Second World War


Axis powers
Germany, Japan, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria

United Nations
Britain, (France), United States, Soviet Union, China

Occupied countries
France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Soviet Union (part), Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt (part), Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, China (parts), Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea (parts), Philippines, Other Pacific Islands.

Neutral in Europe
Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Ireland
Finland had to fight both the Soviet Union and Germany








The second world war has a better title to the name World War than the first.

Historians should be careful about saying for certain: "these are the causes".

The 1930s saw a growth in pathological nationalism when the various dictators recognised no limits to the powers of the "Sovereign State", thus disregarding the ideas of President Wilson's League of Nations.

1. The results of the first world war were a very unstable situation in Europe and its colonies. Germany had been defeated - though many Germans thought they had not been defeated militarily because Ludendorff, the commander and real ruler of Germany in that war, had told them he had been betrayed by the politicians. The truth was that he had told the politicians he could not hold out any longer and demanded a ceasefire. He didn't want to admit the truth and lied. Hitler was one of those who believed him. (Compare the number of people in the US who believe strange things about President Barack Obama).

2. The Peace conference at Versaille demanded reparations from the Germans, more than they could possibly pay. This helped provoke the economic collapse in Germany which spread to much of the rest of Europe. There were huge numbers of destitute unemployed.

3. Germany had lost territory: to France and Poland. Other countries had also lost territory: Bulgaria to Greece; Hungary to Yugoslavia and Romania; Russia (Soviet Union) to Poland.

4. There were national minorities in most of the new states: Germans in Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland); Hungarians in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia; Germans in Poland. Some of these were the same national minorities who had agitated for the ending of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. (Beware of what you wish for lest you get it and don't like it.)

5. Most of the new states were not "democracies" as President Wilson had hoped for but various kinds of dictatorships (See Paul Tabori). Only Czechoslovakia could be regarded as a democracy, perhaps because as the site of the Habsburg Empire's industry it had a large middle class. Poland, Austria, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria all had various kinds of dictator, for the most part fairly benign (compared with Stalin in the USSR and Hitler). Austria had a low level civil war between Socialists and Conservative parties. The dictatorships were nearly all hostile to Jews and other minorities.

The wars in Asia had different causes to those in Europe. The main problem in Asia was Japan. Japan had modernised in imitation of the western powers. It had copied much from Bismarckian Germany - the form of its Parliament and aristocratic titles; its army; from Britain it had copied its navy. It had also imitated the desire for colonies. Japan was largely controlled by militarists whose attitude to human life and other nations was very similar to that of the fascists and Nazis in Europe. China had disintegrated into a series of warlord states with the central government too weak to control them. Japan seized Manchuria and made it into a colony.

Japan needed oil and rubber and other industrial raw materials and wanted to get them from the European colonies in South East Asia and China.

Mass psychosis
One should not disregard the psychological effects of the first world war. Millions of people had experienced atrocities of a type not known since the Mongol invasions or the Thirty Years War. These events had been very damaging to the individuals who had taken part. The habits of common morality had been abandoned in the mass armies. (Most past wars had been fought by only a minority of the population). Millions of people had committed atrocities ordered by their "betters". The traditional aristocracies had lost control of the ordinary people, without their developing the useful habits of mutual cooperation needed for democracy. This may have made people susceptible to fascist leaders. But the attachment of the people to the Nation State had not weakened and people were easily aroused by demagogues who encouraged militarism in the name of "patriotism".

In a way the world went collectively insane. (Compare the effect on Cambodians of massive American bombing in the 1970s, or the experience of American troops returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.)

Paul Tabori - Epitaph for Europe

A description by a Hungarian writer of the conditions of European countries in the period leading up to the second world war. Very popular in the 1940s.
Patrick Leigh Fermor - Between the Woods and the Water
a walking tour of central Europe shortly before the second world war, a classic. Among the people he meets are aristocrats in several countries, including Hungary.

Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (New York Review Books Classics)

Zwischen Wäldern und Wasser: Zu Fuss nach Konstantinopel: Von der mittleren Donau bis zum Eisernen Tor. Der Reise zweiter Teil

When did it begin?
That is not an easy question as it was not a single war but a collection of wars which different countries regard as beginning at different times. Thus for the Chinese it began with the invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931. For Britain it began in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland and the declaration of war by Britain on 4 September 1939. The Soviet Union used to count from Hitler's invasion in 1942 (but Soviet troops also invaded Poland and the Baltic States in 1939 with Hitler). The United States thinks of Pearl Harbor (1941) as the beginning. The Spanish Civil War (1936-9) may be considered a rehearsal. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was also a preliminary.

  • 1931 - Japan invaded Manchuria (China)
  • 1935 - Mussolini invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea
  • 1936 - Spanish civil war began
  • 1938 - Hitler annexed Austria
  • 1939 - Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia
  • 1939 - Hitler (1 September) and Stalin (17 September) invaded Poland; Britain and France declare war
  • 1939 - Japan invades the rest of China, Indo-China (Vietnam etc.), Burma, Malaya, Indonesia
  • 1940 Germany invades France and other western European countries
  • 1941 - Japan attacks the United States; Hitler declares war on the US
  • 1942 - Hitler invades the Soviet Union
  • 1945 - defeat of Germany, then Japan.

Neville Chamberlain 1939
Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech

From 1940 until 1942 only Britain was resisting Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia (with China).

To someone from Britain this stone (in Middletown, Connecticut) was startling.

1. Asia
Japan's invasion of China, Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, the Pacific Islands and parts of New Guinea. Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor 5 December 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States, perhaps out of solidarity with his ally Japan. Although Japanese troops did not land on Australia bombers from New Guinea attacked Darwin.

2. Europe
Coming to power of Adolf Hitler 1933. German annexation of Austria (1938), annexation of Czechoslovakia (1939), invasion of Poland (1939), France (1940), Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Greece.
Germany was allied with Italy which invaded Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. Also with Hungary and Romania. The Soviet Union, allied at first with Hitler, invaded Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, annexing eastern Poland, the Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania. Hitler then invaded the Soviet Union and occupied the whole of eastern Europe and large parts of Russia and Ukraine as far east as the Volga (Stalingrad).

3. Africa
Italian invasion of Ethiopia 1936.
Italian, then German, occupation of north Africa: Tunisia, Libya and parts of Egypt (Morocco and Algeria were controlled by the pro-Nazi Petain French regime). Allied attack on Italian colonies of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea.

Germany, Italy and Japan formed The Axis, an alliance of states with a militaristic form of government worshipping the Nation in its most extreme form - fascist. Italy was the weakest of the three and its conquests were made with German weapons and troops. After occupation, puppet regimes were installed in: France (Petain); Norway (Vidkun Quisling); Croatia (Anton Pavelic) and Slovakia (Tisa). The regimes of Mikael Horthy in Hungary and Antonescu in Romania were allied with Germany. Other areas were German colonies, ruled directly (Poland, Russia - parts, including Belarus and Ukraine), Yugoslavia, Greece).

United Nations
Opposing them were Britain, France, the Soviet Union (after Hitler's invasion in 1942) and the United States (after being attacked by Japan in 1941). They called themselves the United Nations.

Where was the fighting?
In Asia the fighting began in China, then spread to the British, French and Dutch colonies in Indochina and Malaysia as the Japanese attempted to capture sources of oil and rubber. Japan occupied large parts of China, all of Southeast Asia to the borders of India, and parts of Papua New Guinea, and many of the Pacific Islands.

In Europe the fighting began when Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, after Hitler had occupied Czechoslovakia without fighting (The Munich Agreement). Then the Germans turned west and occupied France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. British, and later American, forces occupied Iceland and the Faeroes. Soviet troops also occupied the Baltic states and parts of Finland.

