Q&A with John Torpey: Commemorating a 'Bloody and Consequential Conflict'

April 17, 2015

In advance of the 5/5 lecture "Victory in Europe: The 70th Anniversary of the Defeat of European Fascism, moderator John Torpey (Sociology/History) talks about the importance of the anniversary."

On Tuesday, May 5, the GC's European Union Studies Center will host the Otto and Fran Walter Memorial Lecture, "Victory in Europe: The 70th Anniversary of the Defeat of European Fascism.
Moderator John Torpey (Sociology/History), who serves as Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, recently sat down to talk about the importance of the anniversary - including what World War II can teach us about current and future conflicts.
"In many ways, war has been marginalized as a fact of life in the wealthier parts of the world.... It takes work to keep it from happening again," he says.
The Graduate Center: Could you discuss the importance of this anniversary, given the current political climate?

John Torpey: The European-centered wars of the first half of the 20th century - sometimes characterized as one "European civil war" - eventually led to the creation of the European Union, which was designed in significant part as a way of defusing the persistent conflicts among Europeans, especially the Germans and the French. The ongoing crisis of the European economy and the arrangements with regard to the single currency (the euro) have re-exposed old fault lines and raised the question whether the EU will survive. It has been successful in stifling military conflict in most of Europe for 70 years; the collapse of the EU is therefore a serious danger.
This anniversary should remind us of the fact that Europe was once a very much more violent place than the prosperous, pacific region that it has mostly been since the end of World War II.
GC: How has our perception of the victory in Europe changed over time?

JT: The major shift in historical perception concerned the relative significance of the war itself, on the one hand, and of the Holocaust, on the other. Until around 1980, it was the war that was most important in public consciousness; after that time, the Holocaust grew in importance as the extermination of European Jewry came to be viewed through a rising consciousness of human rights which was itself a product largely of the postwar period.

The Holocaust has since come to dominate our understanding of human cruelty but also to serve as a kind of gold standard of how to deal with past injustices.  Aside from the widespread celebration of the "greatest generation" a few years ago, however, the war declined in our thinking about the period.

We would do well to recall what a bloody and consequential conflict it was for hundreds of millions of people.
GC: What are the primary lessons from World War II that you'd want today's leaders to draw on?

JT: Some leaders want to fight wars - to strengthen their strategic position, to embellish their legacy, to avenge perceived slights, to convince others of their reliability as a military ally. The Second World War was one that Hitler very much wanted, whereas that was not the case on the side of the Allies.

War among these highly industrialized powers devastated much of Europe and led to the Nazi genocide as well as the killing of many other innocents. Genocides generally occur only in the context of larger-scale violence - that is, in or in the aftermath of wars. Think of the Armenians, the 100th anniversary of whose genocide we also commemorate this year.
When he coined the term "genocide," the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin had these two catastrophes in mind. They are hard to imagine outside the context of war. In many ways, war has been marginalized as a fact of life in the wealthier parts of the world, which is a good thing. It takes work to keep it from happening again.

GC: During the height of the Cold War, the American people seemed to fear a potential "World War III." Could we see a risk for a global conflict on that scale again?
JT: A global conflict of the sort that people feared during the Cold War is not easily imagined at present. We lack the stand-off between two core blocs that threatened - through blunder or bluster - to end in mutually assured destruction, as the doctrine then had it. Power and the means of violence have been "democratized" in a certain sense, although the United States clearly has an overwhelming superiority in military force.

Atomic weapons are the ultimate ace-in-the-hole, which is why we are witnessing a major struggle around Iran's possible development of nuclear weapons capacities. This is a reminder not to over-estimate the threat of Islamic terrorists: insofar as they lack control over a state, they are less of a threat than they may sometimes appear.

That said, there are now ways of committing atrocities that do not involve control over mass armies or nuclear weapons. War has in many ways been transformed by technology and poses new, unfamiliar threats to people's well-being that do not involve what we conventionally think of as "warfare."
GC: Why host this event at the Graduate Center? What makes the GC particularly well suited for the lecture?

JT: The Graduate Center is the perfect venue for this event because it has always focused on the big issues that confront us as citizens, and it does so by presenting the views of distinguished scholars who are leading experts in their fields.

That is the kind of program we have organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of European fascism, an event of surpassing importance in the creation of the world in which we live today.

For further information about this free lecture, click the thumbnail above.