Encyclopedia > World War II

  Article Content

World War II

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a war fought from 1939 to 1945 in Europe and, during much of the 1930s and 1940s, in Asia.

The accepted view is that the war began in earnest on September 1, 1939 with the raid of Poland by Nazi Germany, and concluded on September 2, 1945 with the official surrender of the last Axis force, Japan. However, in Europe, the war had concluded earlier with the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945.

The conflict spilled over into Africa, included a handful of incidents in the Americas, and a series of major naval battles in the world's oceans. It was the largest armed conflict in history, spanning the entire world and involving more countries than any previous war, as well as introducing powerful new weapons, culminating in the first use of nuclear weapons. However, despite the name, not all countries of the world were involved; some through neutrality (such as the Republic of Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland), others through strategic insignificance (Mexico).

World War II ravaged civilians more than any previous war and served as a backdrop for genocidal killings by Nazi Germany as well as several other mass slaughters of civilians which, although not technically genocide, were nevertheless significant. These included the massacre of millions of Chinese and Korean nationals by Imperial Japan, internal mass killings in the Soviet Union, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in German and Japanese cities by the Allies. In total, World War II produced about 50 million deaths, more than any other war to date. [1] (http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat1.htm#Second)

Table of contents

The European theater

Preceding events

In Europe, the origins of WW2 are closely tied to the uprising of fascism, especially in the shape of Nazi Germany. A discussion of how the Nazis came to power is thus a requisite of this context also. In short, in the years after the end of World War I (1918), the Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation, other serious economic problems, and constitutional flaws probably all contributed to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Reichskanzler (Chancellor) in 1933.

For a detailed discussion, refer to the Weimar Republic article.

The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War I. Anarchists were endemic, Communist and other socialist agitators abounded among the trade unions, and many were gravely worried that a Bolshevik-style Communist revolution was imminent. After a number of liberals failed to rein in these perceived problems, Italy's king invited right wing parliament member Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party to form a government in 1922, following their largely symbolic Marca su Roma (March on Rome[?]). The Fascists maintained an armed paramilitary wing, which they employed to combat anarchists, Communists, socialists, and other non-Fascist elements. Within a few years, Mussolini had consolidated dictatorial power, and Italy became a police state. On January 7, 1935, Benito Mussolini and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval[?] signed the Italo-French agreements[?].

Once Gleichschaltung was mostly in place, the Nazis turned their attention to foreign policy with several increasingly daring acts. For one, on March 16, 1935, the Versailles treaty was violated as Hitler ordered Germany to re-arm.

Germany's wartime adversaries were far more serious about enforcing the economic reparations[?] than the military restrictions on Germany. Under Hitler, Germany began re-asserting itself in Europe, clandestinely remilitarising in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. the Germany reintroduced military conscription (the treaty stated that the German Army should not exceed 100.000 men). Secondly, when nothing more than official protests from England and France ensued, Hitler proceeded a year later (7th March 1936) to occupy the Rhineland, which had been declared demilitarized in Versailles.

Two years later, on March 12, 1938, Germany announced the "Anschluss" of Austria, making it another province of the Reich. This was facilitated by the earlier assassination of the Austrian Chancellor, Englebert Dolfuss, on July 25th 1934. At the same time, members of the local Nazi party seized the radio station and broadcast the news that Dolfuss had resigned. Prior to this, the Austrian Nazis, inflamed by Hitler's demagogic broadcasting, had instituted a reign of terror, dynamiting government buildings, and murdering supporters of the Dolfuss regime. After a lengthy political standoff, including Hitler making threats of war, a Nazi lawyer, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, was appointed first Foreign Minister and then Chancellor of Austria.

With Austria now a province of the Reich, Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. Areas in the north and west of the country (the Sudetenland, which contained a natural mountainous defense line and a fortress line against Germany) were populated by a large minority of Germans. Again following lengthy negotiations (with blatant war threats from the German dictator), British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went out of his way with French leaders to appease Hitler, even though the United Kingdom had earlier guaranteed the security of Czechoslovakia. However, the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, then allowed German troops to occupy the Sudetenland. Czech representatives were not allowed at the conference; their government strongly opposed giving up the Sudetenland but were powerless in the face of German military might and British and French unwillingness to fight for them. A few months after that, in March 1939, the rest of Czechoslovakia passed into German hands as well.

