The Transnational Goes Viral: Applying Global History to War

Prof. Sheldon Garon (Princeton University)

By the end of the Second World War, cities across Europe and East Asia lay in rubble—pulverized by ground combat but more spectacularly by unprecedented levels of aerial bombardment. The history of bombing is usually told episodically. German and Italian pilots indiscriminately bombed civilians in the Spanish Civil War; Japanese planes raided Chinese cities; Britain survived the Blitz thanks to Spitfires and valiant air-raid wardens; the Anglo-Americans incinerated Dresden; and U.S. leaders made the momentous decisions leading to the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My article, ‘On the Transnational Destruction of Cities’ (Past & Present #247), demonstrates that none of these episodes unfolded in isolation. The practices involved in bombing cities originated neither in one country nor from one ideology. During the 1930s, international peace groups denounced aerial attacks by Germans, Italians, and Japanese as ‘fascist’. Yet by 1944, the two greatest destroyers of cities were among its greatest democracies—Britain and America. Nor does imperialism or racism explain much. Historians often assert that Europeans and Americans bombed colonial subjects —and then the Japanese —with a savagery they would not have unleashed on Caucasians. In fact, white people evinced remarkably few qualms about bombing white civilians. In both world wars, air forces targeted densely populated urban areas in Europe. And there was nothing all that unique about the U.S. firebombing of Japanese cities in 1945. The strategic decisions were in large part based on what the Allies had learned from their ‘area bombing’ of German cities.

NRS 19792 National Emergency Services posters, 1942. Poster – “Target for tonight”, via Wiki:Commons

Accordingly, I argue that the destruction of cities in the Second World War resulted from a long process of transnational learning dating back to the First World War and accelerating through the interwar decades and wartime. Much of this was related to the new concepts of total war, home fronts, and civilian morale. Nation-states vigorously investigated each other’s strategies to win wars not simply by defeating the enemy’s armed forces but also by bombarding urban ‘nerve centres’ and crushing popular morale. Just as urgently, nations emulated each other’s efforts to defend their own home fronts by mobilizing the entire populace in civil defence efforts. The circulation of such knowledge was global and multi-directional. The Japanese, for example, were both the takers and makers of these ideas and practices. By the late 1930s, Japan’s naval air force emerged as the leading practitioner of the long-distance bombing of cities in China. The world watched in horror but also with curiosity. The RAF and British civil-defence officials, for their part, were keen to draw ‘air lessons’ from East Asia that could be applied in the anticipated war in Europe.

Although transnational or global history is currently one of the hottest fields in history, few have applied its methods to study war on a global scale. The most promising comparative and transnational work has focused on the European belligerents during the First World War. By contrast, connected histories of the Second World War barely exist. The exceptions are overviews by scholars who may know European languages but not Japanese or Chinese. Linguistic limitations aside, historians have generally been averse to situating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan within a transnational framework, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. For instance, Germany’s largest mass organization, the Reich Air Defence League (Reichsluftschutzbund,) was not so exceptional; it was modeled on existing nationwide civil-defence leagues in Poland, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Nor did Japanese militarists in fact force children to die defending the cities; instead officials carried out the massive evacuation of younger children as they had observed in Britain during the Blitz. I have no wish to draw moral equivalences between the Axis and the western Allies. But when it comes to wartime mobilization and strategies, should historians continue to divide the world neatly into Nazis, fanatical Japanese, Soviet Communists, and the liberal democratic Anglo-Americans?

There is yet another reason why global historians have shied away from examining the world wars. As Jeremy Adelman recently observed, many historians assume that global history is the study of ‘globalization’. By this, they mean cosmopolitanism, migration, freer trade, international cooperation, and ‘integration’. Not surprisingly, global historians tend to regard war as the ultimate disjuncture. Borders close, and people and commodities no longer move freely. While Adelman calls on us to reckon with ‘disintegration as well as integration’, I propose that we think more expansively about the unexpected interconnectedness that arises among nations at war.

Our current predicament is instructive. Covid-19, proclaim many pundits, similarly signals the end of globalization. Borders are sealed; populist nationalism surges; and international cooperation breaks down. And yet, there’s nothing like a pandemic to make the case for transnational analysis. The novel coronavirus is the transnational actor par excellence. It leaps over borders oblivious to state sovereignty. Moreover, the various responses to the pandemic cannot be adequately understood within the confines of single nations. To a remarkable degree, nation-states and local governments have been driven by transnational flows of knowledge. They moved quickly to adopt best practices from nations already fighting the virus. Within days of the shocking lockdown in northern Italy in early March 2020, governments elsewhere were ordering millions of people to stay at home.

Indeed, today’s pandemic offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the promise of transnational or global history in general. Scholars commonly criticize transnational history for flattening national cases as it allegedly neglects the particularities of national histories. While no one can deny the power of national and local cultures, the responses to the pandemic dramatically illustrate how transnational learning confounds characterizations based on national history. When South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong appeared to be containing Covid-19 earlier this year, journalists blithely wrote that their East Asian methods could never be emulated in the individualistic West. Soon, however, governments in Italy, Spain, France, and even Britain were imposing restrictions on daily life that were just as draconian, if not more so. Further confusing the East-West binary, the historically interventionist Japanese state has taken a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude toward shutting down entertainment and workplaces. Meanwhile in the United States, many cities and states adopted tougher policies, despite American traditions of anti-government sentiment. Donald Trump and other leaders may aggressively promote their own nation’s interests at the expense of others. Nevertheless, the crisis is global, and the responses are unquestionably connected.

The world wars, I’d argue, were much like the current pandemic. They too constricted flows of integration, notably the free movement of people, goods, and capital. At the same time, belligerents devoted enormous resources to creating new connections. Never before had states expended so much money and manpower on gathering information from abroad. Warring nations frenetically investigated and emulated the military strategies of friends and foes alike, while just as seriously surveying how others were defending their home fronts. Although many shipping routes shut down, oceanic super-highways took their place, as the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia supplied Great Britain and Allied forces globally with food and materiel. Moreover, ordinary people crossed borders and seas in extraordinary numbers as soldiers, nurses, laborers, and merchant seamen.

Globalizing the study of war challenges another critique of the transnational method. Global history, asserts Adelman, privileges those who move between nations over those who got ‘left behind’. However, one need not venture from home to be significantly affected by global forces. Consider the spread of the self-consciously ‘middle class’ values of thrift and domesticity, even to remote Japanese villages. But nothing transformed everyday life around the world as much as the Second World War. By 1942, one would have observed strikingly similar features of wartime life in Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and Britain: ration coupons, blackouts, evacuations, and neighbourhood-based civil defence units. Women everywhere were being mobilized to fight incendiary bombs and to direct communal efforts at food distribution and war saving. These commonalities were no coincidence. The very concept of the ‘home front’ had been transnationally constructed during the First World War and interwar decades.

Finally, my article highlights the importance of truly globalizing the history of the Second World War. The inclusion of Japan and China is a vital first step. Yet we must go beyond mere inclusion to reveal the critical connections between the European and Asia-Pacific theatres of war. This is a formidable task, but not impossible. It calls for leveraging one’s language skills, plus a willingness to venture outside the comfort of one’s national history. I myself am a historian of Japan who has also done extensive archival research in Germany, Britain, and the United States.

Multi-archival work is essential, considering that secondary sources rarely discuss the vibrant linkages among nations. If we are mindful of what good global history requires, the transnational method should and will go viral.

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