On the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, we look at the story of this tragic conflict. Barely 21 years after the end of World War I, a bloodier war broke out and ended with the use of nuclear weapons. So far, the world has avoided another truly global conflict, but history tells us that we can never take peace for granted.
France, Great Britain and the United States emerged as victors in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles imposed a harsh peace agreement on Germany, which admittedly was less draconian than the one it imposed on France in 1871. Out went Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Instead, populists demanded that the victors squeeze the Germans “until the pips squeak.”
In late 1922, Germany failed to meet its reparation payments to France on time. In response, la grande nation occupied Ruhr Valley, Germany’s main industrial region. This led to outrage in Germany, strikes in Ruhr and hyperinflation in this young Teutonic nation. By November 1923, the US dollar was worth more than 4.2 trillion German marks.
Economic crises often lead to political crises, and Germany in 1923 was no exception. Inspired by Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in October 1922, Adolf Hitler entered a beer hall, fired a shot into the ceiling and declared a national revolution. The putsch ended in chaos and Hitler in prison, but a fuse was now lit. Nazis entered the national consciousness.
In prison, Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf,” which literally translates as “my struggle.” It would also prove to be a manifesto for Nazism. At the time, communism and Judaism were the world’s two greatest ills. It was humane to weed out the weak. The superior Aryan race needed lebensraum, living space, in Eastern Europe at the expense of the untermensch of the inferior Slavic race.
American ships forced Japan to open up in 1853 and the Japanese responded with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. To avoid colonization, Japan turned militaristic, emulating Bismarck’s Germany. Prussian Major Jakob Meckel helped. In 1905, Japan defeated Russia. The Great Depression destroyed the brief ascendancy of civilians. In 1931, the Kwantung army blew up the Japanese-owned railway line in Mukden, blamed it on the Chinese, ignored orders from Tokyo and took over Manchuria. From now on, the shining sun of militarism shone ever more brightly.
Forced collectivization and the liquidation of the land-owning peasant class labeled “kulaks” led to the 1932-33 famine, killing an estimated 3 to 10 million people. Joseph Stalin followed this with the Great Purge of 1936-38 in which millions of innocents were either killed or packed off to brutal Gulag labor camps. The young Soviet Union turned into a state of chilling red terror where even the right to life did not exist.
In 1935, Benito Mussolini’s troops invaded Ethiopia with France and Great Britain playing along. The next year, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie gave a rousing speech at the League of Nations,warning that others “may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia.” He got applause but no help. The League of Nations was now de facto dead.
From 1936 to 1939, Republicans, supported by Mexico, the Soviet Union and international volunteers, fought Nationalists backed by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in a bloody civil war. Immortalized by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, this conflict is regarded as a “dress rehearsal” for World War II.
On July 7, the Battle of Lugou Bridge, better known as the Battle of Marco Polo Bridge, broke out between Chinese and Japanese troops. In 1931, the Japanese had invaded Manchuria and set up a puppet regime with Puyi, the deposed Qing emperor, as its nominal head. Tensions had been rising, sporadic clashes increasing and now full-scale war broke out.
On March 12, the Nazis pushed through Anschluss. Now, Austria was absorbed into Germany. Hitler, an Austrian by birth, reportedly cried on the occasion. While many Austrians opposed Anschluss, thousands turned up in Vienna’s Heldenplatz to cheer the native-born leader who had achieved the long-held dream of the union of the German people. To this day, Anschluss divides historians and Austrians.
Immediately after gobbling up Austria, Hitler became the advocate of ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland. This area was in Czechoslovakia, one of the many new countries that emerged after the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919. Neville Chamberlain, the then-prime minister of the UK, flew to Munich for “the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem” and returned to London promising “peace for our time.”
Austria and Sudetenland only whetted Nazi appetite for lebensraum in the east. On August 23, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop signed what has come to be known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They were foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Germany respectively and promised not to go to war against each other. They also secretly agreed to carve up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. The Soviet Union signed this pact only after the UK and France spurned its offer of a tripartite alliance like the one they had before World War I.
A little known fact about 1939 is that the Soviet Union and Japan fought the Battles of Khalkhin Gol. From May 11 to September 15, the two countries battled on the border of Mongolia and Manchuria. Eventually, Georgy Zhukov, the legendary Soviet general, decimated Japanese forces. Chastened by defeat, the Japanese decided to turn south for resources and Tsuji Masanobu, the Japanese colonel who instigated the conflict, became the greatest proponent of attacking the United States because he thought the Soviet forces were too tough.
As Germany and the Soviet Union snapped up Poland, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, there was a period known as the “Phoney War.” No large-scale military operation occurred until the Germans turned their guns on France, their historic foe. Blitzkrieg, meaning the lightning war, began on May 10. Paris fell shortly.
On May 10, Winston Churchill, a bitter opponent of the policy of appeasement, became prime minister of the UK. That very night, the Royal Air Force (RAF) bombed Dortmund in Germany. After the British miraculously escaped from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain began in right earnest. When the RAF bombed Berlin on August 25, the Luftwaffe responded by bombing British cities. The era of total war had begun and civilians were fair game now.
Little known in the UK, Churchill asked the British Navy to destroy the French fleet in the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir (or Operation Catapult) on the coast of French Algeria. The British feared the French would hand over their ships to the Germans and sank them instead, killing 1,297 French servicemen. Many still regard it as France’s Pearl Harbor.
Italy decided to join the party by invading Egypt. Italian troops were supposed to seize the Suez Canal, the coronary artery of the British Empire. Instead, they suffered ignominious defeat. Suffering a mere 1,900 casualties of those killed and wounded, the British took 133,298 Italian and Libyan prisoners. They also captured 420 tanks, over 845 guns and many aircraft.