Italy, facing opposition to its wars of conquest in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from the League of Nations, forged an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn from the League in 1933. In May of 1939, Italy and Germany thus formed the Pact of Steel, which further deepened their alliance and firmly established the later Axis powers of the war.

Outbreak of war in Europe

Nazi Germany finally became engaged in full-scale war on September 1, 1939 when it invaded Poland, for which both Britain and France had pledged guarantees (see Polish September Campaign 1939[?]).

Prior to the invasion, the Germans had sealed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, with a secret clause partitioning the countries in between (see Hitler-Stalin Pact). On September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Poland fell quickly, with last large operational units surrendering October 5. (However, Polish troops continued fighting Germany until the end of the war.)

Nazi Germany on the one hand, and France and Britain on the other, settled into a period of quiet maneuvering while they mobilized for conflict. This relatively non-confrontational period between the major powers lasted until April 6th, 1940, and was known as the Phony War. Several other countries, however, were drawn into the conflict at this time. September 28th 1939 the three Baltic Republics were given no choice but to permit Soviet bases and troops on their territory. Finland had on November 30th 1939 to suffer an attempted Soviet invasion, which however was resisted in the Winter War. After over three months of hard fights and heavy losses the Soviet Union confined with 10% of Finland's territory.

Germany finally ended the Phony War when it turned west. Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, ostensibly as a defensive maneuver against a planned and openly discussed British occupation of those countries. In a sweeping invasion of the Low Countries that bypassed French fortifications along the Maginot Line, Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg on May 10, 1940. After conquering these countries Germany then turned against France, entering the country by crossing the Meuse River on May 13, which in turn fell unexpectedly quickly, leaving Britain to stand alone against Germany. Fortunately for Britain, much of its ground forces escaped capture in the final days of that campaign from the French harbor of Dunkirk.

October 28th 1940, Italy invaded Greece but was unable to conquer the country until assistance from Germany arrived.

Britain's resistance to the threat of German invasion was dogged. An outnumbered RAF fought a long, ultimately successful air war with the Luftwaffe during the early days of the war, a conflict known as the Battle of Britain. London was later heavily bombed, as were many industrial cities such as Birmingham and Coventry, and strategically important cities, such as the naval base at Plymouth and the port of Kingston upon Hull.

In reprisal for the bombing of Lübeck in 1942, Hermann Göring launched the Baedeker Blitz, a campaign of morale-destroying bombings aimed at many beautiful English cities of little military importance such as Exeter, Bath and Norwich. Britain's supply lines with America were severely impacted by the German use of U-boats to sink both military and mercantile shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The eastern front

On June 22, 1941, the Germans launched a surprise invasion, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, against their erstwhile Soviet allies. The following Soviet attack on Finland became the pretext to Finland's Continuation War, coordinated with the Germans. The German Army pushed deep into Russia, forcing the Red Army back. The Soviets employed a scorched earth policy, burning crops and destroying utilities as they withdrew before the Germans. But with the capture of Moscow imminent, Hitler ordered his generals to divert their main thrust south in order to conquer Ukraine. This diversion cost the German Army valuable time; by the time they again set their sights on Moscow, the armored assault was slowed by the autumn mud, and then stopped cold when the Russian winter struck. The German army, which had not expected such a prolonged campaign, suffered great loss of life as the harsh weather and lack of planning took their toll.

The next spring the German army continued to push forward, and in November 1942, with the German army at the "gates of Stalingrad", Moscow only 100 miles away, and the oil fields of Grozny in reach, the Red Army held strong. Factors such as indecision by Hitler, dissent among the higher ranked German officers, a long distance to their supplies and a second Russian winter, combined to result in a prolonged battle in the streets of Stalingrad. Heavy losses affected both sides in the battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest battles in history. An estimated 2 million people perished in this battle, including 500,000 civilians. It was the first major defeat of the German army, and they never regained their momentum, allowing the Russian armies to eventually push the Germans all the way back to Berlin.

The Soviets bore the brunt of World War II; the second front in Europe did not begin until D-Day, apart from the invasion of Italy. More Soviet citizens died during World War II than those of all other countries combined. Approximately 21 million Soviets, among them 7 million civilians, were killed in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Since the Nazis considered Slavs to be "sub-human", this was ethnically targeted mass murder.

