The Extraordinary Thing About WWII Is What Happened After

This video is a bit less than 20 minutes long. It has been making the rounds on Facebook and other social network sites, so it is possible you have seen it already. If you have not, you should. It is incredible.

Numbers surrounding the Second World War are always ripe for debate, of course, and if you view the comment thread on Vimeo you will see that the debates have already  started. The only revision I would make to the video does not concern the Second World War at all, but the An-Lushan Rebellion (755-753) fought a thousand years before it. This rebellion is often included in lists of the world’s deadliest wars and it shows up when Mr. Halloran compares the Second World War’s death toll to that of earlier conflicts of equal consequence.  

While it was surely a destructive event, I do not think there is proper evidence to prove that it was that destructive. The 36 million casualties number comes from Tang Dynasty censuses that showed the population of China just before and just after the rebellion, with 36 million being the difference. Many of those 36 million people surely died in the rebellion, but many more fled and moved to safer, more remote locales. The number should be properly understood not as the number of civilians killed, but as a measure for how badly the Tang government’s ability to monitor and control the Chinese population it governed had been damaged. It was a war from which the Tang would never recover. 

In this sense, it was a very different kind of conflict than the Second World War, a war whose legacy is now seen mostly in the realm of memory. The An-Lushan Rebellion was (from a Chinese perspective) a war that ravaged the known world and involved almost all of the important military powers of its day. While bright emperors like Xianzong (r. 805-820) would try to pull the Tang back together in the decades after the rebellion, the dynasty’s decline was terminal. The forces unleashed by the war eventually led to the complete disintegration of Tang power. This kind of collapse was not seen after the Second World War. The power that suffered the most was to emerge from the conflict as the world’s second strongest. But it was not just the Soviet Union that showed remarkable resilience–humanity as a whole weathered the destruction of two continents and the death of 70 million people barely worse for wear. This is a truly remarkable feat–perhaps one only possible in today’s Exponential Age. The Tang never recovered from the An-Lushan rebellion; Central Asia never blossomed like it did before the Mongol conquests; no new Roman empire rose from the ashes of the old. But the Second World War was not a precursor to a new dark age. Under the old rules of static civilization–where wealth was not created, but taken–catastrophes of this scale required centuries of recovery before old heights could be reclaimed. The history of the post-war world dramatically illustrates that this is no longer the case.

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Chinese rebellion, or the Mongol conquests, or the Fall of Rome saw technologically inferior powers destroying advanced polities. Hence the decline.

WW2 saw the US, the most advanced technological power on Earth conquering Japan and Western Europe, and making available their technology to their vassals. Hence the lack of decline.

Areas conquered by the Soviets did decline, and many never recovered, as the Soviets imposed their system.

This is all quite natural and doesn't mean a new paradigm henceforth applies. If IS were to conquer Israel, you'd see the old patterns apply all over again.

The post Soviet decline was only an economic decline in comparison to what happened in the capitalist West.

Pulling up a few numbers for Poland, the country who took the biggest population hit in WWII and ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain when all was said and done.

Their GDP was (as measured in 1 million $1991 US Dollars) was in various years:

1938: $67,787.6971019009
1953: $68,638.0803988782
1970: 144,018.485509505
1989: 215,815.132440012

It took them about 15 years to recover fully, in an economic sense, from the war. Within 50 years the GDP was more than three times that level.

If we look a GDP per capita for Poland for those same years (measured in 10k 1991 US $) we get:

1938: 2,182.33523604085
1953: 2,617.64956864315
1970: 4,427.79577905382
1988: 5,789.14600816761

GDP per capita tells a similar story. About one decade to catch up to the old level, and then it triples in the next 30 years.

A similar point can be made for Eastern European countries as a whole. The total estimated GDP for those countries in 1940 is 185,023 million USD. By 1989 it is 718,039 million USD. That is a little bit less than a fourfold increase. To put that in perspective, Madison estimates that in the seven centuries between 1000 and 1700 AD, the region's GDP increased by less than $10 million dollars.

Maddison's estimates could be off by quite a bit here, but they give you the sense of the difference in scale. Defunct as it was, the Soviet economy was able to bring about growth that would be unimaginable to the Romans or the Chinese or any of the ancient empires of days gone by.

As long as our economies are powered by fossil fuels, this kind of reconstruction will be possible. We live in an exponential age. Different rules apply here.

Source for those numbers is here.

Seventy years without a major war does *not* establish a trend because war is such a bursty phenomenon. Long periods of peace are not without precedent, and they often end with terrible wars.

The scary thing is that wars follow a power-law distribution similar to meteor strikes, so the average person is more likely to die in a global nuclear holocaust than to be murdered, just as the average dinosaur was more likely to die from a 10-kilometer asteroid than a 10-meter bolide.