Fought between 1939 and 1945, World War II was a global warlike conflict between the Allies (Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States) and the Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy). No war has had a greater geographical extension or such profound political, social, cultural, scientific and economic consequences.
The economic crisis, poverty and the penalties that this entailed, led to the rise of fascism. German nationalism proliferated and Hitler was gaining popularity in Germany as the leader of the National Socialist Party.
Origin of the Second World War
Thus, Hitler’s message struck a chord in a German society that had suffered severe deprivation after the First World War. Hitler advocated not recognizing the Treaty of Versailles, while proclaiming that Germany needed to expand territorially, so it needed a living space.
The turbulent environment in Germany led to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Later, Hitler gave himself extraordinary powers, dissolving all parties and unions, except for the National Socialist, and launching an anti-Semitic policy.
At the international level, Hitler breached the treaties, rearming Germany and refusing to bear the cost of reparations for the First World War. As early as 1936 he remilitarized the Rhineland region, but Hitler’s territorial ambitions were still far from being satisfied.
In 1938, the German army entered Austrian territory and annexed the country. Although it is true that both Austria and Germany wanted to be united. The expansion of the Reich continued when Germany annexed the Sudeten Czech region, inhabited by a large German population.
Meanwhile, the response of Western democracies such as France and Great Britain was tepid, as they were betting on a policy of appeasement. This would have dire consequences for Czechoslovakia, which fell into German hands in March 1939. However, Hitler’s next move (the invasion of Poland) would eventually trigger the outbreak of World War II.
At the same time, in the 1920s nationalism was on the rise in Japan. It is worth mentioning a document known as the Tanaka Plan, which advocated Japanese expansionism. Like Nazi Germany, Japan sought its living space.
Thus, the first step in the expansion of the Empire of Japan was the conquest of Manchuria in 1932. Manchuria was to be followed by the invasion of China in 1937. As Japan expanded, rivalry with the United States, the great rival power, grew. In the pacific.
With Japanese militarism on the rise, General Hideki Tojo seized power in 1941. Tensions with the United States were growing stronger and the Japanese attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor was in the making.
On September 1, 1939, World War II broke out with the German invasion of Poland. This time, Western democracies did not opt for appeasement. Despite the entry of France and Great Britain into the conflict, Poland would soon fall into the hands of the Third Reich.
The beginning of the war was marked by a succession of spectacular German victories. The new German tactics, known as blitzkrieg or lightning war, consisted of withering attacks combined with infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft. This mode of warfare puzzled the Allies.
The invasion of Poland was followed by the fall of Denmark and Norway. Soon after, the war moved to Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France. The Maginot line, which was a series of fortifications erected by the French, was rendered useless when the Germans surprised the French army by attacking through the Ardennes. The Allied front collapsed, the British army withdrew through Dunkirk, and the Germans ended up entering Paris. Finally, on June 22, 1940, the French signed an armistice at Compiegne.
France was divided into two zones: the north in the hands of the Germans and the south, known as Vichy France, which, led by Philippe Pétain, became a collaborationist state.
Meanwhile, Great Britain, had been left alone in its fight against the Third Reich. But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was determined to fight to the end. Only thanks to their resistance in the Battle of Britain, the British aviation managed to avoid a possible invasion.
The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini wanted to show that Italy was a great power, capable of achieving victories like those that Germany had achieved. In this sense, Mussolini dreamed of conquering Greece and Egypt. However, the offensives in Greece proved a disaster, while in their fight in North Africa they reaped severe defeats to the British.
All this ended up forcing the German intervention. Once again, the German military machine was relentless, quickly conquering Greece and Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, a small German army known as Afrika Korps and commanded by General Erwin Rommel landed in North Africa. Rommel’s triumphs in Libya put the Allies on the ropes and his wits on the battlefield earned him the nickname the desert fox.
But German ambitions went beyond the deserts of North Africa. Hitler’s great ideological enemy was communism, embodied by the Soviet Union. Despite having signed the German-Soviet pact, by which both countries promised not to attack each other, they divided Poland and agreed to economic exchanges, on June 22, 1941 the invasion of the Soviet Union began.
Millions of German soldiers entered Russian territory in the framework of Operation Barbarossa. During the first months, the German avalanche proved unstoppable for the disorganized Soviet forces. However, the arrival of the harsh Russian winter helped to slow down the German advance at the gates of Moscow. Similarly, the German army encountered fierce resistance in the city of Leningrad.
Gaining respite from the onset of winter, the Germans halted their offensives until the spring of 1942. This time, Hitler’s attention was focused on Stalingrad.
War breaks out in the Pacific
The United States had maintained an isolationist position. However, among its citizens there were those who demanded the country’s entry into the war. Meanwhile, both countries were on the brink of conflagration. The Japanese invasion of French Indochina led to an oil embargo on Japan by the United States and Great Britain.
Thus, Japan, which was competing with the United States for dominance of the Pacific, saw the war as the only way out, since its oil reserves were scarce. Therefore, it was essential to inflict a quick and lethal blow to the Americans. Finally, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This attack marked the entry of the United States into World War II.
