[Fairly well-edited notes: November 30, 2011]


The totalitarian powers promised their peoples world dominance, telling them that the democracies of the world were too weak to prevail against them.  During both World War II and the following Cold War period (1945-1991), it often looked like they might be right, though, in the end, the "good guys" triumphed--sort of. 

World War II is an excellent example of the "sort of" victory of the democracies in the war with totalitarianism.  World War II stopped the Fascists, the Nazis, and the military dictatorship of Japan.  But it left another totalitarian system, Communism,  stronger than ever.

Prior to WW II, there was only one communist nation on the face of the earth, the Soviet Union.  And that was simply not the Marxist dream.  Marxists wanted to see the "dictatorship of the proletariat" spread world wide, and while Comintern had succeeded in destabilizing democratic governments in places like Germany and Italy, the Communists had nowhere been able to take control themselves.

During the opening days of WW II, the Communists got their chance to expand.  The Soviets took over the Baltics states, Eastern Poland, and Finland.  During the last days of WW II, the were able to push much further, pushing into countries like Hungary and Poland.  The big question was, what would happen when the war was over?  Would the Soviets go home and leave these countries independent?  Perhaps not....

In February of 1945, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt met at Yalta to try to reach some agreement on what was going to happen in Europe once the war was actually over.  Churchill and Roosevelt wanted Stalin out of Eastern Europe, but Roosevelt wanted other things as well.  He hoped for Soviet help in the war against Japan  and for Russian participation in a new organization, the United Nations.  Stalin agreed to last two, and Churchill and Roosevelt dropped their demands that he leave Eastern Europe--perhaps thinking they (or the United Nations) could do something after Hitler and the Japanese were defeated.
Roosevelt wasn't a well man--he'd be dead within a few months.  Also, he seems to have been a bit  naive.  In 1942, he had said,  "I think that if I give him (Stalin) everything I possibly can and ask nothing in return he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace."

But within a few months of Yalta, Roosevelt at last saw his mistake.  "We can't do business with Stalin.  He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta."  And then there's my all-time favorite Roosevelt quotes, "Stalin is not a man of his word."
But Stalin did keep his promise to enter the war against Japan.  Two days after the atomic bomb was dropped and just a few days before the Japanese surrender, Stalin's troops poured into Manchuria, and as a result of  this token effort, Stalin and the Russians were rewarded with substantial chunks of Japanese territory.  And soon, the democracies were bargaining with Stalin again.

In July and August 1945, the victorious allies met at Potsdam to try to work out a settlement. At Potsdam, it was also agreed the Germany would be divided into four occupied zones and punished in other ways.  Later, the Soviet-occupied zone would be East Germany, the three zones occupied by France, Britain and the U.S. would unite into West Germany.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the Potsdam conference agreement strengthened the Soviet Union.  The Soviets were given all sorts of concessions to compensate them for their sacrifices during the war--concesssions that came at the expense of other eastern European countries, particularly Poland.

One good thing came out of the Potsdam conference. It was decided that Nazis who had committed atrocities during the war would be put on trial.  This led to the famous Nuremberg trials where Nazi war criminals were told over and over again that following orders was no excuse for crimes against humanity.  A good principle, but--ironically--sitting among the judges were Soviet officials--officials from a nation that committed crimes as bad or worse than those of the Nazis. Poland was a good example of problem. Remember that the Soviets had invaded Eastern Poland during the first days of WWII.  Among other atrocities, they took  22,000 Polish officers that they had captured, marched them into Katyn forest, and massacred them all.  But that was not nearly as bad as what was to come.

In the last days of World War II, the Soviets could have come to the aid of the Polish resistance forces.  Instead, they let Hitler do much of their dirty work for them, allowing the resistance forces to be wiped out before moving in themselves.  And when Soviet troops finally march in, the treated Polish civilians with the utmost brutality, raping women, stealing everything of value, and killing anyone who tried to resistance.

When the Soviet troops got to German territory, there treatment of civilians was even worse.  Soviet soldiers raped tens of thousands of women and young girls--probably committing at least two million rapes.

[See this review of Antony's Beever's book on the fall of Berlin or another review of Beever's book.]

