The Second World War was a defining moment of the last century and still has many implications for the world today. They say that after any war, it is the victors who shape the future. So knowing what the victors gained and lost during World War II can help us to understand the world today.
Before the outbreak of war, the British Empire was still at its height and covered a quarter of the globe. Its economy was still recovering from the First World War and the Great Depression, both of which had eliminated its cash reserves, but there were signs of real improvement. In 1939, however, the storm clouds broke and the country plunged into another war that it was not prepared for. For many years during war it stood alone, relying on American loans and equipment.
After the war, even though they were victorious, their cities and economy was in ruin and the Empire was breaking up. The country would never again have the same economic or military clout on the world stage, even though it has a permanent seat at the UN. In the end, Britain only gained the moral prestige of standing against Hitler alone for so long, while the rest of the world was prepared to ignore the problem.
France's situation before and after the war mirrors very much Britain's experience. At the end they also had many cities destroyed, their own empire was demanding independence, and France was in debt to the Americans.
The real difference in the French situation is that for many years during war the official Vichy government had surrendered and was working with the Germans. This bred a lot of ill feeling in the allies as well as other Frenchmen. So at the end of the war, France did have a place at the victors table and a permanent seat at the UN, yet France's biggest and most ironic achievement was to be forever tainted with surrender and collaboration as well as a symbol for resistance and freedom.
On the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, the USSR was an international outsider and considered a backwater. Fearing the spread of communism, the rest of the world either mistrusted or ignored it. Since the revolution, the USSR had constantly feared an invasion from the West, especially from the European powers. These fears came true in 1941, which resulted in tens of millions dying, even more becoming homeless, and devastated the landscape.
At the end of the war, the USSR vowed that this would never happen again. Even though during the war they had developed a good, if untrusting, relationship with its western allies, this was short-lived. They therefore decided that they would create a buffer against the west using the whole of Eastern Europe. This was done by installing friendly communist governments in the countries they had 'liberated'. This would give them the security to rebuild their country, utilize the vast amount of newly required resources, and establish themselves as a superpower to rival the United States of America.
When Europe went to war in 1939, America was only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression and was still deeply isolationist with regards to the rest of the world. It did not enter the war until December 1941, but until then it had been sending military resources to the allies under the Lend Lease1. By the end of the war, it had established a huge military and economic complex, and contributed the majority of resources that led to final victory.
This meant that at the end of the war, the country and civilians had been untouched and its economy had been boosted so that it was manufacturing more goods than anyone else and had doubled its cash reserves. It was also, until the early 1950s, the sole owner of atomic weapons, and had set its stall as a global superpower and its role as the world's new policemen.
What is often lost to history is the fact that China had been fighting an invasion since 1937, while a civil war between communist and nationalist forces had been ravaging the country. This meant that when the western allies came into the war against Japan in 1941, China was almost on the brink of collapse.
The military support of the allies gave China the lifeline it needed to survive the war and a place at the victors table and the UN, much deserved when you look at the amount of military and civilian casualties they suffered. Yet the peace was short lived, the civil war soon erupted again. It was not until the turn of the 21st Century that they began recovering from the economic and political trauma of the war, and the turmoil that followed.
It can be seen that some of the victors of World War II gained more than others, and it appears that the amount they gained is directly related to how late they entered the war and their desire for revenge. Britain and France's experiences show that if you do go to war on moral grounds, early and without any external help, you run the risk of winning but walking away a weaker and disillusioned country.
Of course the losers of the war, namely Germany and Japan, can not be ignored. Their economic and political experiences after the war show that with the correct rebuilding programme, you can turn a military defeated and politically corrupt country around and turn it into a partner and a friend.
A lot can be learnt from the results of World War II, lessons that continually have relevance the world in the 21st Century. It shows that you can go to war to save a people from an oppressive dictator on purely moral grounds, but you will not gain any visible benefits and you run the risk of becoming weaker as a world power. So, if you want to ensure a politically strong nation after you leave, you must be willing to pay for it.