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WWII - A synopsis

Historians estimate that nearly 50 million died. Almost 25 million Soviet lives were lost; 20 percent of the Polish population and nearly 50 percent of the Polish Jewish community; 1 million in Yugoslavia; Germany lost 4 million soldiers and 500,000 civilians, not including ethnic Germans as a result of the ethnic cleansing of that period. Even the USA shielded from the full horror by two oceans, lost 292,000 soldiers in battle. WWII was cast as a war of absolutes, of good and evil, and of national and global survival. Why was it so murderous? - Advanced technology, global reach and the genocidal ambitions of the Nazis (Coffin and Stacey).

A synopsis or abstract view of any war will never be able to touch the real human emotions behind it. It can never put a face to the courage, dissolution, hunger, poverty, emotional scars, cold, mud, pain, and most of all the stench of death to the realities of those who lived it. It will always only focus on the strategies, highlights, players, gains and losses. Most of the sacrifices of WWI and WWII are almost now forgotten, skewed or off-centered by later events and for some only in memories will they live on. The fact that we are now enjoying the fruits of sacrifices made by the generations before us should not be taken for granted and because WWII was a war of such global scale, it touched the lives of everyone on every continent. My article does not discuss the details of WWII, but only events leading up to it and a summary of its outcome. Keep in mind that while everything that happens was grounded in something else, something that was never resolved, that mentalities change as do governments and their ideologies thus sometimes taking away the opportunity for resolution. Many know of the rise and ruin of nations in WWII, but what of the events leading up to it? - Shanti.

World War II 1939-1945 - a war of advanced technology, global reach and genocidal ambitions

In September 1939, Europe was on the brink of another world war. While both wars were triggered by threats to European balance of power, WWII was a conflict among nations, whole peoples and fiercely opposing ideals. This war had little in common with the first. In 1914, WW1 military power outmatched mobility, resulting in four years of static, mud-sodden slaughter. In 1939, WWII mobility joined fire-power on a massive scale with terrifying results. It was not a war of trenches and barbed wire but motion, conquests and terrible destructive power. The war of 1914 paled in comparison because the other great change was not of tactics, but targets.

The killing power was now aimed at civilian targets. Artillery and aerial bombing laid waste to cities. Whole regions were torched, while towns and villages were leveled. Entire populations were targeted and Nazi’s systemic murder of gypsies, homosexuals, other deviants along with the extermination of the Jewish people. WWII was horrifyingly unique, as was the use of a weapon by the United States whose existence would dominate politics and society for the next fifty years – the atom bomb.

WWII the Allied powers - Britain, US and the Soviet Union fought against the Axis powers - Nazi, Germany, Italy and Japan. The 1930s brought tension and failures caused by the 1919 – 1920 treaties of WWI. Many later saw it as a series of missed opportunities to prevent WWII. British poet and leftist W. H. Auden condemned the behavior of Western governments, calling the 1930s “a low, dishonest decade.” But his aggression was only against the policy of “appeasement” pursued in the face German, Italian and Japanese aggression.

The appeasement or pacification to not pursue Germany was grounded in three deeply held beliefs.

  • First, the outbreak of another world war was unthinkable
  • Second, many in Britain and the US argued that Germany was mistreated by the Versailles treaty
  • Third, many appeasers were staunch anticommunists and believed that Nazi German and fascist Italy was an essential safeguard against Soviet communism. There were also those who believed that the Soviets were the greater threat while others believed the Nazis were the true threat, but that any movement will have to wait while Britain and France finished rearming 

The long-term cause of World War II was created in the peace settlement of World War I, it was not a continuation.

  • The Allied heads of state seized German territories and created new states that crossed ethnic boundaries creating new bitterness
  • A naval blockade against Germany forced them to accept harsh terms that took away political power and to pay the bill for WWI in a “war guilt” clause
  • Another was the failure to create lasting and binding standards of peace and security, because the League of Nations was never a league of all nations - German and the Soviet Union were excluded and the United States never joined

In fascist states (and uniquely the United States too), public works projects were the answer to mass unemployment. This created highways, bridges and railroads and a new arms race in 1933 when power passed to the Nazis. Germany was allowed to ignore the terms of the peace treaties and rearm and while other nations followed suit it was not to boost their economy, but in response to a growing Nazi military power. In 1936, when Hitler’s Third Reich reoccupied the Rhineland, France and Britain did not mount a military move and in retrospect this tipped the balance of power in Germany’s favor. Meanwhile Stalin feared that the Allies might strike a deal with Germany at Soviet’s expense which convinced Stalin to sign a non-aggression pact of neutrality. A pact that was broken when Germany turned its focus on Russia after Germany’s concentrated bombing on civilian targets against the British spared the Royal Air Force thus allowing Britain to survive the ordeal.

The war evolved from a European battleground to global in four ways –

  • Germany’s campaign to starve out the British
  • Fighting in North Africa that threatened the Suez Canal and access to Middle Eastern oil
  • Japan’s successful attack in the Pacific
  • Hitler’s annihilation of Soviet Russia and Europe’s Jewish population

Nineteenth-century imperialism made the twentieth-century war a global matter. Key campaigns in North Africa, Burma, Ethiopia and the Pacific were fought in and over colonial territories. Hundreds of thousands of sepoys and Gurkhas from India and Nepal including Britain’s King’s African Rifles, French from Algeria and West Africa served in armies on both side of the conflict. European weakness eventually allowed many colonial leaders to seize the opportunity to press for independence. This scale of destruction that brought profound weariness left bitterness, deep political scars and questions about the value of Western “civilization” and the terms on which it and the rest of the world might live peaceably in the future. In this and many other ways, the war haunted the second half of the century.

In short when America joined the war because Japan struck its naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941, it became truly global. When America dropped the atomic bombs in Japan destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it officially ended WWII and what followed can be viewed as the legacy that we later inherited (Shanti).

Shanti Inderjit

Research referenced specifically from:
Coffin & Stacey. Western Civilization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

For further read check out the timeline view of WWII

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