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World War Two
Century Of Crisis, 1914-1945
World War II, which broke out formally in 1939 but was actually prepared
by a series of wars and clashes through the 1930s, was fed by two active
agents and an excessively passive one. Deliberate strides toward military
expansion on the part of new regimes in Japan and Germany formed the active
causes, bringing the clouds of war to Asia and the Pacific as well as to
Europe and the Mediterranean quite directly. The passivity centered on the
most logical opponents to the new aggressors - the other powerful states in
Europe and North America. Here, nationalistic and ideological divisions,
including widespread Western suspicion of the communist regime in the Soviet
Union, limited an ability to act. So did weak leadership and paralyzing
internal political disputes, which made positive response difficult until a
late hour. Amid ineffective responses, the inability of the League of Nations
to take more than rhetorical action was a foregone conclusion, and the league
progressively withered as a policy instrument during the prewar decade.
Underlying all the factors contributing to war was the prior experience
of war and economic depression. The aggressive regimes resulted from the
tensions in Germany and Japan caused by economic collapse, supplemented in
Germany's case by the wounds of prior defeat and a harsh peace. Western
passivity followed also from the confusions engendered by prior crises. World
history, or at least those facets dominated by the great powers, seemed locked
in a spiral of growing tragedy.
The New Regimes
The first scenes of this new tragedy involved the advent of new,
militaristic governments as key national actors plus an important supporting
player. The early phases of the depression had triggered growing political
fragmentation in Japan, particularly through the rise of various
ultranationalist groups. Some opposed Western values in the name of Shintoism
and Confucianism, while others urged a Nazi-style authoritarian government
free from parliamentary restraint and undue tradition. A military group,
backed by many younger officers, urged a "defense state" under their control.
It was this group in 1932 that attacked key government and business offices
and killed the prime minister. The result, satisfactory to no major group, was
four years of moderate military rule under an older admiral, followed in 1936
and 1937 by a tougher military regime after another officer rebellion had
failed. Japanese voters continued to prefer more moderate parties, but
effective leadership fell increasingly into militaristic hands.
The advent of military rule developed in a context of regional diplomatic
crisis. During the later 1920s, Chinese nationalist forces seemed to be
gaining ground in their effort to unify their chaotic nation after the 1911
revolution. Their success worried Japan's army leaders, who wanted to be able
to influence the Manchurian province of China as a buffer between their colony
of Korea and the Soviet Union. Japan had, in fact, dominated the Manchurian
warlord since its victory over Russia in 1905. Fearful of losing ground, and
unimpeded by the weak civilian government in Tokyo, the Japanese army marched
into Manchuria in 1931, proclaiming it an independent state. Japan's action
was condemned by the League of Nations - which, however, was unable to take
effective action - and in consequence Japan simply withdrew from the league.
The resulting atmosphere of crisis aided the military's advance in domestic
politics, for other leaders were reluctant to damage national military
strength, and this advance in turn set the scene for the next round of crisis
- effectively, the outbreak of World War II in the Far East - in 1937.
In the meantime, however, a more decisive change of regime had occurred
in Germany. Here too, a trend toward growing conservatism and suspicion of
parliamentary government had developed by the late 1920s, and then the advent
of full depression triggered near-chaos politically. The National Socialist
(Nazi) party, led by Adolf Hitler, began to pick up strength after nearly
fading from existence during the mid-1920s. Nazis advocated many things, but
among their leading goals were an authoritarian state under a single leader as
well as an aggressive foreign policy that would reverse the humiliation of the
Versailles treaty and gain Germany military glory and new territory for
expansion. As German parliamentary leaders bickered among themselves and
failed to provide decisive policies to address the depression, and as
communist strength grew on the left, Nazis were able to win a growing minority
of votes in general elections, while also disrupting normal political meetings
and winning quiet support from many business and military leaders. Sponsored
by conservatives who erroneously thought they could control him, Hitler was
able to take power legally in 1933, and soon abolished the parliamentary
regime and constructed a totalitarian state with himself at the helm.
The Nazi state was a radically new kind of regime. Hitler attacked
competing sources of power within Germany, abolishing free trade unions as
well as opposition political parties. Many political opponents were placed in
concentration camps, and new political police added to the terror. Attacks on
Jews, the so-called enemies of true Germans, mounted steadily, as part of
Hitler's racist ideology. During World War II these attacks escalated into
what Hitler called his "final solution," as millions of Jews were forced into
concentration camps and then murdered in gas chambers. Nazism also meant
construction of a war machine. Hitler expanded armaments production, creating
new jobs in the process, and also built up the army and separate Nazi military
forces. In Hitler's view, the essence of the state was authority, and the
function of the state was war.
