World War II: The Fear and the Freedom

Freedom The Second World War was not just another crisis—it directly affected more people than any other conflict in history. Over 100 million men and women were mobilized, a figure that easily dwarfs the number who fought in any previous war, including the Great War of 1914–18. Hundreds of millions of civilians around the world were also dragged into the conflict—not only as refugees like Georgina Sand (a Jewish child survivor), but also as factory workers, as suppliers of food or fuel, as providers of comfort and entertainment, as prisoners, as slave laborers, and as targets.

Freedom

For the first time in modern history, the number of civilians killed vastly outweighed the number of soldiers, not just by millions, but by tens of millions. Four times as many people were killed in the Second World War as in the First. For every one of those people, there were dozens who were indirectly affected by the vast economic and psychological upheavals that accompanied the war.

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As the world struggled to recover in 1945 entire societies were transformed. The landscapes that rose from the rubble of the battlefield looked nothing like the landscapes that had existed before. Cities changed their names, economies changed their currencies, people changed their nationalities. Communities that had been homogeneous for centuries were suddenly inundated with strangers of all nationalities, all races, and all colors—people like Georgina, who didn’t belong. Entire nations were set free, or newly enslaved. Empires fell and were replaced with new ones, equally glorious and equally cruel.

The universal desire to find an antidote to war spawned an unprecedented rush of new ideas and innovations. Scientists dreamed of using new technologies—many of them created during the war—to make the world a better, safer place. Architects dreamed of building new cities out of the rubble of the old, with better housing, brighter public spaces, and more contented populations. Politicians, economists, and philosophers fantasized about egalitarian societies, centrally planned and efficiently run for the happiness of all.

New political parties, and new moral movements, sprang up everywhere. Some of these changes built on ideas that had come about as a result of earlier upheavals, such as the First World War or the Russian Revolution, and some of them were entirely new; but even the older ideas were adopted after 1945 with a speed and an urgency that would have been unthinkable at any other time. The overwhelming nature of the war, its uniquely horrific violence, and its unparalleled geographical scope, had created a thirst for change that was more universal than at any other time in history.

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The word that came to everyone’s lips was ‘freedom’. America’s wartime leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had spoken of four freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Atlantic Charter, drawn up in consultation with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had also spoken of the freedom of all peoples to choose their own form of government. Communists spoke of freedom from exploitation while economists spoke of free trade and free markets. And in the wake of the war, some of the world’s most influential philosophers and psychologists wrote of even deeper freedoms, fundamental to the human condition.