North Africa

The Germans suffered defeat at the hands of the British in North Africa in late 1942. In the two battles at El Alamein in June and late October - early November, the British under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery defeated the famed German general Erwin Rommel and pushed the Germans out of Egypt, westward towards Tunisia. In 1942, American and British troops landed in Morocco and Algeria in Operation Torch forcing the Vichy French forces to surrender. The Allies completely pushed the Germans out of Africa in 1943 and on May 13 of that year much of the German Afrika Korps and Italian troops stationed in North Africa surrendered to Allied forces.

The invasion of Italy

Soviet soldiers raise their flag over
the Reichstag in Berlin
Mussolini was deposed on July 25, 1943 by the Fascist Grand Council after several crushing military setbacks, including the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily that year (starting on July 10). He was arrested and placed under house arrest in an isolated mountain resort. His replacement, General Pietro Badoglio, negotiated an armistice with the Allies on September 8, 1943. Allied troops landed in mainland Italy on September 9, 1943; the American at Salerno, the British at Taranto. Mussolini was rescued by the Germans and installed as the head of a Nazi puppet state in northern Italy. He continued in this role until he was captured and executed by crowds on April 28, 1945 while on his way to an escape plane as the Allied forces closed in on Milan.

The Germans had built a fortified line in the mountains called the Gustav line[?]. The Allied forces attacked both sides of the line, attacking Monte Cassino from the south and landing at Anzio[?] in the north. The Allies finally entered Rome on June 4, 1944, two days before the landings in Normandy. The Germans regrouped at the Gothic Line[?] further north. After a landing in southern France in August to threaten the German flank, British forces started the attack on the line September 10. The offensive by Allied and some Italian forces continued until the Germans surrendered in Italy on April 29, two days after Mussolini's capture.

The invasion of France

Germany's power was broken by the disastrous Russian campaign, while the successful invasion of France from the Normandy beachheads by the Western allies on June 6, 1944 opened up a third front. Incessant bombing of Germany's infrastructure and cities caused tremendous casualties and disruption. Internally, Hitler survived a number of assassination attempts. The most serious was the July 20 Plot, in which Hitler was slightly injured.

In Operation Market Garden the allies attempted to capture bridges, to open the way into Germany and liberate the northern Netherlands. However, the failure to capture the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem delayed the advance.

The Germans mounted a major counteroffensive on Dec 16, 1944. The Ardennes offensive, also called the Battle of the Bulge, drove back and surrounded some American units. The Allied forces were eventually successful in driving back the Germans, in what turned out to be their last major advance of the war.

The end of the war in Europe

On April 25, 1945 United States and Russian troops linked-up at the Elbe River, cutting Germany in two.

When all was lost for the Germans and the Soviets were closing in on Berlin, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker along with his lover, Eva Braun. The German Empire was partitioned by the Allies into an area of Soviet control, which became East Germany, and an area of joint British/French/American control, which became West Germany. The final surrender documents were signed by General Alfred Jodl on May 7, 1945. May 8 was declared V-E[?] (Victory In Europe) Day.

Following the war, Allied soldiers discovered a number of concentration camps that had been used by the Nazis to imprison and exterminate an estimated 12 million people. The largest single group represented in this number were Jewish (roughly half the total), but Gypsies, Slavs, Catholics, homosexuals and various minorities and disabled persons formed the remainder. The most well-known of these camps is the death camp Auschwitz in which about two million prisoners were killed. Although the Nazi genocide or "Holocaust" was largely unknown to the allied soldiers fighting the war, it has become an inseparable part of the story of World War II.

The Pacific theater

Preceding events

In the Pacific, war was not formally declared between the belligerents until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (See: Greater East Asia War). However, there was active fighting dating back to the 1930s, the cause of which can be seen in the political fragmentation and weakness of China combined with a strong Japan with a militaristic and expansionist ideology.

In the 1920s, China fragmented into warlordism in which there was a weak central government, and Japan was able gain influence in China by imposing unequal treaties with what remained of the central government. This situation was unstable in that if China dissolved into total anarchy these agreements would be unenforceable while if China was able to strength, the strong China would be able to abrogate those agreements.

