The eventful years between September 1, 1939, and September 2, 1945, form a landmark in world history. From the march of the German war machine into Poland to the Japanese surrender, the world witnessed the most destructive war in human history, fought on land, in the air, and on the sea worldwide.
The causes of the war were to be found partially in the provisions of the Paris Peace Conference of January 1919, which was convened after the end of World War I. In spite of the pious declarations of ideas like self-determination and international cooperation by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), the world system that emerged witnessed social unrest, proliferation of revolutionary activities, and a sense of anger in the vanquished powers. National self-interest, the arms race, the failure of collective security, a dismal performance by the League of Nations, economic upheavals, and the rise of aggressive nationalism in some countries made the interwar period from 1919 to 1939 one of disillusionment and foreboding.
The rise of authoritarianism in Italy, Germany, and Japan, along with the Anglo-French policy of appeasement, took the world on an ominous course toward instability and conflict. The stock market crash in New York resulted in the worldwide Great Depression. The isolation of the United States from European affairs tilted the balance in favor of fascist states. The rise of fascism in Italy and the aggressive foreign policy of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) started a series of crises leading to World War II. Mussolini exploited the social and economic chaos of post-1919 Italy. The doctrine of fascism was credere, combattere, obbedire (believe, fight, obey). League of Nations sanctions failed when Italy invaded Abyssinia and occupied the capital, Addis Ababa, in May 1936. He annexed Albania in April 1939. Mussolini had an ally, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), in his ventures, and the two formed the Rome-Berlin Axis in October 1936. The Versailles Treaty contained the seeds of future conflict, and after becoming chancellor in January 1933, Hitler abrogated the provisions of the treaty with impunity. He and his Nazi Party (NSDAP, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) spelled out a program of abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, lebensraum (living space), a greater German Reich, and anti-Semitism.
The collapse of the New York stock market on October 23, 1929, brought about worldwide depression, massive unemployment, inflation, and poverty. It struck the German economy severely. Conscription was introduced, and three wings of armed forces underwent expansion. In March 1936 the Nazi army occupied the Rhineland. Italy was brought into the anti-Comintern pact of Germany and Japan. The policy of lebensraum led to the forcible occupation of Austria in March 1938. The republic of Czechoslovakia, with its minority population of 3.25 million Sudetan Germans, was the next to come under the control of the Third Reich. The Sudetan area was given to Germany at the Munich conference of September 29, 1938. Hitler annexed the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) and Edouard Daladier (1884–1970) of France believed that Hitler would remain satisfied with chunks of territory in his neighborhood and that peace would be maintained in Europe.
Germany and Japan left the League of Nations in 1933, and Italy did so four years afterward. Hitler signed the “Pact of Steel” with Mussolini in May 1939. Great Britain and France were aghast when Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed a nonaggression pact on August 23, 1939, that included a secret clause for the division of Poland. Germany was now secured against an impending attack from the east. Moscow gladly concluded an alliance with Berlin and awaited an opportunity to invade Poland. Britain realized belatedly that appeasement had failed, began to build up its armed forces, and signed a mutual assistance pact with Poland on August 25, 1939. It had introduced conscription on April 27 under the Military Training Act.
When the German war machine marched into Poland in a blitzkrieg (lightning attack) on September 1, 1939, World War II began. Hitler did not care for an Anglo-French ultimatum that he withdraw within two days. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. The Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on September 17. In October Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania fell to the Red Army. On November 30, Finland was attacked, and the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations a month later.