Parts of France were occupied and directly governed by German troops; other parts were governed by a puppet French "government" based in Vichy, under first world war leader Marshal Petain. In Norway a similar puppet government ruled under a local fascist, Quisling.

Hitler's war method was similar to that of the United States in Iraq: Blitzkrieg (lightning war) consisting of aerial destruction of the enemy's cities and industry, followed by massive invasion with tanks and infantry. In the initial stages of the war German attacks were against weak opponents. France turned out to be ill-prepared and disorganised, being prepared for the first world war with a defensive line that the Germans by-passed.

The next phase in Europe was bombing Britain in preparation for an invasion (Battle of Britain). But the Germans failed to gain control of the sea, and their air losses were high.

Following Hitler's decision to call off an invasion of Britain he turned against the Soviet Union. Initial successes resulted in the occupation of what are now Belarus, Ukraine and large parts of Russia. But Russian resistance, assisted by the allies, brought his invasion to a halt. The turning point was probably the battle at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) where German forces were defeated by days of hand to hand fighting in the streets, and had to halt their march eastwards. Soviet forces then surrounded a large German army and imprisoned them and pushed the German forces westward leading to Hitler's final defeat.

By contrast, fighting in Africa was on a smaller scale. Italy had a colony in Libya and attempted to occupy more of North Africa. After defeats by British forces based in Egypt and Malta Italian forces were reinforced by a German army, attempting to capture the Suez canal and cut Britain's route to India. In Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea Italian forces were defeated by mostly British colonial armies (including South Africans and Indian troops).

The administrators of the French colonies in Africa and the Middle East at first took orders from Petain's Vichy government, but later joined the Free French under General de Gaulle.

Italy had also invaded southeastern Europe, Albania and Yugoslavia and Greece. Local resistance led to Germany replacing Italy in this area. German aims here were to capture the oil of Romania and use the eastern Mediterranean to attack British forces in Cyprus, Malta and Egypt.

The United States under Roosevelt had been supplying Britain with ships and arms under Lend-lease (in return for bases in British colonies). When Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor Hitler declared war on the US which brought US forces to Britain.

North Africa and Southern Europe
The next phase of the war in the west was the defeat of the German forces in North Africa by British forces based in Egypt (a British influenced state, in effect a Protectorate) and American forces landing in Morocco, followed by an invasion by British and American forces into Italy via Sicily. A result of the Italian campaign was the overthrow of Mussolini and Italy joining the Allies. German forces were pushed out of Italy slowly, while in 1944 there was a massive invasion of northern France by combined Allied forces, mainly American and British, to push the Germans in the west, while Soviet forces pushed west.

The defeat of German forces in western Egypt and Libya was the last victory of the British Empire, unaided by America. This is often referred to as the battle of El Alamein.

Soviet Front
In August 1939 Hitler had stunned the world by agreeing a non-aggression treaty - the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement - with the Soviet Union. It included an agreement to split Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. Neither Hitler nor Stalin were sincere in promising not to fight each other. Stalin seems to have been deceived and refused to believe intelligence reports that Germans were poised to invade in 1942. The eastern Front saw the Germans invade the Soviet Union as far as Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and besiege Leningrad (St Petersburg). The Soviet forces forced the Germans to retreat from Stalingrad. A whole German army of about 100,000 men was captured at the town after being encircled. This was probably the main turning point of the war, though North Africa was the first real defeat for German forces, if only as a "sideshow" to the main struggle. Soviet armies then attacked the Germans and pushed them back all the way to Berlin. They were assisted by the western powers (Britain and the US) who supplied some weapons, and who invaded western Europe from Britain in June 1944 (D-Day), forcing the Germans to fight on three fronts (the third was in Italy and Yugoslavia) The Soviet and Anglo-American armies met in eastern Germany.

In the east, fighting was on three main fronts. The Japanese forces were resisted from British India and Ceylon, with fighting in Burma and eastern India. In the Pacific mainly United States naval forces captured the Pacific Islands occupied by the Japanese. Preparation for a final invasion of Japan itself - already seriously damaged by American bombing - was cut short by the use of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese forces then surrendered in the areas they occupied. The Japanese war in China was against the combined Communist and Nationalist armies.