Hitler's advent galvanized the authoritarian regime of a near-great
power, Italy. Here, a fascist state had been formed in the 1920s, led by
Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had, like Hitler, promised an aggressive foreign
policy and new nationalist glories, but in fact his first decade had been
rather moderate diplomatically. With Hitler in power, however, Mussolini began
to experiment more boldly, if only to avoid being overshadowed completely.
Here, then, was another destabilizing element in world politics.
The Steps Toward War
Hitler moved first. He suspended German reparation payments, thus
renouncing this part of the Versailles settlement; he walked out of a
disarmament conference and withdrew from the League of Nations. In 1935 he
announced German rearmament and in 1936 brought military forces into the
Rhineland - both moves in further violation of Versailles. When these
challenges were greeted by loud verbal protests from France and Britain, but
nothing more serious, Hitler was poised for the further buildup of German
strength and further diplomatic adventures that would ultimately lead to World
In 1935 Mussolini attacked Ethiopia, planning to avenge Italy's failure
to conquer this ancient land during the imperialist surge of the 1890s. Again
the League of Nations condemned the action, but again neither it nor the
democratic powers in Europe and North America took action. Consequently, after
some hard fighting, the Italians won their new colony.
In 1936 a civil war engulfed Spain, pitting authoritarian and military
leaders against republicans and leftists. Germany and Italy quickly moved to
support the Spanish right, sending in supplies and troops, gaining not only
new glory but also precious military training in such specialties as bombing
civilian targets. France, Britain, and the United States, in contrast, though
vaguely supporting the Spanish republic, could agree on no concrete action.
Only the Soviet Union sent effective government support, and by 1939 the
republican forces had been defeated.
In 1938 Hitler proclaimed a long-sought union, or Anschluss, with Austria
as a fellow German nation. Western powers complained and denounced but did
nothing. In the same year Hitler marched into a German-speaking part of
Czechoslovakia. War threatened, but a conference at Munich convinced French
and British leaders that Hitler might be satisfied with acquiescence.
Czechoslovakia was dismembered and the western (Sudeten) region was turned
over to Germany, as the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, duped by
Hitler's apparent eagerness to compromise, proclaimed that his appeasement had
won "peace in our time." ("Our time" turned out to be slightly over a year.)
Emboldened by Western weakness, in March 1939 Hitler took over all of
Czechoslovakia and began to press Poland for territorial concessions. He also
concluded an agreement with the Soviet Union, which was not ready for war with
Germany and had despaired of Western resolve. The Soviets also coveted parts
of Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland for their own, and when Hitler
invaded Poland, Russia launched its own war to undo the Versailles settlement.
Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, not necessarily expecting general
war but clearly prepared to risk it; Britain and France, now convinced that
nothing short of war would stop the Nazis, made their own declaration in
War had already broken out in China. Japan, continuing to press the
ruling Chinese government lest it gain sufficient strength to threaten
Japanese gains, became involved in a skirmish with Chinese forces in the
Beijing area in 1937. Fighting spread, initially quite unplanned. Most
Japanese military leaders opposed more general war, arguing that the nation's
only interest was to defend Manchuria and Korea. However, influential figures
on the General Staff held that China's armies should be decisively defeated to
prevent trouble in the future. This view prevailed, and Japanese forces
quickly occupied the cities and railroads of eastern China. The Chinese army
refused to give in, and a stalemate resulted that lasted in effect until 1945,
with neither side capable of major new advance.
In 1940 the two main areas of conflict, Europe and the Pacific, drew
together, when Germany and Italy (already uneasy allies) signed an agreement
with Japan. Japanese leaders had long admired Germany and welcomed Hitler's
basic hostility to the Soviet Union and communism. Full alliance was prevented
by the Nazi-Soviet agreement, which briefly drove Japan to try to resolve
disputes with the United States. But the United States insisted that the
Japanese evacuate China, so full reconciliation was impossible. Meanwhile,
early German successes in the European war and Japanese realization that
expansion in the Pacific would pit them against the United States combined to
argue for a more formal alliance. A Tripartite Pact was signed by Germany,
Japan, and Italy in September 1940. In fact, Japan and Germany never
collaborated closely. Notably, Japan refused to participate in Germany's
ultimate war with the Soviet Union, despite long-standing opposition to
Russian strength. Nevertheless, the union of the aggressor states, however
hollow in practice, seemed to align the powers of the world between those on
the attack and those legitimately on the defense - a symbolism particularly
influential for the United States.