In 1927, Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang led the Northern Expedition. Chiang was able to militarily defeat the warlords in southern and central China, and was in the process of securing the nominal allegiance of the warlords in northern China. Fearing that Zhang Xue-liang (the warlord controlling Manchuria) was about to declare his allegiance for Chiang, the Japanese intervened and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo.

There is no evidence that Japan ever intended to directly administer China or that Japan's actions in China were part of a program of world domination. Rather, Japan's goals in China were strongly influenced by 19th century European colonialism and were to maintain a secure supply of natural resources and to have friendly and pliable governments in China that would not act against Japanese interests. Although Japanese actions would not have seemed out of place among European colonial powers in the 19th century, by 1930, notions of Wilsonian self-determination meant that raw military force in support of colonialism was no longer seen as appropriate behavior by the international community. Japanese actions were therefore roundly criticized and led to Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations. During the 1930s, China and Japan reached a stalemate with Chiang focusing his efforts at eliminating the Communists whom Chiang considered to be a more fundamental danger than the Japanese. The influence of Chinese nationalism on opinion both in the political elite and the general population rendered this strategy increasingly untenable.

Meanwhile in Japan, a policy of assassination by secret societies and the effects of the Great Depression had caused the civilian government to lose control of the military. In addition, the military high command had limited control over the field armies who acted on their own interest, often in contradiction to the overall national interest. There was also an upsurge in nationalism and anti-European feeling and the belief that Japanese policies in China could be justified by racial theories. One popular belief with similarities to the Identity movement[?] was that Japan and not China was the true heir of classical Chinese civilization.

In 1937, Chiang was kidnapped by Zhang Xue-liang in the Xian Incident. As condition of his release, Chiang promised to united with the Communists and fight the Japanese. In response to this, officers of the Kwantung Army without knowledge of the high command in Tokyo decided to manufacture the Battle of Lugou Bridge, also known as the incident at the Marco Polo Bridge, by which they succeeded in their intention of provoking a conflict between China and Japan, the Sino-Japanese War).

Japan's policies in the 1930s are remarkable for their disastrously self-defeating nature. Japan's grand strategy was based on the premise that it could not survive a war against the European powers without secure sources of natural resources, yet to secure those resources it decided to undertake the war that it knew it could not win in the first place. Moreover actions such as its brutality in China, and its practice of first setting up, and then undermining, puppet governments in China were clearly antithetical to Japan's overall goals, and yet it continued to persist in them anyway. Finally, this march to self-destruction is remarkable in that many individuals within the Japanese political and military elite realized these self-destructive consequences, but were unable to do anything about the situation. Also, there appears to have been no debate over policy alternatives which might have enabled Japan to further its goals in China.

Outbreak of war in the east

By 1941, Japan had occupied much of north and central China. However, Japan was faced with continued opposition from both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Although Japan was deeply mired in a quagmire, it did not undertake or even consider undertaking policies which would help it resolve the situation. Although it created several puppet governments, its policies of brutality toward the Chinese population, of not yielding any real power to the governments, and of support to several competing governments failed to make any of them a popular alternative to Chiang government. Japan was also unwilling to negotiate directly with Chiang, nor was it willing to attempt to create splits in united front against it, by offering concessions that would make it a more attractive alternative than Chiang's government. Instead, Japan's reaction to its situation was to turn to increasingly more brutal and depraved actions in the hope that sheer terror would break the will of the Chinese population.

This, however, only had the effect of turning world public opinion against it. In an effort to discourage Japan's war efforts in China, the United States, Britain, and the government in exile of the Netherlands (still in control of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies) stopped trading oil and steel (both war staples) with Japan. Japan saw this as an act of aggression, as without these resources Japan's military machine would grind to a halt, and on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces invaded Siam, Malaya, and the Philippines, and attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Faced with this situation and with the belief that Although Japan knew that it could not win a sustained and prolonged war against the United States, it was the Japanese hope that, faced with this sudden and massive defeat, the United States would agree to a negotiated settlement that would allow Japan to have free reign in China. They were incorrect, and Japan was faced with a war it knew it could not win.

Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America into a two-theater war. Until then, America had remained out of the conflict, though it was providing military aid to Britain and Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program.

