengers crammed into the wagons, the chemical workers not realizing what they were making cyklon gas for, the jurists, the employees, the police, among so many other categories, ignore the purpose of their functions?

We know that Nazism made the gas chambers a state secret, but the strategy did not prevent thousands of people from knowing, or at least suspecting, of their existence. If the number of “direct executioners” of extermination is calculated to be between 300,000 and 400,000 people, the “indirect ones” are undoubtedly multiplied by many times. Therefore, at least in Germany, it is difficult to guarantee that “few knew”.

A different situation occurred in other countries. Undoubtedly, the inability of governments and societies to believe that the holocaust was possible facilitated the work of the Nazis. London and Washington, for example, felt that Jews exaggerated their reporting of their sufferings. In France, if the government collaborated with the Nazis in the persecutions, the Jews themselves, even they, did not believe in the extermination.

The current idea among the French authorities was that the deportations were intended to enlist labor in Germany or else to take the Jews to central Europe and confine them definitively to that region. “But the fact that they didn’t imagine reality,” says Ferro, “doesn’t exempt them from criminal liability.” After all, the French police, the gendarmes, the administration and the French civil servants filled the train cars with terrified people without caring about their fate.

The Nazi strategy of secrecy, therefore, was successful. With the rare and scattered news of the massacre during the war, many did not believe it and many others did not want to believe it. The anti-Semitism present in several European societies, complicity and omission acted in favor of the holocaust. When the Americans discovered the death camps, the identity of the victims was not clear to them.

In the first report to Eisenhower, in April 1945, the military said there were corpses of political dissidents, common prisoners, religious people and people who refused mandatory work. Only in the last lines of the text do we read: “It seems that Jews, Russians and Poles were treated more severely than other nationalities.”

Other themes are also explored by Marc Ferro, such as Pétain’s supposed “double game”, the German-Soviet pact, the not so “surprising” Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the turn of war and the dilemmas of the colonized peoples. In all of them we find history as a problem and the concern to highlight the different cultural traditions of each society involved in the war, to the detriment of abstract models and generalizing theorizations.

At a time when Nazism is trivialized and many young people, disillusioned or uninformed, worship the swastika, History of World War II is valuable to remember what happened not so long ago… Especially because Hitlerism, different from fascism and the Bolshevism, preached racial hatred, practiced the premeditated, conscious and systematic extermination of millions of men, women and children and, no less serious, turned horror into a social norm.


Weinberg, G. L. (1996). Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in modern German and world history. Cambridge University Press.

Reynolds, David. From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the international history of the 1940s. Oxford University Press on Demand, 2006.

Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World war. Routledge, 1999.

Eley, Geoff. “Finding the people’s war: Film, British collective memory, and World war II.” The American Historical Review 106, no. 3 (2001): 818-838.

Ericsson, Kjersti, and Eva Simonsen, eds. Children of World War II: The hidden enemy legacy. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005.

Lewis, Adrian R. The American culture of war: A history of US military force from World War II to Operation Enduring Freedom. Routledge, 2013.

Beevor, A. (2012). The second world war. Back Bay Books.

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