The Soviet Union only declared war on Japan in the last days - probably to gain a seat at the Peace Conference. The Cold War probably began at that point.

The Soviet Union gained control of the islands of Sakahlin and the Kuriles.

World at War
British tv series narrated by Laurence Olivier

The World At War - Complete TV Series (11 Disc Box Set)

World At War

Denis Rigden - Kill the Fuhrer
British plans to assassinate Hitler

Kill the Fuhrer: Section X and Operation Foxley

Michael Burleigh - Moral Combat: A History of World War II

Hitler's attempt to kill all the Jews in Europe (the Holocaust)
One of the worst examples of genocide in the 20th century took place during this war. Hitler had antisemitic beliefs. For some unknown reason he hated Jews and believed in the conspiracy theory as set out in the document written by the Tsarist Secret Police (Okhrana) known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (see Norman Cohn), The Russian Tsarist state itself had massacred Jews with semi-official forces in episodes known as Pogroms.

The war did not start because Hitler wanted to kill Jews but once the war had begun and he had conquered so much of Europe he took the opportunity to kill as many as he could. The plan for the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem (Endlösung) was set out at a conference at Wannsee near Berlin on 20 January 1942.

From then Jews were to be systematically killed in an industrial way, using the resources of the rail system, the chemical products of German industry and the resources of the state's forces of various kinds of police and army.

The habit of killing people he and his associates didn't like began with the mentally disabled Germans, and then moved on to the Roma people (gypsies) and Homosexuals. One of the main features of Nazism was an abandonment of common morality and law and a willingness to kill people without feeling guilty.

What sort of person was Hitler? Was he insane? It would seem that like many military leaders who stain human history he had no moral feelings. He can be compared with Napoleon, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Radovan Karadzic, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Shaka the Zulu and many others.
Why did so many people follow him? This may be part of the psychological study of cults.

Norman Cohn - Warrant for Genocide

The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Die Protokolle der Weisen von Zion. Der Mythos von der jüdischen Weltverschwörung

Histoire d'un mythe

Obituary of Norman Cohn

End of the war
The outcome of the war was the defeat in 1945 of Germany and Japan, the two aggressor powers. Italy surrendered earlier, after the invasion by British and American troops from north Africa and was therefore not treated like an aggressor, after Mussolini was overthrown.

However, no peace treaty with Germany was agreed until 1991 because the allies split soon after the war into the Cold War blocs. An agreement at Yalta (Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) agreed the division of Europe, temporarily, between the US and the USSR. This division lasted for another 45 years. Perhaps the second world war ended only in 1991 (when the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet colonies in eastern Europe regained independence).

Was this one a World War?
The fighting covered much of the Eurasian continent, but scarcely touched the Americas, except for some sea battles (River Plate off Uruguay) and the disruption of normal trade. Still, it covered a much larger area than the first world war.

How many died?
See this detailed analyis.

The main result was that Europe became essentially subordinate to the two Super Powers, each of which was many times more powerful than any European or Asian power. The Third World was considered to be neutral between the two main powers (and played one off against the other).

The European colonial empires came to an end within 20 years of the end of the war.

Another result was the European Union, originally proposed by Winston Churchill. Its founder, the French statesman Maurice Schumann, explicitly desired to prevent France and Germany ever fighting again (after the wars of 1870, 1914 and 1939). (The humiliation of Germany by Cardinal Richelieu in the name of Louis the fourteenth in 1648 had finally been resolved.)

The concept of absolute sovereignty ended, as having been too dangerous. Only the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to continue to believe in it - both of them regarded only their own national interests as being important.

Almost as soon as the war had finished the Cold War began. Was it a Third World War?

The United States paid for the rebuilding of Europe with the Marshall Plan with the aim of preventing Europeans voting Communist and joining the Soviet Union (was this a real danger?)

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