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World War II, the Second World War, or Great War II: Electric Boogaloo, was a worldwide conflict, or rather a series of interconnected conflicts, that left 60 million people dead, the majority civilian. It is also the only conflict in history in which nuclear weapons were used.
The war is conventionally dated as lasting from 1939 to 1945, although earlier conflicts in the late 1930s, such as the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Spanish Civil War, are sometimes regarded as the outbreak of what would become WWII. Ultimately, the war resulted in the USSR and the USA becoming superpowers, the British Empire being dismantled (alongside the other colonial empires as Europe was in no shape to lead anything), and Germany and Japan making cars. It also ended fascism as a "good idea," and brought the topic of genocide to people across the world.
Conservatives often accuse lefties that, if in power, they'd be pacifist to the point that Hitler could have possibly enslaved the world; these are the same people that accuse FDR of being a communist.
Beginning of the War
When the war began depends on which national history you read - the most common date is 1939-1945. However, from the perspective of Ethiopians it began with an Italian invasion in 1935. From the perspective of some observers it began in Spain in 1936. From the perspective of the Chinese it began with a Japanese invasion in 1937. From the perspective if the Western European allies it began in 1939. From the perspective of Americans and ex-Yugoslav countries it began in 1941. Take your pick but remember that people in other countries tell the story differently. What does seem clear is that the war was in many respects the proximate result of unresolved and fresh disputes arising from the Peace Settlement that followed the First World War.
Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and proved the League of Nations to be totally useless at its mandate of keeping the peace, especially when revisionist powers think they were cheated by the status quo powers. In 1936 Spain erupted in a civil war during which the German Luftwaffe gave the world a hint about what the next war would look like at a town called Guernica.
The conflicts in the Asian Theatre of the Second World War begin with Japanese annexation of Manchuria in what the Chinese had claimed as territory north of the Great Wall since the 17th century. Japan had been granted the Shantung peninsula (a German colony) for its contributions to the Allied war effort after the First World war. Then in 1932 Japan expanded its influence by establishing a puppet state in Manchuria called Manchukuo, ostensibly "ruled" by the last Qing Dynasty emperor, Puyi. In 1937 the Japanese launched an invasion into "China Proper." China was in the midst of a civil war, and was almost unable to fight back. However, some atrocities did get the attention of the US and others, including the "Rape of Nanjing," one of the most atrocious examples of wanton killing, raping, and looting ever known.
For the western Allies not including the United States and the Latin American republics, the war began in September of 1939, when German troops entered Poland. Since coming to power in 1933 Hitler had been testing the international diplomatic stage. In 1936 he returned German soldiers into the Rhineland, an area of Germany that France and Belgium had hoped they could use as a buffer, and the west did nothing about it. The next year he forced a unification between Germany and Austria called the Anschluss. Again, the west pitched a fit about it but did nothing more than send angry diplomatic cables. In 1938 Hitler decided that an ethnically German enclave of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland should be part of "greater Germany," and threatened war to capture it. British, French, and Soviet leaders were agreed to meet with Hitler in Munich and secured "peace in our time" by throwing Czechoslovakia under the bus. Great Britain and France had finally both drawn a line in the sand at Poland, saying that any aggression against Poland would lead to war between themselves and Germany. Germany perhaps believed that the Allies were bluffing after they had allowed them to take Czechoslovakia and then Austria without firing a shot. Poland, on the other hand, fought valiantly, but was tremendously outnumbered, being attacked by both Soviets and Nazis. Many think that Polish horse cavalry was charging German tanks, however this is not true. Polish lancers mostly used their horses for fast, cheap transportation, and the few actual Cavalry charges were against infantry and all were successful. After its defeat, many Polish soldiers fled to Britain, where they continued to fight on. The Soviet Union also got in on the action attacking Poland from the east and also waged a disastrous invasion of Finland, apparently coveting their rich resources of snow and racing drivers.