There was a lull during the first few months on the western front. This period, known as the Sitzkrieg (phony war), lasted until April 1940. Hitler’s Wehrmacht (armed force) overran Denmark and Norway in April 1940, and the following month the army and the Luftwaffe (air force) invaded and took control of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The French had depended on the impregnable line of fortifications known as the Maginot line for protection against a German attack, but the latter avoided it and advanced into France through Ardennes in June. The triumphant Nazi army entered Paris on June 14. An armistice was signed on June 22, and Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) became the premier of the puppet Vichy government. General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) organized the Free French government in exile, and Britain recognized it on June 28. A resistance movement against the Nazis also developed among exiles from Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Belgium, and other countries. The German air force began to attack military installations in the south of Great Britain and in September began to bomb London and other cities. In the Battle of Britain, from August to October, the Royal Air Force held against the Luftwaffe. The Tripartite, or Axis, pact was signed between Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Japan Moves Forward
Japan, like its Axis partners, had followed an aggressive foreign policy. Militarism was in ascendancy in the country. The era of acquiescence of the Paris conference and the Washington agreements was coming to an end. The extension of naval disarmament to cruisers, destroyers, and submarines at the London conference of 1930 was disliked by the army and the extreme rightists. An agenda of military expansion and territorial acquisition was in the offing. From the 1930s the military acted as a force above the law, and there were a series of political assassinations of Japanese politicians by army officers. The issue between Japan and China that began over the Manchurian incident propelled Japan toward the war. Manchuria would be a prized possession because its abundance of iron and coal could provide raw materials to the Japanese heavy industries. The vast land area could also solve to an extent the problem of overpopulation. In September 1931 the Japanese Kwantung Army marched unilaterally to occupy Manchuria. The client state of Manchukuo (1932–45) was established.
The League of Nations had not done anything substantial to check the Japanese aggression. Japan withdrew from the league in 1933. The second Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937 after a Japanese attack on five northern provinces in China. The Nationalist capital, Nanjing (Nanking), was sacked with brutality. Anti-Comintern alliance and Japanese endorsement of German and Italian policies changed the situation. Japan received full support from the two countries. The Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis was formed after the Tripartite Pact, with the provision of political, economic, and military assistance in case of attack against a signatory by a country not involved in the present European or Sino-Japanese wars. The provision obviously referred to the United States. With the support of Germany and Italy, the Japanese war machine moved into Southeast Asia, incorporating it with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Balkan countries like Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria joined with the Axis powers on March 25, 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia capitulated to Axis control in April. The Nazi plan of lebensraum had looked toward the east, and Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union began on June 22, with Hungary, Romania, Finland, and Bulgaria joining in. Hitler was confident of a victory before the winter, and the Nazi blitzkrieg almost worked. Troops reached Leningrad within three months, overrunning the Ukraine region and nearing Moscow. But the Red Army fought back, and national spirit was high. The winter set in, and the Soviet Union regained much ground.
Meanwhile, relations between Japan and the United States were taking a nosedive, which would result in a change in the course of the war. The Allied powers would gain an upper hand. The attack on Manchuria in 1931 and the second Sino-Japanese War, beginning in 1937, convinced the Unites States that Japan was on a mission to dominate the Far East. The Japanese were ready to invade the Dutch East Indies. The United States demanded the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia.
Japan countered with a proposal that the United States should not interfere with the government set up in Nanjing. After the beginning of World War II, Washington had followed a policy of pro-Allied neutrality and was involved in the war through the Lend-Lease program. It was also fully prepared in case it was forced to join the war. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) had called a special session of Congress in September 1939 and revised the neutrality laws.
British premier Winston Churchill (1874–1965) met Roosevelt on August 14, 1941, and both signed the Atlantic Charter, which called for international peace. Negotiations between the Japanese government, headed by Tojo Hideki (1884–1948), and Roosevelt were not successful. The Japanese attack was imminent, but the United States was in the dark about where the Japanese would strike. The assumption was that it would be in Southeast Asia. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943) made the strategic decision to attack the U.S. naval base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, where the damage would be greatest in a minimum amount of time. The imperial conference of December 1, 1941, ratified the decision to go to war. The mission aimed at inflicting maximum damage and surprised the United States by attacking in their home base.
The Japanese move made the decision to enter the war easier for the United States. The whole of the United States directed all its might against Japan. If the attack would have come either on the British Malay or in the Netherlands Indies, the United States might not have found it a sufficient reason to go to war with Japan. On December 6 President Roosevelt made a final appeal to the Japanese emperor, but it produced no result. At 7:55 the next morning (3:25 a.m. Japan Standard Time,
December 8), Japanese warplanes struck the military and naval installation of Pearl Harbor. The air strike leader of the Japanese carrier force, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida (1902–76), spearheaded the 183 planes of the first attack. The well-executed and surprise Japanese attack resulted in a dramatic tactical victory, stunning the United States and the Allies. Simultaneously, there were Japanese attacks on Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Guam. On December 8 Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States three days later. The United States went ahead with a massive mobilization plan. It became “an arsenal of democracy,” as Roosevelt had commented.
