The Germans invaded Poland on this day 70 years ago, and so began what many consider the greatest conflict in human history. An estimated 60 million people would die, including 27 million Soviets and 12 million Jews, Gypsies, gays and other victims of the Nazi holocaust. Most of the dead were civilians.

The war radically altered the cultures of its participants and the map of the world. It created two superpowers that would fight over the ashes of Europe and the kingdoms of Asia for a generation.

World War II continues to captivate, though it has become a tragic pop culture caricature (with a few notable exceptions). The nightmares of combat are now fodder for dozens of video games while Hollywood has made an art — and business — of flag-waving. Heroism and glory survive in our cultural memory better than fire bombings and ovens and the countless horrors of war. Perhaps that’s why we have had so many since. — PS

Related: The BBC reports on Poland’s commemoration of the anniversary. Truthdig contributor and WWII veteran Gore Vidal on empire and history. Daniel Ellsberg reflects on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chris Hedges writes on the horrors of war. Robert Scheer on the permanent war economy.

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