The Last European War

John Lukacs

Lots of notices today of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, which commenced with the German invasion of Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which the USSR and Germany agreed to carve up Poland between themselves.

I decided to dust off John Lukacs’ terrific 1976 book The Last European War, which I haven’t cracked open in nearly 30 years. This long book (550 pages) covers just the first two years of the war, and the title refers to his thesis that after Japan and the United States entered the conflict in December 1941 it was no longer a European war, and moreover that there would henceforth never be another war strictly among European nations. From the opening:

1939-1941 was the Last European War. The peoples of Europe may yet experience revolutions and civil wars; they may be conquered from the outside; they may be set against each other. But a war in which once nation sets out to dominate Europe, with the result of an all-European war—that is very unlikely to happen. Unlikely not because the prospects—dim, even now—of a united Europe, but because of the results of the Last European War. The year 1941 was a turning point not only in the history of the Second World War but in the relationship of an entire continent to the world. . .

Lukacs, who passed away in May, is always captivating reading. I’ll break off with the conclusion of his opening chapter:

A strange kind of silence had spread over the great thoroughfares of the capital cities of Europe that Sunday. This atmosphere was very different from 1914. . .

Unlike in 1914, they could not see far ahead. The future was obscure. In 1914, most people expected a grand and short European war. In 1939 no one expected a short war, perhaps with the solitary exception of Adolf Hitler. Without demur, and without the enthusiasm surging out of relief, people did what they had to do; but about the consequences of their actions they were almost wholly in the dark.

In 1914 the peoples of Europe knew that the war was to be a European war, another European war, the name of which only changed later to “World War” in the popular terminology (this usage started first among Germans and Americans). In 1939 everyone knew, and so spoke, that this was the start of the Second World War. No one knew that it was also to be the Last European War.