On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. By the time it was over, fatalities (military and civilian, from combat and non-combat causes) would total at least seventy million, probably up to eighty-five million, and possibly as high as a hundred million. That total is at least doubled if wounded, injured and missing persons are included. Total casualties of all kinds were probably not far short of a quarter of a billion people.
Stratfor has an interesting and thought-provoking analysis of Hitler's effect on Europe as a consequence of the Second World War. Here's an excerpt, reprinted with Stratfor's permission.
The first outcome, obviously, was that he destroyed Europe's hegemony over much of the world and its influence over the rest. Within 15 years of the end of the war, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands lost their empires. A handful of European nations had dominated the world. By the end of the war they had lost the will, the energy and the wealth to maintain their power. After half-hearted and doomed attempts to resist, these countries willingly participated in the dismantling of what they had once thought of as their birthright.
This changed the shape of the world, of course, but the change was less the result of the world's resistance to Europe than a result of Europe's exhaustion. After the war, Europe faced the task of rebuilding buildings. The ambition to rule had been exhausted ... Europe has lost its recklessness, which is on the whole good. Yet it has gained an excessive caution that makes it difficult for Europe to make up its mind over matters small and large.
The world is certainly a better place without Hitler's reckless imprudence. It is probably a better place without British or French imperialism, although when we look at what they left behind, we wonder if the wreckage of empire is worth the wreckage of the post-imperial world, whoever we blame for that wreckage.
. . .
There was another thing Hitler cost Europe: the metaphysical sensibility. It is startling, the extent to which Christian Europe has abandoned Christianity for secularism. Consider this map (click the image for a larger view):
The decline of church attendance is the outer husk of a European sensibility that, at the highest levels of thought, contemplated the deeper meanings of things. It was not Hitler who destroyed the European metaphysical sensibility. In many ways it destroyed itself from the inside, with a radical skepticism derived from the Enlightenment that turned on itself. But Hitler provided a coup de grace to that sensibility by appropriating figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner to his own political ends, thereby delegitimizing not only them but also the tradition from which they emerged. Hitler, in his own strange wanderings in the depths, made such wanderings no longer respectable, and indeed, suspect. There is a saying I once heard: "German philosophers go down deeper, stay down longer and come up dirtier than any others." I don't know about philosophers, but Hitler, the would-be philosopher, certainly did, and it cost Europe the jewel of its intellectual heritage.
. . .
Of course in all of this, perhaps the most important thing that Hitler did was unleash the United States, a country where earning a living is the definition of life. Hitler believed that his defeat meant the triumph of Bolshevism. It really meant the triumph of the United States and its culture, which it distributed in Western Europe through occupation and in the Soviet bloc through imitation.
The United States redefined European culture. As I have written in Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, it was not Coca-Cola but the computer that was the carrier of American culture. The computer had nothing to do with metaphysics or with the true or beautiful. It had to do with the narrowest form of instrumental reason: It simply got things done, and in doing so, it justified its existence. The computer dominated the world — and Europe — and with it came a mode of thinking, contained in programming, that was so radically different from what European culture consisted of as to almost be from another planet.
. . .
Hitler drew the Americans into the heart of Europe and left the Europeans completely vulnerable to the emerging, and quite strange, modes of thought that a nation that holds shopkeepers in great regard can produce. Hitler destroyed the dams that Europe had built around itself. He crippled all of Europe, including the Soviet Union. He could not imagine the need to cripple the Americans, nor could he have had realized the need. And therefore, in the end, they rebuilt Berchtesgaden and I am sitting here looking at it.
Hitler will be remembered not only for great evil but also — and more important, in many ways — for the manner in which almost all of the consequences of his war were unexpected.
There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading.
As we remember this dismal anniversary, let's spare a thought (and a prayer) for the millions upon millions of casualties, and those who survived the war but are now leaving us at a rate of thousands every day as they grow old.
May the victims of the Second World War, whenever they died or will die, rest in peace.