Pick a date, any date

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

In a comment to an earlier post, Jonathan Dresner quite legitimately took exception to my use of the term 'interwar' to refer to the period 1919-1939:

From an Asian history perspective, the Japanese use of chemical weapons in China isn't really "interwar," as major combat operations began in late '37 (leading to the Nanjing Massacre, etc.) and ran continuously through '45.

While Jonathan is conveniently distracted, I thought I'd address the issue he raised -- essentially that of when did the Second World War start? Of course, this is a hoary old question, and the answer usually depends on where you're from. Australia's war started on 3 September 1939, the same date that Britain, France and New Zealand declared war on Germany. So we were in it from the start. Well, the start, bar the two days during which Poland was fighting alone. Or possibly the start, bar the two and a bit years since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, as Jonathan suggests. (I hope we can all agree that the United States was too late to the party to have much of a say in when it really started.)

I have three (count 'em, three) responses to this. The first is an objective one. Standing from outside the Universe (as one does), looking at the war as a single event in space-time, it's clear that Jonathan is right. There's no question that China and Japan were fighting on opposite sides in the war; they were the first of the participants to start fighting; they started fighting in 1937; therefore the war started in 1937. 7 July 1937, to be precise.

The second is a subjective one. As an historian of Britain, and one who is largely concerned with the ways in which the next war was anticipated, it is more useful for me to take the point of view of the British people themselves. And very few of them thought that the Sino-Japanese War was the start of the next war, or even a prelude to it. It certainly showed Japan to be an aggressive, expansionist power, which one day might clash with the British Empire. And it also confirmed some ideas about the brutality of modern warfare, and added to the volatile atmosphere of the time. But it was essentially seen as 'a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing', as Chamberlain was soon to say about somewhere else. It was a war alright, but not Britain's. (If there was a prelude which threatened to pull Britain into a general war, it was the Spanish Civil War, but this possibility faded over time and it never did join up with the larger, later war.) So from this (my) point of view, 3 September 1939 is the start of the war, as that's when Britons thought their war started, and this is the date I will use in practice.

The third and final response is, ummm, a geographical one? If we are talking about a world war, then presumably it has to be fought on a world scale. That rules out 1937, and it rules out 1939 too (because it was not yet joined with the fighting in China, and leaving aside skirmishes like the Battle of the River Plate). As a rule of thumb, we could perhaps say that there needs to be the possibility of intensive ground combat on at least two continents for it to be considered a world war. For the Second World War, this would be when Italy declared war on Britain and France. That opened up Africa as a potential combat zone, in both the north and the east of the continent. And so on this basis, 10 June 1940 was the start of the Second World War.

So, there's three dates: 7 July 1937, 3 September 1939, and 10 June 1940. I'll stick with the middle one as it's most useful to me, and I make no apologies for that. But by the same token, others can and will have different dates in mind. What would you pick, and why?

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18 thoughts on “Pick a date, any date

  1. A world war may be said to have begun (IMHO) when world powers are involved. Therefore the conventional wisdom seems quite right to me; WWII began on September 3, 1939.

  2. Having thought about it, let me qualify that a little more: a world war may be said to have begun when world powers become involved in a major conflict with the possibility of combat in many parts of the globe. Within a couple of months of WWII beginning there was fighting in the South Atlantic, thousands of miles away from the original spark point.

  3. In terms other than the military, of course, Britain's war could well be said to have ante-dated September 1939. Of course, the fighting and killing is essential to our definition of war, but if we took planning/ spending/intervention/mobilisation of the imagination as measures, I think we could make a case for Munich as being the start of Britain's war.

  4. Post author


    Yes, I think your qualification is important. I remember getting steamed up back around the time of the first war against Iraq because some current affairs host here was calling it World War III, because so many countries all over the world were involved. Well then, the Korean War was WWIII on that basis, wasn't it? Silly person. So there does need to be a wide geographic spread (which is what my third alternative was getting at). But to me, the few farflung clashes in late 1939 don't really qualify, as they didn't represent a sustainable effort by Germany, which was only a European power. It wasn't until after the fall of France that it could start to project power on a continuing basis into the Atlantic. On the other hand, it leads to the same date that I like, so it has its merits :)


    That's an interesting way to look at it, though I find it hard to get away from actual fighting as being required for an actual war! A cold war though ... A case could probably also be made for 15 March 1939, when Bohemia was occupied in violation of the Munich agreement. It then seemed very likely that the next crisis would lead to war, so that was a mental watershed too.

