World war II broke out just after twenty years of world war I. The time between the two world wars saw huge developments in Europe but also paved the way for its outbreak.
Developments After 1st World War:
Many countries in Europe had new political developments during the inter-war period. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed in 1919, Germany. The country also became a republic, eventually electing Hitler as its leader. Uprisings were held in Hungary, Finland, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. This period also saw the growth of socialist and communist parties in European countries. However, within few years, these got defeated, and dictatorial governments came to power. The most dangerous of all developments was fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, which paved the way for the second world war.
Fascism is marked by its hostility to democracy, socialism and its praise of the dictatorship. In the 1921 elections of Italy, despite using terror, Mussolini was unable to win the majority. He organised a march to Rome on 28th October 1922. The next day, King of Italy invited Mussolini to join the government. The fascists believed that there could be no harmony between two or more nations; they glorified war and openly advocated the policy of expansion.
Nazism is the German version of fascism and much more sinister than the original. Under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, Nazis established the most barbarous dictatorship of modern times. Though there was a collapse of the German monarchy and it became a republic, the forces behind the monarchy were active and turned to anti-democratic forces represented by Nazism. Hitler glorified violent nationalism and war. Nazis capitalised on the sense of humiliation Germans felt at the defeat in the 1st World War and unjust provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. The economic crisis of 1929 made the Nazi party spread its influence. Hitler was appointed as the Chancellor of Germany by its president on 30th January 1933. Within a few weeks, the entire fabric of democracy in Germany was shattered, and in 1934 Hitler became the president and de-facto ruler. The victory of Nazism was a calamity not only for the German people but for entire Europe and many other parts of the world, dragged in the second world war.
Britain and France
These were the major countries of Europe that didn’t succumb to fascist movements. With the worldwide economic crisis, the fascist movement started in Britain but couldn’t make much headway, and Britain continued as a democracy.
France wanted to use German areas which are under its control to make its economy strong. To meet the threat posed by fascist & anti-democratic forces, a government comprising socialist, radical socialist and communist parties was formed in France as the popular front in 1936. But this was not enough for the maintenance of democracy in other parts of Europe and in preventing the outbreak of war.
After world war 1 there was a decline in the supremacy of Europe and a parallel increase in the importance of the USA. The US economy grew stronger when all the other economies faced an economic crisis. It emerged as an industrial power and made heavy investments in Europe.
However, the capitalist approach and the industrial revolution made the USA face the economic crisis of 1929 where the New York Stock exchange collapsed. This was dealt with by the ‘ New deal ‘ plan of president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 -1945) for economic recovery and social welfare. As a result, the USA recovered from the crisis and industrial production picked up again.
The US foreign policy was not very different from Britain and France. The nation didn’t adopt a strong position to resist aggressive fascists acts until the outbreak of war, when it had to enter it.
After world war I, Soviet Union also emerged as a major power and began to play a crucial role in world affairs. Its participation in the first world war and long civil wars had created acute economic distress in the nation. The New economic policy of 1921 granted peasants the right to sell their produce. Establishing private industries was also permitted. In 1922, USSR was formed, which was a federation of many republics. This Soviet Union was not recognised by most European powers and the USA for a long time. With its growing strength, she could not be ignored.
In 1929, economic reconstruction and industrialisation were adopted by the five-year plans. The USSR was also unaffected by the economic crisis of 1929-33. Its industrial development went on as before while millions of people in the west were unemployed and factories closed. Britain established diplomatic relations in 1933, and in 1934 soviet union became a member of the League of nations. The fascist countries’ aggression was resisted by the Soviet Union, and it played an important role in the second world war.
Asia and Africa
After world war I, independent movements strengthened in Asia and Africa. Many leaders of the freedom movement supported allied powers in the hope to win independence or at least more rights. These hopes, more or less, were not fulfilled. There was a national awakening of people in India, Iran, Syria, China, Ethiopia and South Africa of Asia and Africa. While these long-oppressed people were beginning to assert their independence rights, Europe saw preparation for another war.
Events Leading to 2nd World War
Fascist powers began their wars of conquest, which eventually led to the second world war. Italy, Germany, Japan started a series of aggressions on Europe, Asia and Africa. Under Anti – Comintern pact, the three countries were united to fight against communism as Axis powers in 1937. To this, the aggrieved countries demanded a collective action in the name of a popular front consisting of socialists, communists and anti-fascists to counter the danger of fascism and war. However, the policy of appeasement didn’t prevent the second world war; instead, it strengthened the axis powers.