Allied forces in Asia, drained of men and materiel by the European conflict, were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened Japanese. Major units of the British fleet were sunk off Malaya on 10th December, and Hong Kong fell on the 25th. United States bases on Guam and Wake Island were lost at around the same time. January saw the invasions of Burma, the Solomons, the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, and the capture of Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul[?]. The pace of conquest was rapid: Bali and Timor fell in February 1942, Rangoon and Java in March, and Mandalay[?] at the beginning of May. Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated British and American air power in South-East Asia, made major raids on northern Australia, and driven the British fleet out of Ceylon.

Allied resistance, at first shambolic, gradually began to stiffen. The Doolittle Raid in April was a token but morale-boosting air attack on Japan, and although the US Navy was narrowly defeated in tactical terms at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it still managed to derail the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby. The crucial Battle of Midway followed in June: the fortunes of war could easily have given either side the victory, but Japanese naval aviation suffered a devastating defeat from which it never recovered. Midway was the turning-point of the naval war in the Pacific theatre.

On land, the British/Indian retreat in Burma had slowed, Australian forces in New Guinea successfully defended Port Moresby along the Kokada Track[?] and in August Japanese land forces suffered their first outright defeat of the war at the Battle of Milne Bay. At the same time, US and Japanese soldiers both attempted to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. Forces converged on Guadalcanal over the following six months in an escalating battle of attrition, with eventual victory going to the United States. From this time on the Japanese fought a defensive war. The constant need to reinforce Guadalcanal weakened the Japanese effort in other theatres, leading to the recapture of Buna/Gona[?] by Australian and US forces in early 1943, and preparing the way for both MacArthur's land-based thrust through New Guinea and Nimitz's island hopping campaign across the Pacific.

Hard-fought battles at Tarawa[?], Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties on both sides, but finally produced a Japanese retreat. Faced with the loss of most of their experienced pilots, the Japanese resorted to kamikaze tactics in an attempt to slow the U.S. advance. On February 3, 1945 Japan's longtime enemy Russia agreed to enter the Pacific Theatre conflict against Japan and was soon making advances in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other Japanese cities suffered greatly from attacks by American bombers. Japan finally surrendered after the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both industrial and civilian targets, were destroyed by nuclear weapons. The final surrender was signed September 2, 1945, on the battleship Missouri. Following this period, General Douglas MacArthur established bases in Japan to oversee the postwar development of the country. This period in Japanese history is known as the occupation. President Harry Truman officially proclaimed an end of hostilities in on December 31, 1946.

Historical significance

Most likely learning from the example of World War I, the victors in the Second World War did not demand compensation from the defeated nations. On the contrary, a plan created by U. S. Secretary of State George Marshall, the Economic Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, called for the US Congress to allocate billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Europe. The portion of Europe occupied by the Soviet Union did not participate in the plan.

At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union consolidated their military presence and links in Europe as preparation against possible aggression.

The massive research and development involved in the Manhattan Project in order to quickly achieve a working nuclear weapon design greatly impacted the scientific community, among other things creating a network of national laboratories in the United States.

As mentioned, the Soviets bore the heaviest casualties of World War II. These war causalities can explain much of Russia's behavior after the war. The Soviet Union continued to occupy and dominate Eastern Europe as a "buffer zone" to protect Russia from another invasion from the West. Russia had been invaded three times in the 150 years before the Cold War: during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II, suffering tens of millions of causalities.

After the war, many high-ranking Nazis and Japanese leaders were prosecuted for war crimes, as well as the mass murder of the Holocaust. See Nuremberg trials.

For a full list of participant countries, see List of countries involved in World War II.

See also List of World War II casualties by country.

Military engagements


Naval engagements

Major bombing campaigns

See also Strategic bombing survey for the overall impact of the bombing.

Major figures

See also: List of people associated with World War II

Common weapons

Defensive lines

Related articles

See also

External links

  • Photos (http://www.archives.gov/research_room/research_topics/world_war_2_photos/world_war_2_photos)


All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
U.S. presidential election, 1804

... Clinton (162) Charles C. Pinckney[?] 14 Federalist Rufus King (14) Other elections: 1792, 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816 Source: ...

This page was created in 44.5 ms