Author’s note: This post is the fourth part of a series discussing ideas from Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. To read the previous post, click here.
Undoubtedly, the World War II era was one of the most violent and turbulent eras in history. Resulting in twenty-six million deaths, the sheer magnitude of World War II is incomprehensible, as well as its multitudinous impacts on both individuals and countries. Therefore, reexamining the societal preconditions of this global conflict remains of utmost importance today—and hopefully, learning from the past so that such turmoil will never occur again.
Although war may be literally defined as conflict between countries, we should instead think of war as conflict between societies instead—the term society, including elements of language, culture, and ethnicity, better encapsulates the factors that contribute to individual and societal tensions that drive conflict. Capitalizing from this societal groupthink, leaders in war indoctrinate their soldiers against declared enemy societies, doing whatever it takes to blur the lines between “human” and “savage monster,” uniting their own citizens against this created “beast.” Using rhetoric devices like an us-versus-them mentality, dehumanizing language, and propagandistic lies, the same leaders—often successfully—persuade their citizens of their superiority over other societies. Having been used throughout history, these tactics are the hallmarks of ethnonationalism.
For instance, one needs to look no further than the formation of the Nazi Empire. In the early years after World War I, Hitler blamed Germany’s economic problems on the Jewish race, pitting German citizens against those of a “lesser stock.” This problematic rhetoric reified existing racial tensions while creating a narrative of fear and hatred surrounding Jews in Germany. The Nazi party quickly grew in power, as citizens were ready to accept this explanation. In turn, each new anti-Semitic proclamation became a piece of a greater narrative being told, one that demonized and otherized people for little reason other than their heritage. Later, this false narrative would be used to explain the murder of millions of people. Thus, problematic rhetoric from people in positions of power often has permanent consequences, not only those alive during their rule, but often extending into future generations as well.
A lesser-known aspect of nationalism in the World War II era was the discrimination that Japanese Americans faced back at home in the U.S. The bombings of Pearl Harbor changed the fates of hundreds of thousands of these Americans forever. No longer would they be considered members of society—rather, they were treated as outsiders and spies in the country where they had grown up. As public opinion quickly shifted, policies were passed to force those deemed to be “societal threats” into internment camps—often taking innocent mother and children in the process. These crude living spaces both physically and psychologically affected those being forced to live there: facing the possibility of separation from one’s family; working in crude conditions; and perhaps most impactfully, the stigma of being cast out of a society turned against.
Needless to say, racism and nationalism played tremendous causal roles in the worldwide tragedies of World War II. As people were brainwashed into believing in their own superiority and others’ inferiority, they felt justified in their problematic beliefs. Whatever the context of such nationalistic sentiments, they always resulted in violence and turmoil.
Despite these events occurring half a century ago, reexamining the past today is invaluable, in order to better understand ourselves and our society as a whole. In a political era when world leaders dehumanize those of other “lesser” countries, when the U.S. tiptoes on the brink of war with countries harboring nuclear weapons, when news corporations renounce their search for the truth and instead turn to propaganda, it becomes ever more important that we, as citizens, can operate as societal forces of our own. We should recognize and denounce ethnonationalist rhetoric, refusing to let it become a part of our day-to-day lives and protect ourselves from falling prey to its grasp.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom World War II and Post War (1940–1949).” World War II and Post War (1940–1949) – The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom | Exhibitions – Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/world-war-ii-and-post-war.html.
Fogarty, Richard. “Race, Racism and Military Strategy.” The British Library, The British Library, 30 Jan. 2014, www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/race-racism-and-military-strategy.
Purtill, Corinne. “Japanese-American Internment Camps Taught Us What Happens to the Health of Separated Families.” Quartz, Quartz, 23 June 2018, qz.com/1311736/japanese-american-internment-camps-taught-us-what-happens-to-the-health-of-separated-families/.