World War II started in 1937 in Asia, not 1939 in Europe, says Oxford historian

Professor Rana Mitter tells Conversation With why the war began with Japan’s conflict with China, not when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the date most history books use.

However, using recently-released documentation, Oxford University professor of history Rana Mitter argues that the real start of the global conflict was 1937 – when Japan attacked China in what has been called the Marco Polo Bridge incident, outside of Beijing.

Prof Mitter’s book, The Forgotten Ally, points out that the terrible eight-year-long conflict took a massive toll on China, with more than 14 million Chinese dead.

By comparison, military and civilian casualties for the US and United Kingdom combined totaled around 900,000.

About 500 million Chinese became refugees and China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, was heavily bombarded, leaving 30,000 injured or dead. Memories of those times still run deep in East Asia – just three months ago, Japan’s former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama apologised for his country’s bombardment of Chongqing during World War II.

Prof Mitter also contends that China played a crucial role in how the events of the world conflict played out.

“I’m going to say that without the Chinese resisting Japan’s invasion, not just the history of Asia but the history of the world might be different,” he said in an interview on the programme Conversation With, which airs Thursday (March 16) at 8.30pm.

He suggests that if China had capitulated or joined forces with Japan, the Japanese forces of the time would have probably concentrated on dominating Asia, and not turned to attacking the US at Pearl Harbor.  If that had happened, the US might not have entered WWII or might have delayed its entry.

“Now that is not to say that Britain would not have found a way to ally with the US and ultimately defeat the Nazis.

“But let’s be frank, the war in Asia and Pearl Harbor – which stem from the war in China – was one of the major triggers to allowing that war to come together.

“And that’s why the continuing Chinese resistance, not just for one year but actually four and a half years before Pearl Harbor, essentially on its own (without support from other Allied forces), is such an important global turning point,” said Prof Mitter.

More of the interview with Professor Rana Mitter on Conversation With, Thursday, March 16, at 8.30pm SG/HK.

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