Stalin didn't mind at all--he *wanted* such behavior.  Why?  To create tremendous fear of the Soviet army.  And it worked. Fear of the Soviets was powerful tool of local communists in securing support, and eventually communist governments working hand in glove  with the Soviet Union controlled most of the countries of eastern Europe.  Winston Churchill now warned of a new menace, telling us that "An iron curtain descended on Europe."
But it wasn't just Europe.  In 1949, Communists took over in China too.  Here's another instance where a nation that might have gone in a very different direction succumbs to totalitarianism.  It the early years of the 20th century, China had begun to move toward democracy under the leadership of Dr. Sun-Yat-Sen was a Christian convert who, using the slogan "Nationalism, Democracy, Livelihood" created a movement strong enough to establish what's called the Chinese Republic.  After Sun Yet-Sen's death, leadership of the Republic fell to his brother-in-law, Chiang Kai Shek. 

Ultimately, however, it was not democratic ideas that dominated China, but a different set of European ideas, the ideas of the German writer Karl Marx.  The leader of the Communist movement in China was Mao Tse-Tung.  Mao managed to take over China in 1949, and he set about to remake the country along Marxist lines.

In 1959, Mao launched the "Great Leap Forward," an attempt to change the Chinese economy.  This involved the construction of everything from roads to hydro-electric dams.  It also involved the collectivization of agriculture.  The result?  Too much change, too quickly--and probably 25,000,000 dead.

Mao worked to transform China in other ways--not just the economy.  From 1966-1969 he backed the "Cultural Revolution," a movement aimed at getting rid of the "four olds,"  old ideology, old thought, old habits, old customs.  Millions of young people joined the Red Guard--and dedicated themselves to wanton destruction of anything even vaguely associated with old Chinese traditions.  More than 1,000,000 leaders (including especially teachers) were jailed, beaten, and (usually) killed. Obviously, a tremendously costly transformation!  But the China that emerged was going to be a major player in world affairs, and, with both the Soviet Union and China pushing for further Communist expansion, it looked like the Marxist dream of world-wide communism might become a reality. 

In the 1950's, Stalin's successor Nikita Kruschev could confidently tell the democracies, "We will bury you."  And for more than 40 years it looked as if there was a chance they would. This period (from roughly 1945-1991) is what we call the period of the Cold War, the period in which advocates of Communism (led by the Soviet Union and China) worked to expand that particularly flavor of totalitarianism, while advocates of democracy (led by the United States) worked to contain Communism.

The countries of the Free World had some advantages.  Liberal democracy, with its free markets and free men, invariably works out better in economic terms.  Note the contrast between free West Germany and communist East Germany.  Further, citizens of a democracy enjoy freedoms those living under totalitarianism can't even dream of.

But this very freedom was, to a certain extent, a disadvantage.  Communist agents and communist sympathizers [see Mona Charon's book Useful Idiots.] could take advantage of  fundamental western freedoms like freedom of the speech and freedom of the press to advocate for a system where there would be no freedom of speech of freedom of the press.  By the late 1960's, anti-Communism had become unfashionable among the Western elites.  President John Kennedy had promised that  the United States would, "Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."  But after the Vietnam war debacle, it didn't look as if even the United States found the struggle against communist expansion too difficult.

But in the 1980's,  leaders like Maggie Thatcher in Britain, Helmut Kohl in Germany, and Ronald Reagan in the United States led a free-world resurgence.  Partly, this came about through aggressive foreign policy decisions and an aggressive arms build-up the Soviets couldn't match.  But, perhaps more important, Thatcher and Reagan especially moved toward laissez-faire economic and free trade.  This led to an era of unprecedented prosperity in the West.  Seeing the wealth of the West and their own poverty, one by one the nations of Eastern Europe threw out their communist leaders and embraced democracy.  In  1991, the Soviet Union itself fell apart with many of its constituent units trying to create free and democratic societies.

Writer Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that we had reached the end of history: not with the dictatorship of the Proletariat, but with liberal democracy as the form of government prevailing everywhere and forever. The Jeffersonian political philosophy of the American founders can be summarized in a single phrase, "That government is best which governs least."  By 1991, it looked like at last mankind had learned that lesson. Now the question is will the lesson stay learned?  Or will we once again succumb to the totalitarian temptation and welcome the guiding and controlling hand of Big Brother?