When did World War II start?  An American is entitled to think it started with Pearl Harbor, as, clearly, the world without the United States is only a world in part.

But ask an Englishman, and he will say the world war began some two years earlier, when Britain declared war on Germany.  A Russian will disagree, for much the same reason as the American—what’s the world without Russia?—and for some other reasons as well, some of which, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he may think it opportune to forget.  An Italian, on the other hand, may well choose to forget the whole thing, especially if remembering it involves deciding whose side his country fought on.

A Chinese may well argue that the war started with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.  A Finn will, with every justification, point to the Winter War, which brought Soviet Russia in tandem with Nazi Germany into open conflict with the civilized world.  Then an Austrian, a Czech, and a Serb will have their say, and by and by it emerges that no single answer is sufficiently decisive to be awarded the palm of incontrovertible historical fact.

Victor Suvorov, whose writings I have often reviewed and discussed in these pages, believes that the war in Europe became a world war on May 5, 1941, when Stalin made his secret “attack is defense” speech to graduating military cadets.  The Generalissimo had put his money where his mouth was by ordering covert mobilization some two years earlier, on September 1, 1939.  Mobilization means war, and in this case, in particular, a modification of the draft and the reduction of the call-up age meant that Stalin’s army morphed from 1.9 to 5 million men—men whose terms of service would be up on September 1, 1941, meaning that Stalin had planned to use them before that date when he had them drafted. Equipped, trained, and ready to attack—no later than July, Suvorov thinks—these men were caught with their trousers down when Hitler surprised Stalin in the dead of night on June 22.

Mikhail Meltyukhov, in his study Stalin’s Missed Chance, essentially concludes that the war in Europe became a world war in October 1939, when the General Staff of the Soviet Army began developing the plan for a lightning strike against Germany.  At least four different versions of the plan would be developed throughout 1940 and 1941, with the version of March 11, 1941, explicitly specifying the invasion date as June 12.  This was postponed because Stalin feared Anglo-German reconciliation, and a realignment of the West against Russia, after the flight of Rudolph Hess to England in May.

Meltyukhov speculates on what might have been the fate of Germany, and the future course of the war in Europe, had Hitler not preempted Stalin.  Indeed, the figures he adduces speak for themselves, as that June, along the boundary of Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Stalin had amassed 128 divisions to Hitler’s 55; 3.4 million men to his 1.4 million; 38,500 pieces of artillery to his 16,300; 7,500 tanks to his 900; 6,200 aircraft to his 1,400.  In other words, had Stalin not been preempted, he would not have missed his chance to gain mastery of Eurasia, Western Europe would have been Sovietized at least to the English Channel, and World War II would have ended before it ever became a world war.

Why is all this important?  Because it shows history as such a mesh of whens, ifs, and buts that on close inspection even the most widely accepted and familiar concepts, such as “world wars,” turn out to have little meaning.  If we cannot tell in a few words why the first of these wars began, and cannot so much as name the month or the year when the second started, what makes us so confident we aren’t living through World War III even as we speak?

Did the Russian people know before Barbarossa there was a world war on?  Of course, once the bombs started falling, they knew, but had they known it a day, a month, a year earlier?  And had the Americans known that a world war was upon them before Japanese torpedoes exploded in Pearl Harbor?  Or did all those people, like Chamberlain, think of the countries of which they knew little—such as Chamberlain’s own country—and tell themselves that none of it had to do with them?

Who says a world war must start with a bang?  Who says every world war must be just like the one before it?  If it were, the Führer would have been related to his kissing cousin in the Kremlin by blood, not mere propinquity of purpose; poison gas would have been used under Stalingrad; Dachau would have opened for business in 1916; and Little Boy would have vaporized Ankara.  To paraphrase Tolstoy’s famous pronouncement about families, while the times of peace in the world are all alike, every world war is different from the next.

And so the world does not always know when it is at war.