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Historian discusses the world after the end of World War II during Baker Peace Conference


Gerhard L. Weinberg, a retired college professor and author, came to Athens to discuss the politics of the world following the end of World War II.

He was introduced by Director of the Contemporary History Institute Steven Miner, who told the audience that Weinberg's book "A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II," is the foremost history book written about World War II."

"He (Weinberg) is a national institution and a living national treasure," Miner said. 

Weinberg, the William K. Rand Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, started his speech by talking about the uniqueness of World War II.

"Before we examine the end of World War II, we need to begin by noting a significance difference between its ending and the end of such prior wars as World War I and the subsequent war in Korea," Weinberg said. "A special and particular characteristic of the second World War was that it could only end with the unconditional surrender of one side or the other."

He said an armistice or new agreement could not stop the hostilities among the fighting powers.

Weinberg said the British and American governments agreed early in the war that an unconditional surrender would have to be their goal. He said there were indications that Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin would have considered an agreement with Germany at some point during the war, but there was never any interest from German leader Adolph Hitler to end the war.

He said the Japanese government's anticipation of controlling the majority of Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Alaska, Hawaii, Western Canada, the state of Washington, Central America, the Caribbean Islands and the northwestern portion of South America led to a pursuit of a total victory for the Axis.

"I wonder what Fidel Castro might think of Cuba being included in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and being saved from that fate by the Yankees," Weinberg joked.

Weinberg added that there was also no chance that the United States would settle for a compromise peace treaty with Japan. He said Japan's surrender eventually came before the country had been occupied.

"Japanese leaders had earlier agreed that 20 million Japanese casualties was an acceptable price to pay for bleeding American invaders until they gave up the effort, but the atomic bombs persuaded these leaders that this was not a practical policy anymore," Weinberg said. "It now looked as if the Americans could kill everyone on the island without any invasion."

He said the surrender of Japan before it became occupied by the Allies prevented it from being divided up into sectors like the city of Berlin in Germany.

Weinberg said two separate states emerged in Germany in 1949 and about 12 million Germans fled various countries after the war to account for the largest population movement in that short period of time in history. 

During the talk, Weinberg discussed many other important events that happened toward the end of World War II and afterward. Some of these were the major displacement of Jewish people, the Nuremberg Trails, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the civil war in Korea and the expanding role of the United States in world and international affairs.

Weinberg said that the way the war ended led to the belief that "any future conflict between major powers could evolve into the end of human life on earth."

He concluded by saying it is striking how far reconciliation has indeed occurred. This is especially obvious by comparison in East Asia where the policies, procedures and attitudes by the Japanese government has left behind hatred among the people of Korea, China and Philippines and elsewhere that pass from generation to generation.

"Historians predict the past, not the future, but I cannot pretend of anything but sadness at the prospect in this regard, even as I marvel at the healing that continues to occur in Europe," Weinberg said.

On Friday, the Baker Peace Conference concluded with three panel discussions on the end of the war in Asia, Eastern Europe and Western Europe, respectively.

The Contemporary History Institute annually hosts the Baker Peace Conference to analyze how peace can be established and maintained throughout the world. Established in 1984, the conference is funded by the John and Elizabeth Baker Peace Studies Endowment, which was established by the late Ohio University president emeritus and his wife.