On December 7, the Japanese bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By this time, the US was supporting the Allies through the Lend-Lease Act, supplying food, oil and war material. In August, the US and Great Britain had announced the Atlantic Charter, promising all people to choose their own form of government. After Pearl Harbor, World War II turned truly global with the US, the UK and the Soviet Union on one side and Germany, Japan and Italy on the other.
In Europe and North Africa, the tide turned against the Germans. After halting the Wehrmacht in Moscow by the early months of 1942, the Red Army trapped German troops in Stalingrad by the end of the year. In North Africa, the larger-than-life Rommel was finally beaten by General Bernard Montgomery in the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt.
In India, the tide turned against the British Empire. Dissatisfied by the UK’s offer of elections, self-government and dominion status after the war, Gandhi announced the Quit India Movement on August 8. Echoing Churchill, Gandhi made a call to “do or die,” launching a mass uprising against British rule. The imperial response was heavy-handed suppression and mass incarceration.
Even as Rommel managed to flee back to Europe, German troops surrendered in North Africa as well. The Allies invaded Sicily and bombed Rome, the first time this historic city was a target of enemy bombing. King Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini and, as in World War I, the Italians switched sides. In a spectacular paratrooper raid, German commandos rescued Mussolini from prison to set up a puppet Salò Republic, but now Nazi Germany was on its own.
The war did not just cause casualties on battlefields. Exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort caused the Bengal Famine of 1943 in which an estimated 3 million people wasted away to death. In Poland, the Soviets killed all captive members of Poland’s officer corps and the country’s intelligentsia in cold blood. The infamous Katyn Massacre claimed 22,000 victims. In Germany, civilians died by the thousands as Allied bombers unleashed mayhem in enormous daylight raids.
Early in 1943, Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Casablanca to plan the next stage of World War II and demanded “unconditional surrender” from the Axis Powers. This set the stage for a fight to the bitter end. From November 28 to December 1, the Tehran Conference brought Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin together for the first time. Stalin proposed executing 50,000 to 100,000 German officers so that Germany could not plan another war, causing Churchill to storm out of dinner.
In Europe, the German retreat on the Eastern Front turned into a rout. In June, the Red Army killed, wounded or captured 350,000 German soldiers. After months of Stalin’s importunate requests, a second front opened up against the Nazis that month. Allied forces landed in Normandy on June 6, known as D-Day. With the German high command in disarray, 155,000 troops landed by nightfall.
After the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, as well as the spectacular Soviet victories on the eastern front, German defeat was inevitable. So, some military officers plotted a coup to save Germany from disaster. On July 20, Claus von Stauffenberg set off a bomb in the Wolf Lair, Hitler’s field headquarters in East Prussia. The Führer escaped. The Nazis arrested 7,000 Germans and killed 4,980, including the daring, decisive and charismatic Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
The Red Army liberated Auschwitz in the New Year, laying bare the horrors of the Holocaust. On February 23, American troops crossed the Rhine, taking 280,000 German troops as prisoners. Hitler had ordered them to fight where they stood, not allowing them to withdraw behind the Rhine. From now on, the Soviets and the Americans raced for Berlin. The Soviets won, reaching the German capital on April 21.
Even as German defeat was certain, the bombing of Germany continued unabated. In four raids between February 13 to 15, the Allies dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on Dresden — the largest, unbombed, built-up area in Germany — and caused mass casualties. The city that lies in the east ended up under Soviet control and was irrelevant to the outcome of the war.
On April 30, Hitler committed suicide and on May 7, Germany surrendered unconditionally. Two days earlier, Mussolini and his mistress were summarily executed by Italian partisans. Their bodies were taken to Piazzale Loreto in Milan, hung upside down, pelted with vegetables, spat at, urinated on, shot at and kicked. In Europe, the two dictators were dead and the war was over.
In Japan, the war continued. On April 1, the Allies launched the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theater that lasted 82 days until June 22. In the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese launched ferocious kamikaze pilots to carry out airplane suicide attacks, sinking 34 ships and damaging hundreds of others. Casualties on both sides crossed 160,000. The Battle of Iwo Jima that lasted from February 19 to March 26 had proved to be similarly bloody.
On April 12, Roosevelt died and Harry Truman took over as US president. Fearing fierce resistance and massive casualties, Truman ordered nuclear strikes. Hiroshima was hit on August 6 while Nagasaki was bombed on August 9. Soviet forces attacked Japanese-held territories soon after midnight on August 9 before the second atomic bomb was dropped. They took over many islands, Inner Mongolia and northern Korea. To this day, the Japanese claim some of the islands.
Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki still evokes controversy, anger and pain. Some say the Americans bombed the Japanese to send a signal they were now top dog. Many Asians argue that Truman would never have used atomic bombs on members of his own race. Some Russians claim the bombs were a shot across their bow to ensure Soviet forces did not occupy Japan. They forced the Soviet Union to develop nuclear weapons and contributed to the Cold War. In any case, the bombs and the Soviet invasion achieved their primary purpose: The Japanese surrendered on August 14.
Between 1939 and 1945, 100 million people were militarized, an estimated 50 to 80 million killed, and many more injured, displaced or traumatized. Much of Europe and Asia were reduced to rubble. The European empires suffered terminal damage. The Soviet Union and the US emerged as the two superpowers. Everything changed as a new world was born.
Written by Atul Singh
Produced by Abul-Hasanat Siddique
Art and design by Lokendra Singh
Images courtesy of Shutterstock and Creative Commons.