The Japanese invasion of China
A significant act of aggression after world war I was the Japanese invasion of china in 1931. When China appealed to the League of Nations, it did nothing to counter the aggression. Japan left the League in 1933. Because Japan was seen as a reason to weaken China and the Soviet Union, Britain as well didn’t want to alienate Japan as this might lead to the endangerment of her colonies in Asia.
Germany was admitted into the League of Nations. However, it left when Hitler acquired power and took a massive programme of militarisation. According to the Versailles treaty, severe restrictions were placed on the military strength of Germany. The re-militarisation of Germany as a violation of the treaty made many other countries insecure, especially France. As per the treaty, Rhineland had been demilitarised to make a German attack on France difficult. In 1936 when Hitler troops entered Rhineland, nothing was done to stop it. Germany built an army of 8,00,000 ( while only 1,00,000 was permitted by the Versailles treaty ) and also a strong navy.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia
In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. On Ethiopia’s appeal, the League passed a resolution condemning Italy as an aggressor and a ban on the sale of arms to Italy. However, by 1936, Italy completed the Ethiopian conquest, and no action was taken.
Spanish civil war
While Germany and Italy were involved in the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939, Britain and France adopted the policy of non – intervention. The sacrifice of non – Spaniards lives for Spain for the cause of freedom and democracy is one of the finest examples of internationalism. The war was fought between Republicans and Nationalists. Italy and Germany were from the side of Nationalists, who eventually won.
The Munich Pact
At the time of the Spanish civil war, the German troops marched into Austria and occupied it in 1938. Although this was a violation of peace treaties, western powers didn’t protest against it.
This marks the final act of appeasement of fascism by western powers. Germany coveted Czechoslovakia due to its strategic location and claimed Sudetenland, which had a substantial German population. By 1939, entire Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany.
The only way the fascist power could have been checked and war could be prevented was western powers’ alliance with the Soviet Union, which was also pleading for the same. But the western policy of appeasement was to divert fascism onto the Soviet Union. However, the Soviets signed a non – aggression pact with Germany in 1939, which shocked all the anti-fascist forces. In the meantime, Britain and France promised to aid Poland, Greece, Romania, and Turkey if their independence was endangered.
The 2nd world war
Similar to the first world war, the second world war also started in Europe and eventually assumed the character of a world war. Even though the western powers had kept quiet in all the aggressions of Japan, Italy & Germany, from the invasion of Manchuria to Czechoslovakia, the ambitions of these fascist nations had not been satisfied.
The axis powers planned for the redivision of the world. The western policy of diverting aggression onto the Soviet power had failed by the signing of a non – aggression pact. Thus, the war began in Europe between the fascist countries and the major west European powers i.e. Britain and France. Within a few months, it became a world war spreading to more and more areas involving almost every country of the world.
Invasion of Poland
East Prussia had been separated from the rest of Germany after world war I. The city of Danzig, between East Prussia and Germany, was made a free independent city. Hitler demanded the return of Danzig to Germany, but Britain refused to accept it.
On 1st September 1939, German armies marched onto Poland. On 3rd September, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Thus the invasion of Poland marked the beginning of the second world war. The Soviet Union attacked Eastern Poland and occupied territories once a part of the Russian empire. In 1940, Baltic states too were occupied by the Soviet Union and Norway. Germany occupied Denmark with little effort.
Conquest of Holland, Belgium and France
By May 1940, Belgium and Holland were invaded and conquered by Germany. By June 1940, Paris was in German hands. In the meantime, Italy joined Germany. The French government surrendered and signed a truce with Germany. With French defeat, Germany became the supreme power over continental Europe. The war conducted by Germany with great speed and force was known as blitzkrieg (lightning war).
Battle of Britain
After the fall of France, Britain was the only power left in Europe. Germany thought that Britain would surrender soon as it had no allies in Europe. In August 1940, Germany dropped bombs to terrorise her. The Royal Air force of Britain played a key role in its defence and conducted air raids on German territories as a retaliation.
