Reasons to Believe

World War II: The Greatest Catastrophe in History

Today, September 1, 2009, marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II—the deadliest war in the history of humankind.

When German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered his military forces to invade Poland in 1939, the entire world was enveloped in a cataclysmic conflict. Humanity had never seen such an event and could hardly conceive it to be possible.

Some scholars refer to World War II as the defining event of all human history. The sheer numbers and magnitude of this war make its enormity difficult for the human mind to comprehend. British war historian John Keegan attempts a description:

"The Second World War is the largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world's seven continents and all its oceans. It killed fifty million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilisation."

American war historian Stephen Ambrose echoes Keegan's devastating assessment of this worldwide conflict:

"It was history's greatest catastrophe…. World War II remains by far the most costly war of all time. As many as 50 million people died, a majority of them in their teens and early twenties. The destruction defies belief. In the summer of 1945, General Dwight Eisenhower flew from Berlin to Moscow at eight hundred feet, on a clear day. He could not see a single building still standing."

As amazing as these casualty numbers are, more recent estimates of the number of people killed in World War II now stand significantly higher— between 62 to 78 million. That means that from 1939 through 1945, approximately 4% of the world's population was literally wiped off the map. More than half of these deaths came to civilians.

To get some appreciation of this number, let's consider a comparison. California (approximately 37 million) and Texas (approximately 24 million) are America's two most populated states”>. If all of the people who live in these two states were suddenly eliminated from existence, you would still not have reached the estimated number of people killed in World War II.

Consider a few more staggering statistics. The Second World War involved the majority of the world's nations, the mobilization of 100 million military personnel, and the financial cost is estimated to stand (in terms of today's dollars) at several trillion dollars.

The Importance of Ideas

On the two sides of this conflict stood the Axis powers (principally Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allied powers (principally the United Kingdom [with Canada and Australia], the Soviet Union, and the United States of America). In simplest terms, the war was fought over differing political ideologies. The two competing powers held distinct world-and-life views. That is, they differed over what human beings consider to be real, true, good, valuable, and rational.

Both the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War were global battles of political ideologies. Three main groups—the fascists, the communists, and the democracies—competed during this dangerous and deadly period. By the end of the twentieth century, the Western democracies emerged victorious.

My father was a decorated American combat soldier who fought in the European Theatre against the German army. His involvement piqued my interest in the event. Thinking about the causes of the War helped transform me into an intellectual person. As a teenager I went from occupying my time largely with sports and entertainment (the Lakers and The Beatles) to pondering the big questions of life.

I began asking questions about government, politics, and ideology. In light of my historical and military studies, I became interested in the study of philosophy in general. And asking the big philosophical questions of life then led me to consider questions about God, goodness, evil, and humankind. In part, my conversion to Christianity came through my studies of the bloodiest war in human history.

Let me conclude by saying that ideas matter in life and worldview ideas matter most. But let us also pause and give thanks on this sober anniversary to those brave Allied soldiers who literally helped save the world from fascist tyranny and oppression by their courage, devotion to duty, and selfless sacrifice. Their victory is our freedom!

For an introduction to World War II, I recommend The Second World War by John Keegan For more about the importance of worldview thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

Subjects: Ethics

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.