As war broke out from 1937 to 1939, the powers most interested in
preserving the status quo remained unprepared, hopeful that war could be
deflected by talk and concessions. France and Britain continued to feel the
debilitating effects of World War I and were not eager for another conflict.
Depression-induced tensions made it difficult to agree on any active policy,
and political leftists and conservatives even disagreed over which was the
greater enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union. The United States was less
polarized, but eager to maintain its policy of isolationism in order not to
complicate the delicate process of constructing a new set of government
programs to fight the depression. Only by late 1938 did Western leaders begin
to admit that war was likely, launching some measures of military preparedness
including army expansion and aircraft production. Britain took the lead here,
and its efforts proved vital in allowing successful defense of the nation in
the first stages of the war with Germany, but the Western effort was too
little and too late to stop war itself.
The Hindenburg went up in flames in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, May 6, 1937. the
disaster lessened hopes for the use of flying airships in warfare.
The Course Of The War: Japan's Advance And Retreat
The background to World War II made it obvious that war would be fought
in two major centers - the Pacific and the European regions, the latter
spilling over into North Africa and the Middle East. The background also made
it inevitable that the first years of the war would feature almost unremitting
German and Japanese success against ill-prepared opponents. Only in 1942 and
1943 did the tide begin to change, based on the fact that the powers that had
been drawn into war were essentially more powerful, economically and in
population size, than their ambitious taunters.
The bitter war in Asia, pitting Japan against the United States with
Britain in an important supporting role, followed a fairly simple course of
thrust and counterthrust. Stalemated in China, Japan used the outbreak of war
in Europe as an occasion to turn its attention to other parts of Asia. It
seized Indochina from France's troops. The alliance with Germany and Italy,
along with continued expansion in Southeast Asia as the Japanese attacked
Malaya and Burma, put the Japanese on a collision course with the United
States, which as a Pacific power was unwilling to allow Japan to become a
predominant force in the Far East. United States' holdings in Hawaii and the
Philippines, plus American attempts to withhold materials necessary to Japan's
war economy, convinced Japanese leaders that a clash was inevitable.
Negotiations with the United States broke down with American insistence that
Japan renounce all gains acquired since 1931. It was in this setting that the
Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and then in the following
months seized American possessions in the eastern Pacific, including the
Philippine Islands. Only toward the end of 1942 did the United States begin to
gain the initiative, using its greater numbers and superior level of
industrialization. Scattered islands were reconquered in 1943, and the
Philippines were regained in 1944, while massive air raids began an onslaught
on Japan itself. Meanwhile American, British, and Chinese forces continued to
tie down a considerable Japanese army on the Asian mainland.
In Europe the early years of World War II carried key trends of the 1930s
toward even deeper tragedy. Germany seemed unstoppable and the Western
democracies suffered accordingly. German strategy focused on the blitzkrieg,
or "lightning war," involving rapid movement of troops, tanks, and mechanized
carriers. With this the Germans crushed Poland and, after a brief lull, pushed
early in 1940 into Denmark and Norway. The next targets were Holland, Belgium,
and France, with invasion prepared by massive bombardments of civilian
targets. Rotterdam, for example, was flattened at the cost of 40,000 lives.
German dynamism was matched, again as in the 1930s, by Allied weakness.
France fell surprisingly quickly, partly because the French were unprepared
for war and reliant on an outdated defensive strategy, and partly because
French troops were quickly demoralized due to the deep tensions within their
own society. By the summer of 1940 most of France lay in German hands, while a
semifascist collaborative regime, based in the city of Vichy, ruled the
remainder. Only Britain stood apart, able to withstand Hitler's air offensive
and win the contest for its skies known as the Battle of Britain. Imaginative
air force tactics combined with solid new leadership, under a coalition
government headed by Winston Churchill, as well as the iron resolve on the
part of British citizens to resist the devastating air raids. Hitler's hopes
for a British collapse were dashed.