In the meantime, Italy started military operations in North Africa. It also invaded Greece but was repulsed. Germany succeeded in capturing the Balkans, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and large parts of North Africa.
The German invasion of Soviet Union
Germany, having conquered continental Europe, attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. This attack was conducted despite a non-aggression pact. Hitler had always coveted the vast territory and resources of the Soviet Union and even estimated that eight weeks were enough for its fall, a clear underestimation.
In the first phase of the war, Germany made vast areas of the Soviet Union devastated, Leningrad was besieged, and troops marched on to Moscow. The Soviet Union, with its industrial and military strength, resisted Germany invasion. It also united with Britain to fight against Germany.
Expansion of the war
Japan had invaded China in 1937. In September 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan signed a pact to recognise their mutual leadership. On 7th December 1941, Japan, without declaration, conducted a massive raid on an American naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. This event dragged the USA into the war, turning it truly global. The USA declared war on Japan on 8th December 1941. Following this, Italy and Germany also declared war on the USA. US entry into the war made many countries in the Americas also join the war. In this period, Japan achieved significant victories and conquered Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, etc.
Battle of Stalingrad (Volgograd)
In 1941, in answer to Russian resistance, Germany launched an offensive on Southern Russia. By 1942, German troops reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. Civilians, too, joined the soldiers in defence of the city. By February 1943, Germany had lost 3,00,000 men and 90,000 officers. Its soldiers surrendered. This turned the tide of the war.
The second front
Fascist countries began to suffer reverses in other areas as well. Japan failed to capture Australia and Hawaii. In North Africa, the German troops were routed by early 1943. By July of 1943, Britain and America occupied Sicily, and Mussolini got arrested. The new government formed in Italy joined the war against Germany. The Soviet Union got back Czechoslovakia and Rumania. By 6th June 1944, Britain and American troops launched an offensive in France and opened a second front. This was much wanted by the Soviet Union as this would compel Germany to fight on another front and hasten the defeat of Germany.
End of war in Europe
After 6th June 1944, German armies had to face the forces of the allies from three directions. In Italy, Britain and American troops were advancing. Same was the situation in Belgium and Holland. And, the Soviet army was closing from the east.
On 2nd May 1945, the Soviet forces entered Berlin. Hitler committed suicide the same day. On 7th May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally. The end of all hostilities became effective from noon of 9th May 1945.
The Japanese Surrender
After Germany’s defeat, the war continued in Asia for another three months. Britain and the USA had launched successful operations against Japan in the Pacific and the Indo China region. In spite of severe reverses, Japan was still holding large parts of China. To end it all, on 6th August 1945, a deadly atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This was the first instance an atom bomb was used. While Japan was evaluating its terms of surrender, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, 9th August 1945. In the meantime, Soviet Union declared war on Japan and started military operations in Manchuria and Korea. On 14th August, Japan accepted and surrendered on 2nd September 1945. With it, the 2nd World War truly came to an end.
Consequences of WW 2
Western Europe faced significant destruction during world war II. By the end of the war, only USA and the Soviet Union remained as the most powerful states resulting in the emergence of the Bipolar world era.
League of Nations, which had failed to deter the outbreak of WW 2, was now to be replaced by a new organisation, i.e. United Nations, to maintain peace and prevent the outbreak of conflict.
The immediate aftermath of WW 2 resulted in the emergence of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the West in Europe and Asia over the fate of Germany and Korea between 1945 – 1950.
With World War II, the nuclear arms race also began with the Soviet Union conducting its 1st nuclear test in 1949, Britain and France in the 1950s and China in the 60s. Thus began the age of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
Economically, the Post World War II period saw the adverse consequences of war manifest in the form of unemployment, food shortages, and inflation. Moreover, the large scale destruction of major infrastructure in Europe required reconstruction efforts and associated costs.
This war also significantly weakened the economic capabilities of Britain and France, adversely impacting their ability to hold on to their colonies. Thus, between 1945 – 1960, decolonisation in Asia and Africa gathered pace.
The second world war converted large parts of Europe into graveyard and slave – camps. Many ancient cities got destroyed, and around 50 million people perished. A country like Poland lost as much as 20% of its population. Although the allied powers won the war, there was no true victor as both sides made huge losses in the event.
Thanks for such wonderful articles. BTW, when can I expect the remaining topics of World History?