After sitting and staring at each other for several months (a period known as the "phony war" or "sitzkrieg" - get it?), Germany invaded France by way of Belgium in 1940. This was the same route taken by German forces in the previous Great War; however, France had prepared again for a direct confrontation across the French border. The French General Staff believed that the Ardennes forest was too thick for tanks to go through speedily and that the Belgian Army would be able to hold it long enough for French reinforcements to arrive. Unable to regroup against the German blitzkrieg, the Allied British and French forces were forced to retreat, and were eventually "rescued" at Dunkirk. From the perspective of Paris, London panicked and withdrew forces that would have been useful in fighting Germany to another standstill in the west. Contrary to the "Cheese eating surrender monkey" perception of France, the French continued to fight on after their defeat, both in the form of the French Resistance and the Free French Forces.
In September 1940, Germany, Japan, and Italy entered into a military alliance known as the Axis through the Tripartite Pact. Italy had already picked on countries its own size like Ethopia and Albania, and wanted to be part of something bigger. Germany was happy to have Italy play the role of military occupier of southern Europe so they could turn their attention elsewhere. That the Japanese would enter an alliance with Germany and Italy is a puzzle only until one considers that all three were anti-communist authoritarian regimes and revisionist powers. That Hitler considered the Japanese "honorary Aryans" had little to do with it.
After consolidating their hold on Western, Northern, and Central Europe, Hitler's Germany turned east; initially this was delayed by Italy, turning out to be a terrible war ally and being unable to handle a few Balkan countries (As well as North Africa). In the biggest blunder of his entire reign, Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. While initially very successful, like everyone else who ever invaded Russia (Except Ghenghis Khan) his army soon became bogged down by the weather and the vast expanses. Space is power.
Clueless Americans shall not be forgiven if they persist in thinking that the war began in late 1941, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. They will also not be forgiven for thinking America swooped in and singlehandedly won the war in the time of a 14 episode miniseries, saving the world from Fascism. Britons tend to be as clueless as their American cousins, thinking that the U.K. largely defeated Nazi Germany. In reality the winning weapon in the European Theatre was the Soviet Red Army. Without the Red Army the Germans would have won the war. Without the British Army or the American Army, the Soviet Union would still have defeated Germany.
While Hitler was expanding in Europe, Japan was reaching the limit of its ability in the East. Running low on raw materials, due to an American embargo, the Japanese decided to risk open war with the US. This took the form of a surprise attack on the American base in Hawaii. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the American aircraft carriers were not in the harbor at the time of the attack, so they survived and left the US with a strong presence in the Pacific.
However, the American production abilities vastly exceeded what anyone considered possible. Between conscription and wartime production, the entire nation was mobilized. After suffering some initial setbacks, the US soon had the Japanese on the run. At the same time, British operations in Europe and Northern Africa, along with the second front to the east, caused the Germans to start running out of troops and material.
By declaring war on America in concert with Japan (Dec. 11), Hitler expected Japan to declare war on the USSR and open a second front in Siberia that would draw Soviet resources away from Hitler's eastern front. It was not to be. Japan and the USSR did not become belligerents until the last few days of the Pacific war.
Turning the tide against the Axis
The turning point (according to Americans, Great Britons and Canadians) came in 1944 when the US, Great Britain, and Canada made an amphibious landing on the northern French coast in Normandy. From there, the Allied forces gripped Germany in a vise, between the British, Canadian, and US forces on one side and the Soviet forces on the other.
In reality the turning point was much earlier, in 1942. Just six months after Pearl Harbor the Japanese Fleet suffered a crushing loss at the Battle of Midway. In Europe the pivotal event was the massive German defeat at Stalingrad late 1942, which was the first time the mighty German attack was successfully halted. From that moment the German Army was slowly forced into retreat. The Soviet Union engaged in a fierce (and fierce is an understatement) battle with the Germans, depleting their resources and manpower whilst suffering horrendous casualties. The Red Army gained significant momentum after this point, and eventually captured Berlin while the glorious American heroes arrived just in time for some photo ops.