  5. How about people dying as a measure of war? Slum clearance programme (and other forms of social welfare spending) not fully enacted because money was being spent on rearmament in response to Hitler's challenges to the European order = Britons dying as a result of enemy action. And I'm not sure that a lack of combat means that there's no war - there was remarkably little combat, thank goodness, for Britain in the months immediately after war was declared. Does that mean that there was no war?
    Oliver Stanley, interestingly, suggested a similar fuzziness to the date when war might be said to have begun at the time. Speaking to the Cabinet about defence spending choices on 2 Feb 1939 he remarked:
    'From one point of view we were already at war and had been for some time. He thought it was contrary to reality to aggregate defence expenditure over a five year period up to March 1942 and to say that we could not afford it. It was clear that some of the conditions under which we were now living could not last much longer -- perhaps not for another year -- and the present was probably the crucial year.'
    (CAB 23/97, 5 (39) 3, 2 Feb 1939, quoted R. Shay, British Rearmament in the Thirties: Politics and Profits (Princeton, UP, 1977), 271)
    I am increasingly of the opinion that a sharp delineation based on 3 September is somewhat misleading. I think that the triple 'watersheds' of the first year of the war - its start, the fall of Chamberlain and the Fall of France - all conceal the continuities in British policy which persisted through peace to war, and despite changes in leadership and the demise of her principal ally. So in all seriousness, but also to encourage different thinking, I suggest that we should look to an earlier start date for Britain's Second World War.
    When exactly that point should be is something to be debated, perhaps, but I'd be tempted to go earlier than March 1939, although I fully agree with your point about mental watersheds.

  6. Respectful Dissent

    Re: your comment, While Jonathan is conveniently distracted, I thought I'd address the issue he raised -- essentially that of when did the Second World War start?, that's only one way to approach the issue he raised. The other is to ask how other cultures/countries perceive the period of conflict we label the Second World War. The national narratives of Asian countries tend to deemphasize the global nature of the war, concentrating on Japanese aggression and national resistance. The "official" narratives of both the Communist Party in China and the Nationalists in Taiwan, for instance, reference the 抗日戰爭 (Kà ng-Rì Zhà nzhēng) [edit: unfortunately, a WordPress upgrade garbled the Chinese characters here -- BH], or War of Resistance against Japan, which lasted from '37 to '45. Similarly, the two Koreas refer to the heroic resistance against Japan instead of tying it into the larger global struggle. One consequence is that while Japanese and Americans will see the war's end as a result of the American use of the atomic bomb, the national military museums in Beijing and Seoul barely mention the Pacific War, Hiroshima or Nagasaki, concentrating only on Japan's capitulation.

    Why does this matter? I had a Taiwanese military officer friend tell me once they don't consider the War of Resistance to be part of World War II, which somehow happened elsewhere. Likewise, how do you qualify World War I, whose theaters didn't reach nearly as far across the globe as its successor; by your definition above ("If we are talking about a world war, then presumably it has to be fought on a world scale."), does it count as a world war?

  7. Chris Williams

    This is very interesting - not least because one of the issues that 'my' course (AA312) deals with is just this one.

    The view in south-east Asia (Malaysia, Burma, Indonesia) appears, from my limited reading, to be very similar to that in Taiwan.

    As for 'Munich as watershed', surely if we're talking about planning, we have to go back to 1934. If we're talking about the spending of serious money, the watershed is 1937/38. If we're talking about a consensus within the political class that war was now more or less inevitable, we have to go to the reaction to March 1938, notably the guarantees to Poland and Romania, which are pretty remarkable events, preceding as they did anything resembling negotiations or staff talks.

  8. I'm sticking with 3 September 1939 as the date marking the onset of WWII.

    Still, I've found the comments re: watersheds and inevitability interesting, though I can't say that I agree with the various dates and events mentioned so far.

    It seems to me that the Rubicon was only crossed, so to speak, on 23 August 1939 with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which freed Hitler to go to war with Poland w/o having to fear Soviet intervention.

  9. Post author

    Wow, what great responses! (And there are more at Revise and Dissent and at The Rhine River. I think there might be something to this "blogging" caper after all ...