Immediately afterwards, the Japanese launched new attacks in Asia and the Pacific. The British colonies of Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, and Hong Kong were quickly conquered by the Empire of Japan. The American defeats followed one another in the Pacific, losing islands like Wake, Guam and the Philippines.
Japanese troops reached New Guinea, threatening Australia. But the tides of the war turned when the Americans achieved a decisive naval victory over the Imperial Navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
1942, the turning point
In 1942 Germany had reached its maximum territorial dominion. In Egypt, the British Eighth Army seemed on the brink of defeat, while in the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht marched determinedly towards the strategic city of Stalingrad.
However, with the Battle of El Alamein (Egypt), General Montgomery inflicted a defeat that left Germans and Italians mortally wounded in Africa. Meanwhile, an Anglo-American army landed in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch. Thus, the Axis troops were trapped in Tunis, where they were finally defeated.
In Russia, in the city of Stalingrad, the German army went from besieger to besieged. Isolated, the 6th German Army ended up being destroyed. Germany had suffered an irreparable defeat, while the Russian front began to become the grave of the Wehrmacht.
On the Pacific front, the Japanese wave was contained in New Guinea, while the Japanese fleet had suffered a decisive blow at Midway. Likewise, the US victory at Guadalcanal would contribute to turning the war in the Pacific around.
The defeat of the Third Reich
Starting from North Africa, the allies invaded Sicily, an event that eventually led to the removal of Mussolini. Before the dismissal of Mussolini, the German troops occupied Italy.
The allies continued to advance from southern Italy, fighting fierce battles such as Anzio and Montecassino, to triumphantly enter Rome on June 4, 1944.
On the eastern front, the Germans decided to bet on a large armored offensive at Kursk. However, the Russians managed to contain the onslaught. Thus, since the defeat at Kursk, Germany had lost all initiative on the Russian front.
But, with Soviet troops bearing most of the pressure from the German army, it became imperative to open a new front in Europe. Thus, on June 6, 1944, the Normandy landings took place, also known as Operation Overlord. The Allied invasion of Normandy was followed by new landings in southern France.
The Allies continued to advance towards the German border and in December 1944, they suffered an expected counteroffensive in the Ardennes. Despite the initial momentum of the counterattack, the German offensive in the Ardennes ended in failure.
In March 1945, Anglo-American troops crossed the Rhine River and into Germany. Finally, on April 25, 1945, Americans and Russians met in Torgau.
For its part, the Soviet army progressed from Eastern Europe, reaching Berlin and conquering the city. After Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, on May 8, 1945, the final surrender of Germany took place.
Victory in the Pacific
Defeated at Midway and Guadalcanal, the Japanese began to lose ground as the Marines and the United States Army advanced in a bloody campaign across the atolls. Tarawa, Saipan and Peleliu were some of the names of those fierce battles. On the other hand, a triumphant General MacArthur returned to the Philippines along with a large American army. The British also managed to reconquer Burma.
With the North American conquest of the Mariana Islands, Japan was in the range of the powerful B-29 bombers. Thus, the allies undertook a campaign of aerial bombardments that devastated the main Japanese cities.
As the Americans approached Japan, the fighting escalated. Proof of this are the fighting fought on islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The final episode of World War II was marked by the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). Precisely the atomic bombings suffered by both cities ended up leading to the Japanese capitulation, which took place on September 2, 1945 aboard the US battleship USS Missouri.
Political, social, economic and human consequences
Under the yoke of the Axis countries
During the German occupation, Europe was sacked. Much of the food from other countries was sent to supply Germany. The looting went beyond food resources, because on the fiscal plane, according to the famous historian Antony Beevor, there were countries that were forced to give the Third Reich between a fourth and a third of the collection. Against this backdrop, inflation quickly rose as the black market flourished.
Furthermore, along with food and industrial goods, millions of forced laborers were displaced to Germany to serve as labor in the service of the Third Reich.
A terrible drama was the Holocaust. In death camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka or Mathausen millions of Jews, Russians, Poles, Gypsies and Communists among many others, were exterminated en masse. With the Second World War over, those responsible for Nazi crimes would answer in court at the Nuremberg trials.
At the other end of the planet, the Japanese occupation was terribly hard on the countries of Asia and the Pacific. The war in China was marked by Japanese atrocities, not to mention the inhumane treatment received by Allied prisoners of war confined in Japanese camps.
At the end of a war with millions of displaced people, Europe had been in ruins and Japan was devastated. For Japan and Germany, the war had meant a human and economic holocaust, while the United States had established itself as the great economic and political power. Moreover, the industrial and economic power made the United States "the great arsenal of democracy", while its vast economic resources allowed it to finance the contest.
It should be noted that, while the war was developing, Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman (at the Potsdam Conference) and Stalin were designing plans for the end of the conflict. In this regard, the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences are worth noting. Thus, it was decided that only the unconditional surrender of Germany would be accepted, at the same time that zones of occupation were agreed.
Also on June 26, 1945, under the San Francisco Conference, the United Nations (UN) emerged, a supranational body created to maintain peace in the world and fight for the respect of human rights.
At the end of the Second World War, a new stage began. The world was divided into two blocs: the communist and the democracies with free market economies. The cold war had arrived.