At about the same time, Italy was finished off by the Allies, ending in the execution of Mussolini and destroying the last pocket of Nazi forces.
When it became obvious that Berlin would fall, rather than face his foes, Hitler committed suicide in a secure bunker, and the body was burned in a bomb crater outside the bunker. In the chaos of battle, Hitler's remains were never positively identified, leading to many conspiracy theories. German resistance ended shortly thereafter.
The Allied forces discovered that the Germans had been engaging in genocide against the Jews of Europe. The discovery of the death camps was so disturbing that the attempt was labelled the Holocaust, meaning a great conflagration. Today, Nazi Germany is most associated with this attempt. Partly to provide a safe haven for the remainder of Europe's Jews, the state of Israel was established.
Japanese war crimes
The Japanese also engaged in horrific activities. Historian R.J. Rummel estimates that the Japanese army murdered between 3-10 million people, with 3.9 million of those being Chinese. Rummel claims that around 6 million is the best estimate, including casualties from the Sino-Japanese war which began in 1937 and is regarded as a separate conflict until 1941, when the US entered the war in the Pacific. Hundreds of thousands were murdered in Nanking and Manilla, and many more suffered horrific medical experiments at the hands of Unit 731 and others. Oddly enough, the Japanese war crimes have been largely ignored by the modern Japanese government, who still officially maintain they never happened.
War with Japan
While the war was raging in Europe, the Americans were also fighting the Japanese. The Japanese soldiers showed a determination beyond anything the Allies had expected, preferring to die than surrender. Moreover, the Japanese had tortured soldiers that had surrendered to them. Although it is given less attention than amphibious assaults and aerial bombardment in cartoon History Channel retellings, the winning weapons in the Pacific Theatre of the war was unrestricted U.S. submarine warfare. The massive shipping losses deprived the Japanese of the material wherewithal necessary for war. The American aerial bombardment of Japanese cities repeated the horrors of the British firebombing of German cities, but this added less to victory than supposed by many Americans or Britons.
The turning point in the Pacific War was the Battle of Midway in June 1942, when four Japanese fleet aircraft carriers were sunk at a cost of one American carrier which had been hastily repaired after the Battle of the Coral Sea. After Midway, Japan ceased conquering new land for its empire and shifted to a defensive mode. The Battle of the Philippine Sea, also called the "Marianas Turkey Shoot", destroyed the bulk of their remaining aircraft, and more importantly, their experienced pilots. Finally Japan gambled what was left of their entire navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval engagement in world history, and likely the largest one there ever will be. After their defeat, Japan was reduced to throwing suicide pilots, essentially manned missiles, into picket destroyers while the American juggernaut advanced step by step closer to their home islands.
While looking for other options, the Manhattan Project succeeded in creating a usable nuclear weapon. Rather than sending troops in, President Truman instead consented to dropping a gun-type uranium fission nuclear weapon (named "Little Boy") on the industrial city of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, after warning the Japanese that refusing to surrender would have terrible consequences. When Japan took too long in deliberating, Truman ordered the drop of a second nuclear weapon, an implosion-type plutonium fission bomb named "Fat Man" on Nagasaki. The Japanese immediately capitulated, only asking to be allowed to keep the emperor as a figurehead. Note that this made the surrender "conditional." This made World War II the world's first (and so far, only) nuclear war.
With most of Europe and Asia completely destroyed, everyone looked to the United States and the Soviet Union for leadership in the post-war world. Initial attempts were made to work together; however, mutual distrust and Soviet aggression led to a quick breakdown of this cooperation. While the US gave and lent vast sums of money to Western Europe and parts of Asia, thus rebuilding those areas, the Soviets demanded great reparations from the areas that came under their control. In the end, the two systems were so incompatible that the Cold War resulted. Both Germany and Korea were divided along the lines drawn by the occupying US and Soviet forces, and the world settled into a long era of deep hostility and mistrust.