    Although I like Dan's ideas as a way to get us to "think different" (especially the suggestion about the lives lost in effect due to war preparations), I think I'm still going to go with the traditional date. This is probably just my perspective; I'm more interested in popular and middle opinion than elite opinion. So Stanley might well have reason to think that in some important ways, the war had already begun by February, but if he had started going around saying "Put out that light! Don't you know there's a war on??" people would have looked at him very strangely indeed. Put another way, could Britain have won (or lost) Stanley's war without 3 September, and the chance for actual fighting, having to happen first?

    Similarly, while the Czech crisis gave people a real fright, and the occupation of Bohemia made war seem inevitable, the reactions of people on 3 September makes it clear that they thought something important had changed dramatically since 2 September (let alone 31 August). That was surely the biggest mental watershed of all.

    Maybe the other way to look at it though, is as a series of gradations, from c. 1934 on, stopping off at the various pointed suggested by Dan, Chris and Scott. Then there's no single (or simple) date for the start of war at all, but a slippery slope into war. I think this has virtues -- it corresponds to the actual diplomatic process/situation better, for example. But if there was a slippery slope, at 3 September there's a steeper grade, if not an actual vertical drop ...

    Respectful's comment was interesting. It's not so much a different way of approaching Jonathan's point, as an Asian perspective on the second definition in my post -- with the twist that the war is seen purely as a regional one, and not a world one at all. Is the idea of a world war just an Anglophone conceit, then? I have to wonder though, if museums in Beijing focus on Japan's surrender while de-emphasising the atom bombs, how do they explain the surrender of Japan in the first place? Surely they don't claim that China's resistance to invasion, staunch though it may have been, was the cause? In other words, whatever national mythologies may say, I think WWII does need to be understood as a global war. (That's not to deny that Britain has its own mythology of the war which can get in the way of understanding it as a whole!)

    Finally, as to the First World War, I think that under my third definition it still counts as a world war -- from the point when Turkey entered the war (October/November 1914). This made Asia and Africa potential (and eventually, actual) zones for major combat. Alternatively, one could consider the campaign in German East Africa to satisfy that condition, which would make it a world war from day one.

    I think also, there are two separate questions in this post and the comments: (1) when did Britain's war start? and (2) when did the war become a world one? An appropriate answer in the British context to (1) may not make much sense in the wider view.

  10. Chris Williams

    When I wrote March 38 above, I did of course mean March 39, as any fule kno. Cheers for pointing it out, Dan


    'For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell only, or in the act if fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battel is sufficiently known.'

    Seems about right as a theoretical starting point.

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  13. Dan Egan

    I respectfully disagree. The war that began in China in 1937 was regional - between China and Japan. Likewise the war that began in Sep 1939 was regional, between Germany on one side and Britain, France and Poland on the other. Things could have gone differently and no 'worldwide' fighting might have occurred. There were 'world powers' involved, but both France and Britain were on the same side.

    How about 22 June 1941? That's when the European war involved an Asian power. It is when the scale of the war ratchets up dramatically. Even so one could argue it was still largely a European war.

    How about Dec 1941? That's when the European and Asian wars started involving the same participants and when the more-of-less final coalitions lined up as combatants. Didn't AJP Taylor argue for these later dates, with the logic that this was when several very large regional conflicts coalesced into one world war?

  14. Post author

    Well, AJP said a lot of things :)

    I'm not convinced. If you want to argue that Japan-China was a local war, and Germany-France-UK-Poland was a local war, then how can you conclude that Germany-USSR was not a local war too? No other major power was involved in the combat in that theatre (partial credit to Italy); sure, the USSR was an Asian power, but (a) it didn't actually fight in Asia between 1939 (Nomonhan) and 1945 (Manchuria); and (b) Britain was an Asian power too, so whatever war it was that started in 1939 already involved an Asian power.

    Though I already rejected it in my post, December 1941 does have some merit for the reasons you say. It's unquestionably the latest date by which the world war started -- if it hadn't started by then, it never would! Perhaps I was too hasty in dismissing this date, but I'll still stick to my guns and say that June 1940 was actually when one of the wars spilled over onto another continent, and so it was already no longer just a European war. It could certainly be argued that Africa was just a sideshow (though it wasn't for Britain and Italy), and the entry of Japan into the war forced some countries (US, Britain) to think and act globally. But my gut feeling is that the war was already well underway by December 1941, so maybe I'm just rationalising that feeling ...

  15. Brett: "Finally, as to the First World War … from the point when Turkey entered the war (October/November 1914). This made Asia and Africa potential (and eventually, actual) zones for major combat."

    There's another Asian dimenson: Japan came in on 23 August and was besieging the German colony of Tsingtao from 31 October.

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