World War II and the Environment

“World War II was wide ranging in its human, animal, and material destruction, it halted certain political ideologies in their tracks and strengthened others, and entailed the mobilization of natural resources on an unprecedented scale.  And yet scholars have been slow to assess the war’s environmental dimensions.”

So begins my recent essay on the environmental dimensions of the Second World War, a historiographical salvo that is meant as a beginning rather than a final statement.  It’s part of Wiley-Blackwell’s recent volume Companion to World War II, edited by Tom Zeiler with Daniel DuBois.

After I began to write it, I realized just how overwhelming the topic was.  And yet it totally drew me in.  There were so many massive transformations in such a short time, and also so many indications that the war itself was just a blip on the screen for even larger processes happening in peacetime.  Writing the essay, it was difficult to decide what to hone in on.  Just considering the movement of organisms aboard ships over new sea routes could amount to book of its own.  But there were many other dimensions, including ideological ones, natural extraction, and of course the physical and biological destruction that the global war brought about.  Not to mention Hitler’s vegetarianism.

It was a huge topic and I hope my essay will aid in conceptualizing it a bit.  I haven’t attempted a final word but I’ve done some helpful things for budding students of the topic by breaking it down into themes, questions, and controversies faced by historians.  Broadly stated they are: the global struggle for natural resources, the natural transformations due to war mobilization, the environmental impacts of combat, the rise in environmental sciences, and the role of the natural world within political ideology.

I’d be curious to know what other broad categories might be included, or if historians and students disagree with the ways that I’ve presented it.   If you’d like to read the essay, I’ve included a link to my copy here.

If you are interested in the topic, you might like to know that the “War and Environment” group within the American Society for Environmental History now has a website , which I hope will be updated continually and draw more attention to the numerous opportunities for teaching and research on the subject.

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