It was not the beginning of the Second World War, but a continuation and expansion of it. That war had begun in September 1939, according to the history books. Or, if you take the longer view of Dean Acheson, the war was itself a continuation of the European Civil War which had begun in 1914 when the powder-keg was set off for what would be called World War I. Or you could think back as far as the Napoleonic Wars. Or you could take an even longer view, and say . . . you get the idea, I think.
There were bad guys, and there were bad guys, and there were yet other bad guys. But however bad they were in 1941, they were even worse by 1945, when the war business shuddered to a halt in the summer of 1945, four very long and very destructive years later.
There were plenty of bad guys who survived the war. And there were plenty of "good guys" who didn't. (Really, they were just ordinary guys -- there were not many of them who were extraordinary saints). I could paint the horrors in romantic terms, speaking of "maelstroms of war," the "vortex of destruction," the "tragedies of the battlefields," and so forth; but really, the whole business is better (because more factually) described as a mathematical summation of men conscripted and wounded and killed; women conscripted and raped and killed; children scared and abandoned and killed; war equipment manufactured and perfected and destroyed; arms factories painstakingly constructed, feverishly worked, and eventually destroyed or abandoned; farms and crops and sheep and cattle and horses devoured; villages smashed; whole cities, both ancient and modern, artilleried and firebombed into smoldering ruins; prisoner-of-war camps that would be filled, and liberated, and emptied, not necessarily in that order.
European civilization was destroying itself, with the ready assistance of some outsiders. They served their gods -- whether Mars or Mammon or Molech, I do not know: perhaps it was the entire Unholy Trinity -- and their gods served them up to themselves.
It has been said that even the best of the battle plans do not survive the first five minutes of contact with the enemy. The promise of martial glory may, to be sure, survive much longer -- Churchill, at least, seems to have been convinced that it did -- but I do not believe that even martial glory survives to the end of a war, at least not in the minds of those who have suffered through it. The victory parades, the posthumous bravery medals, and the unctuous speeches are for the benefit of the home folks who have not had to see it: the war widows, the Rosie Riveters, and the managers of the military-industrial complex who must justify their sacrifices, both real and imagined; and these, the victory speeches and all the rest, are manufactured and distributed by the Establishments, the elites and their faithful servants in sprawling government offices or chaotic newsrooms. I was going to say that they were all cynical, but that is not necessarily true -- many may have come to sincerely believe their own propaganda.
However long the martial glory lasts -- even that martial glory that attaches to the venerable old battle flags in the war museums, and lingers long in the sacred stories of surviving veterans told with tears in the eyes that must be wiped away by the stump of an arm -- graveyards last longer, whether they are national cemeteries, or shallow graves hastily dug and left unmarked, or the Atlantic Ocean.
But I have gotten ahead of myself. On that bright summer solstice day in 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began on the Eastern Front, there were millions of men, women, and children who were not yet dead, wounded, or missing. The Siege of Leningrad had not yet happened, nor Stalingrad; nor Dresden, nor Hiroshima; nor Pearl Harbor, even. But they would.
On this Eastern Front Remembrance Day, it might be well to gather the family and friends around for a re-showing of the movie Enemy at the Gates, in which Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes, and a large supporting cast portray a part of the Battle of Stalingrad. You might even let the children watch it: oh, I know it is rated R for "war violence, and some sexuality," but this:
Plenty of children had to live (or die) through precisely this, and through much worse than this.
And, after watching this, the next time you are tempted to glorify war, any war, the children will be primed to ask you the questions that you should have asked, and answered correctly, yourself.
If there is some member of the Unholy Trinity you secretly worship, remember this: the Lord of All Worlds has said of Himself, that He will make wars to cease to the ends of the earth.