You’ll Fail If You Ever Write 1939

Thinking about my Age of Exploration and Colonization of the Americas class, brought back a much different memory. One of my Soviet History Classes was Soviet History from 1917-1950. On the first day of class, the professor put up a slide from a Powerpoint that made this pronouncement “If you ever write WWII started in 1939, you’ll fail the assignment, immediately.”

This was kind of an interesting thing for me, because in the US we are taught WWII started in 1939. But history tends to be written by the victors and in the case of WWII, the dates used were used because France and the UK entered the war in 1939.

During a later lecture, I learned WWII didn’t start for the Soviet Union until 6 months before it started for the US… Soviet History teaches WWII started in June 1941. The date is more clear cut in the Soviet Union than in the US, because the US was doing some things they said they wouldn’t before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941.

The US was theoretically neutral from 1939 – 1941. Emphasis on the theoretical part. Almost immediately after the UK and France declared war on Germany, the US declared itself neutral and began supplying aid to the French and British armies, mostly in the form of munitions. But assistance is assistance, especially once a country has declared itself neutral.

Hitler like many European rulers before him, made the unwise decision that Russia could be taken by force. They launched an invasion of the Soviet Union and started heading towards the giant country. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was the largest geographical country on the planet at the time, and the invasion was a disaster because, armies can’t prepare for Russian winters.

It was a stark reminder that history is often about perspective. I would later learn in a German history class that WWII started in 1935. That was the when Hitler announced the Nuremberg Laws. However, if I had been studying it from an Asian perspective the date would be 1937. That’s when the Second Sino-Japanese War began, bringing China and Japan into war with each other and setting their stage for involvement in WWII once the European powers began having issues with each other.

In a later class dedicated to American history in WWII, my teacher again stressed another start date for WWII – December 11, 1941. My dad’s birthday is the day before Pearl Harbor Day (not the same year), so the date has always been easy for me to remember. US Congress officially declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, but didn’t declare war on Germany until December 11, 1941 and by the standards of that professor, WWII didn’t start in American History until the US declared war on Germany.

Meaning there are multiple start dates for WWII, it just depends on where you’re learning it. In German history, the date was always 1935 and the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws that marked the start date. In the Soviet Union it was when Hitler decided to invade them in June 1945. (Organizing this invasion took a while as did getting troops to the front there, which is why they were woefully unprepared for the Russian winter ahead of them – the steppes region of Russia where most of the country’s grain is grown is similar to a winter in the Midwest of the US, but vastly different than a winter in Germany, furthermore, Russians have a long history of slash and burn war tactics. As the civilians fled the invading German army, the set fire to villages and fields, leaving nothing for the Germans to live on)

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