How The Second World War Informs International Law Today

Jakub Ferencik
6 min readNov 22, 2023

There has been a lot of discussion in the news lately about the way international law dictates the manner in which states are allowed and constrained in acts of war.

I will not get into the politics at play in contemporary events in this post because I have discussed this at length in a number of posts.

Here, I want to look at international law and what it was that made us reconsider our previous relative apathy to the rule of law when it came to war.

The primary reason we have reconsidered and constrained acts of war is because of the disastrous ramifications of the Second World War — a war that, as many have noted, targeted civilians disproportionately over soldiers.

Let me explain.

Berlin, Holocaust Memorial. Photo by Michael Fousert on Unsplash

The Second World War truly was disastrous. Many writers have documented the atrocities many suffered at the hands of former friends and enemies alike. The War devastated Europe in a way that was inconceivable decades, and centuries, prior.

From the Protestant Wars or the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the First World War, there is no conflict that came so close to testing world order the way the Second World War did.

Cities and populations across Europe were destroyed and targeted.

In the memorable phrasing of the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum who discusses the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in her book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe:

“Photographs from across Eastern Europe at that time show scenes from an apocalypse. Flatten cities, acres of rubble, burnt villages and smoking, charred ruins where horses used to be. Tangles of barbed wire, the remains of concentration camps, labor camps, POW camps; baren fields, pockmarked by tank tracks, with no sign of farming, husbandry or life of any kind. In the recently destroyed cities, the air was suffused with the smell of corpses.”

By the time the War ended, 25 million people were left homeless in the Soviet Union and 20 million in Germany. ⁣

In the Soviet Union alone, 70,000 villages, 1,700 towns, & 32,000 factories were destroyed. ⁣Minsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Stalingrad (now…

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Jakub Ferencik

Author of “Up in the Air,” “Beyond Reason,” & "Surprised by Uncertainty" on AMAZON | MA McGill Uni | RA for EUROPEUM Prague | 700+ articles with 1+ mil. views