World War II was a global conflict fought between the Allied powers of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, and the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy. World War II claimed more lives than any other war in history, with the death toll rising to an estimated number between 50 and 85 million by the end.
The scale of the war was monumental, with some of the largest armies and most powerful weapons of all time being deployed. The stakes of the war were so high that some would say that World War II was a battle for the future of humanity. In order for the Allied Powers to win the war, no resources were spared.
The rise of Nazi Germany and the mass causalities of the Holocaust, led by Adolf Hitler, was an unprecedented genocide of ethnic minorities. The Holocaust, along with the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, makes WWI stand out as one of the most devastating, disturbing, and fascinating wars of all time. This article explores a brief historical overview of World War II and its global impact.
The Events Leading Up to World War II
World War II can not be accurately discussed without first mentioning World War I. During WWI the Allied Powers of the United States, France, Japan, and Russia fought against Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, and Turkey and won. Germany played an aggressive role in WWI and as a result, the Treaty of Versailles drawn up by the Allied Powers in 1919 heavily punished the nation.
Forced to pay reparations to the Allied powers and relinquish their influence over foreign lands invaded during the war, Germany was left in poor economic and social shape after WWI. The country was on the verge of collapse as a result of the Great Depression economic recession across the US and Europe, with around a third of the population of Germany unemployed at the time.
Citizens of Germany were increasingly discontent with the results of WWI and were looking for a leader that would help them regain their position as a world power. Adolf Hitler stepped to center stage in 1933 to fill the role of Chancellor of Germany and thus began the spread of Nazi Germany.
The Reichstag Fire and the Night of Long Knives
The German parliament building, the Reichstag, in Berlin burned down in a mysterious fire in 1933. Hitler took advantage of the situation at the parliament building to begin his bloody campaign towards becoming dictator of Germany by claiming that the fire was a “God-given signal” of the corruption of his political opponents. The incendiary event of the Reichstag fire is the source of conspiracy theories abound, with rumors spreading of Hitler himself being responsible for the blaze.
No singular political party had been able to win the favor of the German majority in democratic elections following WWI, which left control of the country completely up in the air. Led by Hitler, the Nazi party began to infiltrate the police force and establish the Nazi stormtroopers.
Following the fire, the Nazi stormtroopers arrested and executed countless political enemies in an event known as the “Night of Long Knives”. The empty positions were then filled with Hitler’s Nazi henchman. By 1934, Hitler had claimed the role of Fuhrer, leader of Germany. Under the Nazi party, Jewish citizens and other minorities lost all human rights and were subjected to unprecedented crimes against humanity.
September I, 1939: The Start of WWII
Adolf Hitler formed an alliance with the nations of Austria, Italy, and Japan to form the Axis powers and began to invade foreign lands with its newly rearmed force of Nazi soldiers. World War II officially began when the German Nazi forces invaded Poland. As a result, Poland’s allies France and Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. Germany had made a secret agreement with the leaders of the Soviet Union to divide Poland between the two nations.
In the summer of 1941, Germany violated its non-aggression agreement with the Soviet Union and invaded their lands. That same year, Japan would attack the American military base Pearl Harbor. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese was an effort to prevent American interference in the war. Following the Japanese invasion of the French Indochina, the United States froze Japan’s assets and prevented Japan from purchasing oil, which they desperately needed as fuel to win the war.
Japanese leaders hoped that the attack on Pearl Harbor would encourage America to negotiate with them. Instead of preventing interference or promoting diplomatic negotiations, the attack brought the US into the war in a huge way that ended with the first nuclear bombs being dropped on Japanese soil.
Germany’s Role In World War II
Adolf Hitler had managed to put together one of the most highly-armed and ruthless armies of all time. Nazi soldiers were heavily indoctrinated into Hitler’s violent Nazi philosophy. The power-hungry dictator would stop at nothing to reach his goal of world domination, and he instilled the same ruthless spirit in his soldiers. The German war strategy was aggressive and effective through the use of divisions.
Despite the combined resources of the Allied powers outweighing Germany and their allies, the army of Nazi Germany proved to be a force to reckon with unlike any other. Following WWI, Germany had learned important lessons regarding the nature of modern warfare. They were determined to not repeat the same mistakes that led to their defeat in WWI.
The Nazis used war tanks to create holes in the enemy’s front, which they followed up with heavily trained crews of foot soldiers who took advantage of the chaos caused by the tanks to isolate and attack their enemy. At the same time, airstrikes by dive bombers interrupted communications and disoriented the enemy army. They repeated this maneuver over and over again with militant accuracy.
By carefully planning and practicing each maneuver, the German army was able to gain an advantage over the Allied powers on the battlefield. This strategy is called German blitzkrieg, or lightning war. Germany had the most developed airforce at the time, with the most advanced airplanes. This gave them the advantage that allowed them to take control of much of Europe during the height of Nazi Germany.
The Atrocities of the Holocaust
The ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population in Germany began the night of the Reichstag fire. As Nazi Germany invaded neighboring nations, they massacred and subjugated Jews in concentration camps across Europe.
