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Conference Report – When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting short blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters. In this first post, Assistant Director, Dr Richard Hammond, provides a report on the conference.

Since its formation in 2014, the Second World War Research Group has grown exponentially in terms of its membership, brand and executive. From a humble beginning under two Co-Directors and a membership numbering fewer than 20, the Group held its first annual event in 2015 – a workshop at Kellogg College, Oxford with 18 participants. The following year’s event attracted around 40 delegates to the UK Defence Academy to discuss whether 1940 was the ‘turning point’ of the 20th Century.

A line of Romanian prisoners captured during the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 or early 1943. (Source: © IWM (MH 9701))

The Group has since doubled its governing committee through the addition of two Assistant Directors, and now boasts a membership of over 150 that includes representation from across five continents, while the first of its regional groups has been established in North America. With such increased recognition, the Group’s 2017 conference at King’s College London easily filled its maximum capacity of 90 delegates, drawing scholars not just from the UK but across Europe (including Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland) and from the USA, India, Israel, Morocco, and Japan. They gathered to discuss issues relating to the central theme of the conference - the Second World War in global perspective.

The war remains the largest conflict the world has ever seen, affecting the lives of hundreds of millions and raging across multiple continents, all the world’s oceans and throughout its skies. Nevertheless, the scholarship of the war has frequently remained confined to the boundaries of national history, while many of the most creative and well-researched narratives have focused exclusively on the conflict either in the broadly defined east or west. This has at times left certain perspectives marginalised. In this respect, we were hugely fortunate to secure two outstanding keynote speakers who have worked to address these issues. Professor Richard Overy has argued in the past of the importance of viewing the conflict as a ‘truly global war’, and is completing a book that takes just such an approach. His keynote, entitled ‘The struggle for the heartland: Germany, Japan and the conquest of Eurasia’ tackled the problems of coalition warfare and the making of strategy from an Axis perspective. Professor Rana Mitter offered a keynote that dealt with one of those perspectives marginalised in western literature – China. In ‘A forgotten ally? Why China’s role matters for understanding the political and social history of World War II’ he argued that increased awareness of China’s role before, during and after the war would transform traditional western perspectives.

Four coolies carry their loads on a single pole up the wharfside steps at Chungking, c. 1944. (Source: © IWM (IB 3121C))

Beyond the excellent keynotes, specialist papers were grouped into panels covering numerous sub-themes within the conference, such as strategy, propaganda, identity and co-operation, inter-theatre knowledge transfer and the forging of the post-war world. Audiences were treated to perspectives from the top of national and alliance hierarchies, such as the Anglo-American deterrence of Japan through economic warfare, British strategic planning for war in the Mediterranean, comparative views of American, British, Soviet, and German approaches to mobilisation and the decision to drop the atomic bomb. There were also views from the bottom up, from the Italian soldier’s journey in the Soviet Union to the experiences of Indian soldiers fighting on both sides, to those of the Spanish ‘Blue Division’ on the eastern front and transfers of violence in the Japanese army. Elsewhere, the elements of civil society were covered, from the role of the media in Denmark to problems of multinational marriage within Britain’s Empire-Commonwealth.

The conference was undoubtedly a success in both bringing together scholars from all over the world, and in receiving papers that build on the questions raised by the central theme. Over the next few weeks, we will publish posts on this blog by delegates giving a selection of their conference papers. This will serve not only to bring some of the excellent research presented at the conference to a wider audience but also to whet the appetite for next year’s annual event, for which planning is already underway.

Dr Richard Hammond is a Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, King's College, London, based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. Before that, he held part-time teaching positions in the History Departments the Universities of Exeter and Wolverhampton before gaining a full-time Lectureship in Strategic Studies based at RAF College Cranwell. His research interests focus on the Second World War and interwar years, primarily military and strategic issues, British inter-service relations and Anglo-Italian relations in the period of fascism. He has or is publishing in journals including International History Review, Journal of Strategic Studies, Journal of Military History and Air Power Review. He is currently completing his first book.

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