The War Heats Up
Within six months Japan expanded over a large area in Southeast Asia. Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 with the surrender of British troops there, and three months afterward U.S. and Filipino troops surrendered in Manila Bay. The Japanese reached the borders of India after occupying British Burma (Myanmar). Subhas Chandra Bose (1897–1945) had taken the freedom movement against British colonial rule beyond India’s border and formed the Indian National Army (INA) in Singapore. The INA collaborated with the Japanese in the latter’s battles in Singapore and Burma. In March 1942 the Nazi army began a drive toward Caucasia to capture oil fields.
The German Sixth Army was bogged down on the outskirts of Stalingrad in terrible urban warfare. The German army faced Soviet counterattacks throughout the winter of 1942 and surrendered to the Red Army in February 1943. The Germans were driven out of Caucasia. By the end of the year, the Red Army had occupied portions of Ukraine. The Red Army was in Poland by 1944. In 1942 and 1943 the Axis armies were on retreat on many fronts of the war. The Japanese navy suffered a crushing defeat by the U.S. Navy in June 1942 in the Battle of Midway. The Allies had been victorious over the Germans and the Italians in the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa.
The Allied invasion of Sicily took place in May 1943, and Italy surrendered in September. Mussolini set up a puppet government in northern Italy with Nazi help, but it was short lived because the advancing Allied army occupied Rome on June 4, 1944. Mussolini was captured and executed by communist partisans while fleeing in April 1945. The D-day invasion began on June 6, 1944, with the Allied landing in Normandy, France. Thus, the second front was opened against Germany. Paris fell to the Allied army on August 25, after the surrender of German forces.
In the latter half of 1945, the Japanese were defeated several times. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the southwest Pacific area, invaded the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and the Philippines. By May 1945 the Japanese imperial army had lost Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Philippines, Borneo, and Myanmar. Pressure on Germany continued with carpet bombing and Allied advances. Romania and Bulgaria had surrendered in August and September 1944, respectively.
The Red Army was advancing from Poland. Hungary fell in February 1945, and after two months the city of Berlin was surrounded by Russian troops. In April Leipzig and Munich fell to U.S. troops. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and on May 7 the Germans signed surrender terms at Rheims, France. The next day (V-E day) the German commanders surrendered to the Red Army in Berlin.
On July 26 the Japanese were asked to surrender and refused. On August 6 and 9 atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with devastating effects. Japan surrendered after signing the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945. Japan was placed under international control by the Allies and lost all its overseas possessions. For the first time in its history, Japan was under occupation by a foreign power.
In the wartime conferences of Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945), differences were emerging between the Soviet Union on the one hand and the United States and Great Britain on the other. Once the war was over and the common enemy was defeated the cold war began. A process of decolonization began, and the postwar period witnessed the emergence of new nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as the strengthening of anticolonial movements. There was also a need for new international peacekeeping machinery, and the idea for the United Nations was born during the war. The charter of the United Nations was drafted at the San Francisco Conference of April 25, 1945. It was officially born on October 24, 1945.
World War II left a legacy of homeless persons, casualties, maimed soldiers, damaged monuments and cities, political instability, economic chaos, and a sense of gloom. About 20 million military personnel and 30 million civilian had perished in the war. The death toll for the Soviet Union was the largest, with 20 to 28 million soldiers and civilians having died. The loss of property amounted to a billion dollars. The United States launched the aid package called the Marshall Plan to help with economic recovery in Europe.
The saga of the war will hold a place in the history of the world as a story of savagery, violence, and the cruelty of human beings to their fellow men, women, and children. Hitler stands out as villain number one with his Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, gas chambers, and scientific experiments on the Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs. The Holocaust remains a dark chapter, with the death of about 6 million Jews and 4 million Poles, communists, dissidents, gays, Afro-Germans, Soviet prisoners, and others. War crime tribunals like the Nuremberg trials and the Tokyo war crimes trial brought the guilty to justice.
Patit Paban Mishra