By the end of WWII, the Nazis were responsible for the death of upwards of six million Jews. They eradicated over half of the Jewish population of Europe in less than five years. The atrocities of the Holocaust represent one of the darkest times in human history.
In the Nazi “death camps” Jewish men, women, and children were tattooed with an identification number before being starved, tortured, enslaved, experimented on, and murdered. Along with the Jews, homosexuals, the Roma population, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also among targeted minorities sent to death camps.
The majority of people to arrive at the camps would never leave and would meet their end in the deadly gas chambers that the Nazis used for mass murder. The rare survivors of Nazi death camps were left with the trauma of witnessing unspeakable horrors committed against their family members and peers.
The key component of the ideology of Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, was one of racial superiority. In the Nazi ideology, it is believed that some groups of people are genetically superior to others and that it is only right for the strong to rule the weak. People with disabilities were also targeted and murdered by the Nazis.
Hitler did not believe that the same rules, or any rules at all, applied to him. As the ultimate leader of Germany, he saw it as his right to purge “undesirables” from their community and favored individual power above all else.
How World War II Ended
World War II lasted for around six years, spanning from 1939 to 1945. By 1943, the Allied powers had begun to reclaim some of the territories invaded by Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States declared war on the Axis powers.
The combined power of the United States and the Soviet Union was enough to rebuff the military advances of Germany and gave the Allied powers the advantage they needed to win the war.
The Final Battles of WWII
At the Battle of Stalingrad, over two-million soldiers and civilians died as the Germans fought to invade the Soviet Union territory. The Germans failed to take Stalingrad, which marked the beginning of their downfall. In 1943, the Allied powers achieved another win by removing the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from power.
One of the most infamous battles of World War II is known as “D-day“. On June 6, 1944, over 150,000 soldiers from America, Canada, and Great Britain arrived on the shores of Normandy, France. The D-day liberation front was successful because the Germans had been led to believe that the Allied powers’ soldiers were arriving at a different location in France, Pas-de-Calais.
The Allied powers used fake communication signals to throw the Germans off their trail. Thousands of soldiers died during D-day, but ultimately the campaign was successful in liberating Paris and then Brussels from Nazi control.
Cornered by the Allied powers from the west and the Soviet Union from the east, Hitler began to grow desperate. At the end of the year 1944, Nazi Germany made one last unsuccessful attempt to fight off the Allied forces coming from the west during the Battle of Bulge.
Despite claiming the lives of upwards of 20,000 American soldiers, the Germans barely made a dent in their enemy’s lines. The Battle of Bulge was a decisive moment in the war. With all of Germany’s resources being expended on the eastern front, the western front was open to invasion from the Soviet Union. Germany was cornered, and at this point had no choice but to surrender.
Germany was subject to firebombings of their major cities at the hands of the Allied powers that claimed the lives of thousands of civilians. As the Allied powers liberated Europe from the grasp of Nazi control, the atrocities of the Holocaust were finally revealed to the citizens of the world as the death camps were discovered one after another.
Faced with defeat, Adolf Hitler took matters into his own hands by committing suicide on April 30, 1945. His successors authorized the total surrender of the German army and signed peace agreements with the United States and the Soviet Union.
Atomic Bombs Dropped On Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Despite the surrender of Germany and the Allied powers’ successful liberation of Europe from the Nazis, Japan remained at war with the United States. The Soviet Union agreed to be America’s ally in the war against Japan. President Harry Truman bragged to Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin about the recent development of a weapon unlike any seen before. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested in New Mexico in July of 1945.
In an effort to bring about a swift surrender from Japan, Truman green-lit the first use of a nuclear weapon in modern warfare. The first atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, killing almost 100,000 people the second it hit the ground. The nuclear fallout was devastating.
The United States expected an immediate surrender, and when they did not get it they decided to strike again with a second atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The second bomb was even more powerful than the first.
Those who died from the initial blast from the bombs could be considered lucky compared to the victims who suffered from catastrophic injuries and radiation poisoning that claimed their lives slowly in the weeks following.
When the Soviet Union officially announced war on Japan and invaded their territories in China in the days following the bombings, the emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito, finally decided to surrender as a result of the growing pressure. This brought the global war to an end.
The Global Impact of World War II
World War II was truly a battle for the future of humanity. The events of World War II would reshape the socio-economic conditions of nations around the world. One of the biggest impacts of the war was the growth of the Soviet Union and its area of influence in Eastern Europe. The war also resulted in the Communist takeover of China. Around two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe was murdered by Nazis during the war.
As a result of the development and detonation of the first nuclear weapons, the end of WWII was also the beginning of the Cold War, a tense stand-off between the Soviet Union and the US. Some history and military experts have speculated that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan by the US partially to intimidate the Soviet Union, whose communist government was seen as a growing threat to the American way of life. After World War II, both the Soviet Union and America were established as two of the most powerful nations in the world.