Shaya Cohen -


World War II in Context

I have spent the last few days in Normandy with my wife and several kids. We rented an Airbnb right off Gold Beach, and we have also spent a fair amount of time at Omaha, Pointe du Hoc, Maisy Battery, the American Cemetery, and a wide range of fascinating and accessible museums featuring vast stores of recordings, equipment, paraphernalia, aircraft and artillery. We even flew in a C-47 simulator. I was amazed at how effective the curators were at helping to bring us back in time, to connect with that Longest Day.

And I got to thinking. There was something different about World War II, something that kept niggling at me as I marveled at all the stories of those who risked everything. But why?

After all, war is hardly new; conflict is as old as recorded time, and organized conflict between tribes or families dates back to their first incarnations. And yet, I would argue that conflict was really always about the family or tribe or nation that went to war: seeking to maximize resources and power. Wars were essentially sibling rivalry writ large; the winners got to lord it over the losers. It has, with few exceptions, always been thus. Winning contains its own justification.

World War II was different. Certainly there were elements of national tribalism, of people demonizing the Other, of national pride that was quite similar in product to Roman or Athenian or Persian nationalism. Indeed, I remember textbooks from my youth that referred to the 1930s as “The Rise of Nationalism,” which is actually missing the point that while the scale had changed, the principle of a people fighting for power was as old as the first time one village clashed with another.

There was something else in World War II, too. Something that was even emphasized at the time. As Eisenhower put it:

These men came here to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambition that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom, systems of self-government in the world.

He was right, of course. In the history of the world, America has been unique in not building an empire, not running Japan or Germany or countless other countries as provinces or puppets. But this is not the full story. While Eisenhower was close to putting his finger on it, I think the perspective of history might boil this conflict down not to nationalism, but instead to a fundamental clash of ideologies. Americans knew they were fighting for “Liberty” and “Freedom,” but it is hard to define either. Especially when one considers the irony that in order to fight for “freedom,” the US Government engaged in quite a lot of unfreedom (like the draft) in order to win. Hitler saw it coming:

“The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it.”
Adolf Hitler, September 1933

What was America and the allies fighting against? “Fascism” is a common answer, but it is neither accurate, complete, or even very helpful. After all, there is nothing in the textbook definition of “fascism” that requires conquering other nations, or killing all your Jews. (Indeed, insisting that fascism is “far right” is a bald-faced lie promoted by liberals who seek to promote their very similar form of governance under a different label)

What was the point of Hitler’s ideology? What was Hitler really fighting for? He tells us himself.

“The whole world has been built up in accordance with the principle that might makes right.”
Adolf Hitler, January 1942

The truth is that force creates right.”
Nazi broadcast to occupied Belgium, October 1941

Hitler was not just another dictator trying to maximize his power. Hitler was marketing something quite specific: a race war that would achieve the logical conclusion of the eugenics mindset that was accepted across all of Western Civilization: power is everything. The weak need to be destroyed. Anyone who defends the weak must, by extension, be eliminated. The ideologies that protect the weak, that claim that inferior specimens contain a divine spark worthy of respect and honor, those ideologies are directly counter to “might makes right,” and they must be destroyed.

Hitler understood this even better than most Jews do. He understood that the mere idea of mercy to those who are weaker, of empathy to the downtrodden and oppressed, was a fundamental threat to his own ideology. Indeed, as he put it: “If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition.”

With this perspective, I think I am more comfortable understanding the undercurrent of what World War II may have been about. It was Hitler’s “Might Makes Right,” against the ideology that believes that every individual forms an atomic unit that has self-determination. Power versus Liberty. Top-Down versus Bottom Up. The State versus the Individual.

 There will be no licence, no free space in which the individual belongs to himself. The decisive factor is that the State, through the Party, is supreme.” Adolf Hitler, 1933

To me, this is what makes the ultimate sacrifice of all those who fought against the Axis powers so deeply precious. They were not merely doing as man has done since the dawn of time: fighting for their own. They were fighting for others. More than this: they were fighting for an ideological foundation that believed in the rights of each person, the primacy of the individual over the state.

I was reflecting, as one quite reasonably would when confronted by the emotional tidal wave of D-Day, how this makes me think about my own life, my own choices. And it made me better understand why I spend so much effort on Torah study; I understand that Hitler had a point: the power of the Jew is not found in our physical strength or power. It is instead found in the realm of ideas, of the stories that help us understand and make sense of the world around us, and what place we can make within it for ourselves and our loved ones.

To me, the relationships that we build in this world with each other and with G-d are critically important. The Torah is the guidebook to how to achieve and nurture those relationships. It tells us why we are here, what we are meant to achieve, and why G-d cares. And the Torah keeps hammering away at why we are never meant to define what is “right” using power.

So I have found Normandy to be a sobering reminder of the importance of my work for my own life. And the criticality of properly understanding and identifying what is really right and wrong, so that as and when the forces of evil, those who seek to crush liberty and freedom, rise up (as they do in every generation), we are not fooled. We must remain vigilant: evil must be dealt with sooner or later. Sooner is much better: D-Day tells us of the cost when we instead take a ”wait and see” posture, and allow those who advocate “Might Makes Right” to become mighty.

P.S. This Hitler quote made me think of the Covidsanity.

“Brutality is respected. Brutality and physical strength. The plain man in the street respects nothing but brutal strength and ruthlessness. Women too, for that matter, women and children. The people need wholesome fear. They want to fear something. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive.”
Adolf Hitler, 1933

I found it ironic that all the employees at the American Cemetery wore masks indoors, no doubt because of government edict.

Comments are welcome!

%d bloggers like this: