So great was the shock of that moment that even now

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So great was the shock of that moment that even now Americans think of Pearl Harbor as the real beginning of World War II. Maybe it’s a sign of how invincibly provincial we are, how instinctual is our certainty that the war, like every other big event in the world, was something that happened mainly to us. The truth was that by December 1941 the rest of the world had had enough of the war to last the millennium. In any orthodox history you can find the standard autopsy of the causes. Germany was falling apart after the decades of social and economic chaos that followed its defeat in World War I. Japan’s growing dependence on foreigners to keep its industrializing economy going was leading to widespread and deepening feelings of humiliated anger and outraged national pride. In both countries extremely racist and xenophobic parties had come to power and begun an explosive military expansion: throughout the 1930s the Germans and Japanese built up huge new armies and navies, amassed vast stockpiles of new armaments, and made lots and lots of demands and threats. All of this is true enough, yet there’s something faintly bogus and overly rationalized about it. The approaching war didn’t seem like a political or economic event; it was more like a collective anxiety attack. Throughout the 30s people around the world came to share an unshakable dread about the future, a conviction that countless grave international crises were escalating out of control, a panicked sense that everything was coming unhinged and that they could do nothing to stop it. The feeling was caught perfectly by W.H. Auden, writing in 1935: From the narrow window of my fourth-floor room I smoke into the night, and watch the lights Stretch in the harbor. In the houses
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The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes. And all sway forward on the dangerous flood Of history, that never sleeps or dies, And, held one moment, burns the hand. For instance, in China — to take one arbitrary starting point — a war had been going on since 1931. This was a nagging turmoil at the edge of the world’s consciousness, a problem that couldn’t be understood, resolved, or successfully ignored. When the Japanese army invaded the city of Nanking in December 1937 they killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians — some say hundreds of thousands — in the space of a couple of weeks. It was one of the worst orgies of indiscriminate violence in modern times, and as the news of it spread around the world everybody began saying that Nanking would be remembered forever, just as the Spanish civil war’s Guernica (the first town to be bombed from airplanes) would be: shorthand landmarks for our century’s most horrible atrocities. But that just shows how little anybody really understood what was happening to the world. Nobody outside of China remembered Nanking a couple years later when the German Reich began its stunning expansion through Europe. The Wehrmacht stampeded
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