In 1940 Germany controlled the bulk of the European continent. It aided
its ally, Italy, in a conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece. It moved into North
Africa to press British and French holdings. Conquered territories were forced
to supply materials, troops, and compulsory slave labor to the German war
machine. Hitler also stepped up his campaign against the Jews, aiming at a
"final solution" that meant mass slaughter in Germany as well as its tribute
territories. Even as Germany ground out its war effort, it forced six million
Jews from all parts of Europe into concentration camps and gas chambers. This
holocaust was the most shocking aspect of the war, an attempt at genocide on
an unprecedented scale.
The balance in the war began to shift slightly in 1941. Blocked from
invasion of Britain, Hitler turned toward the tempting target of Russia,
viewed as an inferior Slavic state in Nazi racial ideology. Germany's attack
began in June, all pretense of alliance abandoned, and the Germans easily
penetrated into central Russia. Yet the Soviet forces, while giving ground
amid massive loss of life, did not collapse. They moved back, relocating
Soviet industry eastward. As with Napoleon's invasion attempt over a century
before, weather also came to the Russians' aid, as a harsh winter caught the
Germans off guard, counting on another quick victory. As in Britain, civilian
morale in Russia greatly aided the war effort, and although German forces
continued to advance through 1942, the knockout blow eluded them. The invasion
attempt also stretched German resources very thin, revealing how ill-prepared
Hitler's economy was for a long-haul effort and how inefficient the economy
was in many aspects of war production.
Late 1941 also brought the United States' entry into the war, spurred
initially by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which in fact took place
against German wishes. The United States' leadership had already supported
Britain with loans and supplies, and they now eagerly used the bombing of
Pearl Harbor to enter the war in Europe and Asia against what seemed a clear
threat to Western democracy, perhaps to Western civilization itself. American
involvement, delayed because of lack of full prior preparation, began to make
itself felt in 1942 when American and British forces challenged the Germans in
North Africa. The Soviet Union, in the same year, pushed back an intensive
German siege of the city of Stalingrad, which if successful might have opened
the way to the Ural Mountains and Russia's new industrial heartland. Over
one-third of the German force surrendered, and the Red armies began a gradual
push westward that would take them past their own borders, through eastern
Europe, and by 1945 deep into Germany itself.
In the meantime, British and American forces moved into the Italian
peninsula from North Africa, ousting Mussolini, while also bombing German
industrial and civilian targets. Then in 1944 the Allies invaded France, again
pushing the Germans back with the aid of French forces hostile to fascism.
Amid bitter fighting - Hitler decided to resist as fiercely as possible,
goaded in part by Allied insistence that Germany surrender without conditions
- the Anglo-American forces gradually surged into western Germany. In late
April 1945, Russian and American troops met on the Elbe River. On April 30
Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, and in the following month
German military commanders surrendered their country to the victorious
Within months after this the war in the Pacific also ended. This conflict
had become primarily a duel between Japan and the United States, but British
and Chinese forces were also engaged and, after the European theater of
operations closed, the Soviet Union turned its attention eastward as well.
Japan's surrender was precipitated by American use of atomic bombs on two
cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced a full Japanese surrender and a
period of American occupation.
World War II had been a huge killer, with wanton cruelty adding to the
effect of unprecedented weapons. Japanese troops in China had killed hosts of
civilians, often after torturing them, when they captured cities that had
tried to hold out; in Nanking, for example, as many as 300,000 were killed
after the city had fallen. Hitler's decision to eliminate Jews throughout
Europe led to six million dead in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Hitler's
forces also deliberately attacked civilian centers through bombing raids, in
the usually mistaken belief that such destruction would destroy morale. Allied
forces, as they became more powerful, paid back in kind. The British air force
firebombed the German city of Dresden in retaliation for earlier German raids.
Firebombing of Japanese cities led to as many as 80,000 dead in a single raid.
The American decision to drop its newly developed atomic bomb on Japan was
taken in this atmosphere. American officials wanted to force Japan to
surrender without needlessly costly invasion, and they also hurried to prevent
Soviet advance in Asia. Bombing of Hiroshima killed over 78,000 civilians, and
the raid on Nagasaki two days later also killed tens of thousands. Radiation
fallout ultimately killed thousands more, as the new American President, Harry
Truman, termed the bombing "the greatest thing in history." Overall, at least
35 million people were killed in the war - 20 million in the Soviet Union