Around the year 1924 some of the world’s biggest powers were busy recovering from the disastrous impacts of the First World War. The situation was the most difficult for Germany which was burdened with the payment of huge reparations even in the middle of a collapsing economy and very high unemployment rates. At the same time the greater part of the world, whether formally colonized or not, was being exploited by imperial countries, causing great distress to their people. Although it was clear for anyone to see that their quest for dominating the world had led to the imperialist countries getting embroiled in a highly destructive war, this had not led them to a different path where such mutual destruction could be avoided.
However there was at least one big step towards alternatives, in the form of the Russian Revolution (1917). The revolutionaries did well to get away from the war and instead to concentrate on several serious problems confronting the people. Their difficulties in the initial days were worsened by the hostility of several big powers. In addition there was a strong authoritarian streak among some of the revolution’s leaders like Stalin who unfortunately managed to push themselves into the forefront. The early death of Lenin made thing easier for such leaders to tighten their grip and inflict shocking punishments on some of their comrades. Atrocities on peasants by those who were supposed to liberate them were being reported soon. Hence the revolution lost a lot of its potential and idealism at an early stage.
This was unfortunate, for capitalism was soon to run into one of its most serious crises. The Great Depression brought economic ruin and unemployment to millions of unprepared people, not the least in the American heartland. However FDR revealed real leadership qualities in providing considerable short-term relief with his New Deal policy and programs.
However in Germany and Italy the upcoming right-wing leaders, Hitler and Mussolini, had other ideas in the form of their allied ideologies of Nazism and Fascism. Instead of offering some real solutions they merely provided scapegoats like Communists and Jews against whom the hatred of the common people could be aroused by blaming them for all their difficulties. Helped by the establishment, big capitalists as well as rulers, they managed with the help of their violent storm-troopers to push and shove themselves into power.
During the difficult years 1924-39 it was clear to anyone taking a somewhat wider view of the various situations that the same highly selfish and always potentially violent quest for dominance that had resulted in the First World War was again leading towards a similar or perhaps bigger danger but there were few effective voices of peace. The League of Nations had continued to make its modest efforts for peace and disarmament and sometimes came up with very creative ideas but often these just remained ideas. In India Mahatma Gandhi was pioneering a path of non-violent struggle but this did not yet have an impact on the wider world.
When the Second World War started in 1939, first Germany and then Japan registered very rapid military victories within a very short time, and one wonders what would have been the world’s fate if they had not made some serious strategic errors in the arrogance of their early success. The fact that Hitler remained unrepentant till the end reveals that he was almost insanely destructive, but what is most shocking is that with such a mindset his leadership was accepted by so many people for such a long time, and that he had collected such an immense number of admirers during his peak days. No less shocking is the fact that many people still admire him.
Even though the Axis powers could finally be defeated this was not before the Second World War had claimed about 33 million lives, counting only direct deaths. The indirect deaths caused by hunger, deprivation and disease spread as a result of this war could be many more. Only one such episode in one part of a single country—the Bengal Famine in India—caused over 3 million deaths. In perhaps the biggest genocidal action ever, Hitler’s decisions caused the death of nearly 6 million Jews. The Second World War ended on the most worrying note of the first two atomic bombs being dropped on the Japanese people at a late stage when the surrender of Japan was easily obtainable without their use.
A tragedy as big as this war should have alerted the world to much bigger and more effective efforts for peace, and although the United Nations Organization was created, its efforts did not match the big challenges it faced.
As though the world had not yet suffered enough from being divided into rival groups, the Cold War soon divided the world in two camps led respectively by the USA and the Soviet Union. A quiet, highly sinister campaign was initiated to attack the Soviet Union with many atom bombs before it could acquire its own atomic weapons. Later, in the course of the Korean War, the top military chief of the USA/UN force recommended dropping several atom bombs on China to end the war quickly. However to the credit of the USA President Truman who had earlier given the clearance for dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he refused to let this destruction proceed further.
However the Korean War gave warning that the new proxy wars of the Cold War era were going to be extremely destructive. Several million lives were lost in this war. The millions of lives lost sometime later in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were no less tragic. However there was some good news as European powers weakened by the war agreed to the freedom of several of their colonies, particularly those which had stronger freedom movements. Some of them embarked on creative programs aimed at real progress of people. However in several other colonies a large number of lives were lost in continuing struggles before freedom could be obtained. At the same time coups planned by western countries such as those which toppled popular leaders like Allende in Chile, Mosaddegh in Iran and Lumumba in Congo led to the continued denial of real alternatives to many people who now had to live under west-supported dictatorships.
From the Soviet Union led by Stalin there were numerous reports of millions of people victimized in various ways, some killed, some sent to forced labor. After Stalin’s death, things improved but some problems persisted, including in relations with close allies and in matters concerning economic stagnation. In China too there were serious complaints of millions of people including peasants being victimized and threatened in various ways, and millions perishing in famines, particularly the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1959-61.
