To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Paul Jankowski draws parallels between the events of Pre-WWII and today

Does history have lessons for us to apply to today? According to Paul Jankowski (HIST), author of “All Against All: The Long Winter of 1933 and the Origins of the Second World War,” there are strong parallels that can be drawn. 


According to the book’s description, it “ is the story of the season our world changed from postwar to prewar again,” focusing in particular on the time between November of 1932 and April of 1933, when “so much went so wrong.” According to Jankowski it was “collective mentalities and popular beliefs” which caused nations to be on the path to war, as well as “any rational calculus called national interest.” The book “reconstructs a series of seemingly disparate happenings whose connections can only be appraised in retrospect.” 


The book discusses a “narrow time frame but I hope it opens up wider questions about the 1930s and the [second] world war,” said Jankowski at a Zoom event. There were many “major developments around the world … [at] first sight very little to do with each but I tried to show in the book that they do have something to do with each other.” Through that, Jankowski tries to discern the origins of the Second World War. 


Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Japan left league after invading Manchuria, Italy was seriously planning the invasion of Abyssinia, Roosevelt came into power in the United States, the Soviet Union had “forced collectivism and industrialization, famine deportation and active killing, killing millions of people notably in Ukraine.”


“Each of these marked a rejection of the world beyond the border…[making the] statement that it was a hostile and dangerous place.” Jankowski identified Hitler and Nazism as the most extreme action that was occurring. He added that “Soviet paranoia was not just about the capitalist world but national enemies and historic enemies. This defined the whole world.”


This was all during the aftermath WWI, which left even the victors unhappy. But here Jankowski tries “to stress popular sentiments, currents of imposition, a strong sense of national interest… leaders played to this in many different ways.” In the Soviet Union “Ukraine was seen as the playground for Anti-Soviets.” 


The parallel that Jankowski identified as most important is that “material interests [and] rational calculus is not an adequate explanation of how peoples and nations act towards each other … 

How they act reflects who they are or who they want to be, how they see themselves in the world.” Though he also highlighted that identity can change over time, Germany provides a classic example of that.


One of the questions asked of Jankowski was whether it is time for Germany to end its pacifism. He explains that decades ago, it “was not a foreign policy change, that was a collective identity decision.” But the debate itself is so current, German public opinion may be changing. 


Jankowski was also asked if he noticed big turning points where mistakes were made. He brought up the obvious answers of appeasement and the Treaty of Versailles, however in the early ’20s, if the big three powers, the US, Britain and France “had been able to organize something more organized and with more teeth in it, the whole inter war period could have been different.” He also added that the failure of the League of Nations is not at fault, it’s the fault of the members of the league. 


There was also a tendency at the time of speculating whether world disarmament could have worked to prevent WWII. There was a tendency that large parts of people wanted disarmament and people felt betrayed. However “public opinion was really inconsistent and very confused about this” said Jankowski. The position of government that they would be willing to reduce arms as long as it did not harm their own security, was flawed. Pacifist movement was strong and real during that time but sometimes it didn’t ask itself what it would do when the country was to be threatened, he continued. Once that arose, confusion set in. Therefore, Jankowski highlights, it is a mistake to think that people were good, while the governments were bad. And “if the league failed, it was because the members failed,” concluded Jankowski. 


He was also asked what his book did for us during this time of extreme nationalism. Jankowski noted that there are a lot of parallels worth drawing, especially with appeasement. “The parallel would be yet another attempt of the faully of having appease Hitler.” In European media the movement now is that ever since 2014, Europeans have been appeasing Putin; “they have turned a blind eye to the reality of who he was and what he wanted.” They believed they were dealing with a rational actor with whom you can negotiate, according to Jankowski. 


The parallel with Chamberlain’s policy is quite clear, but after Munich, public opinion began to change. “Something like that is going on now … especially in Europe, they have been too indulgent with Putin” said Jankowski. A new, much more tough stance is needed. 


He also highlighted the importance of knowing who you are dealing with. “Let us not reduce all of this to game theory,” said Jankowski “Understanding of the country you are negotiating with is crucial.” 


Another lesson Jankowski draws is the failure of effective international consultation; it “is a clear resounding message of the book I write.” However, today there are many more organizations than there were in the 1930s. There are also current signs of unity within the EU and NATO, which “have been very striking [and] something Putin has completely failed to predict.”


Jankowski is the Raymond Ginger Professor Emeritus of History at Brandeis. According to his faculty page, Jankowski is currently working on the sequel to “All Against All.” He also “teaches the history of modern Europe and of France in particular, as well as the history of wars and warfare, especially those of the twentieth century, in Europe since the Middle Ages.” Along with “All Against All,” he authored “Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War,”“Stavisky: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue,” “Communism and Collaboration: Simon Sabiani and Politics” and “Shades of Indignation. Political Scandals in France, Past and present.” He has also won numerous awards, including the Taylorian Institution Award, World war I Historical Association Tomlinson Book Award, American Council of Learned Societies and the British Universities North America Foundation Award.


The event took place on Thursday, March 24, over Zoom and was sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies. It was moderated by Sabine von Mering (GER).

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