After Mao’s death China after some years’ hesitancy could embark on a path of development that was well-integrated with world-level capitalist growth, leading to very high rate of economic growth rate, which in turn could finance enormous growth of infra-structure and technology.
Soviet Union collapsed before this, partly under the weight of its own problems. However efforts under Putin led to the restoration of some of the strengths of the Russian Federation.
European countries ravaged by the Second World War were helped by the US-led Marshall Plan to re-emerge as strong economic powers. Japan also followed this path. Germany was strengthened further by re-unification. Despite all its shortcoming the European Union also provided opportunities for consolidation of economic gains. Britain appeared to lose some of its strength after withdrawing. However while progressing as a camp-follower of the USA and seeking protection as members of NATO, some of the major European countries appear to have surrendered a considerable part of their sovereignty in matters relating to defense and foreign policies, and to some extent even economic and trade policies.
Hence increasingly there have been no real alternatives to the capitalist path led by the USA, except for some pioneering and hope-giving efforts mainly in some Latin American countries. However while enjoying special advantages arising from high resource base and world reserve currency, the USA has been over-ambitious in terms of seeking its dominance for all times and this, together with the pressures of the military-industrial complex striving to endlessly increase its profits, led the USA to pursue never-ending wars. This was accompanied by ever-increasing investment in more and more destructive weapons with wider reach. This led countries threatened by the USA to also increase their weapon budgets and programs, embroiling the world in a never-ending, ever-accelerating arms-race.
The terrible 9/11 attacks, several aspects of which remain shrouded in mystery, were used by the USA ( with close allies) as a pretext to launch the long drawn-out war on terror which has already inflicted terrible ruin on several countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and several others. The ever-increasing advance of NATO towards Russia as well use of Ukraine as a proxy to confront Russia relentlessly culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This on-going conflict at various stages increased the chances of a direct conflict between Russia and the USA, and hence a nuclear war and the third world war, more than ever before. Even before this conflict could end, a new one in the Middle-East has broken out, again with chances of becoming a wider conflict. This has already resulted in a very serious humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip, creating more of an existential crisis for the already long-suffering Palestinians of Gaza. An even bigger threat looms not too far in the horizon as there has been much talk about the possibility of a war or proxy war between the USA and China. As the closest rival of the USA, China is on the one hand threatened badly but this has not prevented it from, on the other hand, several aggressive tendencies of its own.
This relentless militarization and arms-race have been taking place in a world whose life-nurturing conditions are increasingly threatened by about a dozen very serious environmental problems led by climate change. The seriousness of these problems had been adequately confirmed by scientists by the time the cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Hence the end of the Cold War could have been used to create a new international cooperation of very high order for resolving the most serious environmental problems. Instead the most powerful countries led by the USA embarked on a new high of never-ending wars, a phase which is still continuing.
Hence in this important aspect the situation in 2023 is similar to the one existing a hundred years back in 1924—that the world is relentlessly marching towards greater destruction but there are no effective voices of peace to check this destructive march. The United Nations faces some structural weaknesses and on top of this has failed to make the best use of the limited opportunities available to it. The people’s peace movement, including the disarmament movement, is quite weak relative to the challenges it faces and despite the valiant and very well-intentioned efforts by several of its constituents, is not yet in a strong position to check the highly threatening trends. The path shown by Mahatma Gandhi of non-violence was also followed by such great leaders as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Badshah Khan. However King was assassinated at a young age, while Mandela and Khan had to spend a lot of their time in prison. Leaders of great vision such as President Kennedy in the USA and Prime Minister Rabin in Israel, made great efforts for peace but both were assassinated before their efforts could make much more progress to bring real change. Earlier Mahatma Gandhi too was assassinated. Meanwhile, apart from vast stocks of conventional weapons including more destructive ones like depleted uranium weapons and cluster bombs, the world has over 12,000 nuclear weapons and if about 10% of these are actually used the entire world will be ruined.
Hence while the world is on the same destructive path as about a 100 years ago (which led then to the Second World War) the situation is at present much more serious because the weapons available now can destroy the entire world, apart from aggravating the serious environmental crisis, while the environmental crisis too can destroy the life-nurturing conditions of the planet on its own.
Hence the history of the last century beckons the world to be very cautious and not move towards any further accentuation of conflicts and wars, while also making the best possible efforts to resolve the existing conflicts. The peace, justice and environment protection movements have to become much stronger and unite for protecting the life-nurturing conditions of our world to avoid unprecedented mass distress and threats for everyone and particularly for the generations to come.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Survival Crisis, Planet in Peril—People’s Response Only Way Forward’, ‘Protecting Earth for Children’, ‘Earth without Borders’ and ‘A Day in 2071’.