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“”In the magazines war seemed romantic and exciting, full of heroics and vitality… I saw instead men suffering and wishing they were somewhere else.
World War II, a.k.a. the Second World War, Great Patriotic War or Great War II: Electric Boogaloo, was a titanic global conflict — or rather a series of interconnected conflicts — that left over 65 million people dead, most of them civilians. It was also the first and so far only conflict which saw the use of nuclear weapons.
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, 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.
 Beginning of the War
When the war began depends on which national history you read — the most common date is 1939 to 1945. However:
- From the perspective of the Chinese, it began with a Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (sometimes given as the exact date September 18, 1931).
- From the perspective of the Western allies, it began with the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
- From the perspective of Americans, Russians and ex-Yugoslavs, it began in 1941 with the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor and the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Take your pick, but remember that the start date usually has propaganda reasons behind. For example, those who want to point to how the war could have been prevented will tend to the 1931 date as was the case with Frank Crapra's Prelude to War. What does seem clear is that the war was in many respects the proximate consequence of unresolved and fresh disputes arising from the peace settlement that followed WWI.
The conflicts in the Asian Theatre of the Second World War begin with Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931. They had been expanding into formerly Chinese-controlled territory for some time:
- After winning the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, they took over Taiwan (formerly part of China) and Okinawa (formerly an independent kingdom paying tribute to China).
- After (shockingly to the West) winning the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, they took over some Russian interests in Manchuria.
- For their contributions to the Allied effort in the First World War they got the Shantung peninsula, formerly a German colony.
- In a complex series of moves starting in the 1870s, they acquired increasing influence in Korea (another Chinese tributary), culminating with annexation in 1910.
- Manchuria is North of the Great Wall, outside China proper, but in the 1640s the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty which lasted until the revolution of 1911. Manchuria underwent a series of incursions similar to those in Korea, starting early in the 20th century. In 1931, Japan invaded outright and the next year established a puppet state in Manchuria called Manchoukuo, ostensibly "ruled" by the last Qing Dynasty emperor Puyi.
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 thought 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 of what the next war would look like at a town called Guernica.
In 1937 the Japanese launched an invasion into "China Proper." China was itself in the midst of its own 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," (or Nanking) 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 industrial area of western Germany that France and Belgium had hoped they could use as a buffer. The West did nothing except protest about it, even though the Versailles Treaty that ended WWI explicitly forbade any military presence there.
- The next year he forced a unification between Germany and Austria called the Anschluss. Again, the rest of the world 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 Italian leaders agreed to meet with Hitler in Munich and secured "peace in our time" by throwing Czechoslovakia under the bus.
- Six months after claiming Sudetenland, Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia, pissing everybody off but not enough to declare war yet.
The United Kingdom 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 Austria and then Czechoslovakia without firing a shot.
Meanwhile in the East, the Soviet Union and Mongolia trounced the Japanese in the little-known Battles of Khalkhin Gol. This settled a faction fight within the Japanese High Command over whether to "strike north" — fight only the Russians and aim to expand into resource-rich Siberia and Mongolia — or "strike south" — expand into Southeast Asia, even though that would require war with both the US and Britain. Before Khalkin Gol, the choice between those strategies was up in the air; afterward the idea of striking south dominated Japanese thinking. The battle may also have affected events further west; Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact on August 24, just after Khalkin Gol, and Germany invaded Poland on September 1st. Russia and Japan signed a ceasefire on September 15th, and on the 17th Russian troops moved into Poland.
Poland fought valiantly, but was tremendously outnumbered, being attacked by both the 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 the defeat of Poland many Polish soldiers fled to Britain, where they continued to fight on, and Polish code breakers played a major — perhaps decisive — role in the eventual Allied victory. Just before Germany invaded, Stalin and Hitler secretly agreed to split up Poland (Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact). The Soviets were also given clearance to quietly conquer Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Soviets then 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?), the Nazis quickly conquered Denmark and Norway, and while that was still technically ongoing, 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 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. Although some historians have assessed the French command as defeatist, contrary to the "cheese eating surrender monkey" perception of France, many of the French continued to fight on after their defeat, both in the form of the French Resistance and the Free French against Vichy. Some did, nevertheless, collaborate with the Germans.[notes 1]
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 weaker countries like Ethiopia and Albania, and wanted to be part of something bigger. Despite early hostilities between Mussolini and Hitler, 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 having to clean up after Italy, which turned out to be a terrible ally and unable to handle Greece and a few Balkan countries (as well as North Africa). In the biggest blunder of his entire reign, Hitler broke his promise and invaded Russia in June 1941. While initially very successful,[notes 2] like almost everyone else who ever invaded Russia 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 the US swooped in and single-handedly won the war in the time of a 14 episode miniseries, saving the world from fascism.[notes 3] Britons too tend to be as clueless, thinking that the UK largely defeated Nazi Germany in the Battle of Britain. As much as that was vital, in reality the winning weapon (in the European Theatre, at least) was the Soviets; yes, fucking Rainbow Stalin. Without the Red Army facing the hardships it did, it's not a stretch to say things would look a lot different today. By the same token, if the Red Army had been alone in Europe rather than meeting the British and Americans at the Elbe River… think about that. On the other hand clueless Russians and their Western fans will not be forgiven if they persist in thinking that they could have defeated both Germany and Imperial Japan had the latter decided to attack the USSR (rather than the USA) like Hitler wanted them to do.
 Pearl Harbor
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 strike on an 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.
After it entered the war, American industrial output vastly exceeded what anyone considered possible. Between conscription and wartime production, the entire nation was mobilized. Even the Russians used fleets of American-built trucks to carry supplies to the front. 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 (December 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 — remember Khalkin Gol (Japan had fought a minor border war with the Soviets and was pwned); the two countries signed a non-aggression pact, which Japan refused to break. Japan and the USSR did not finally become belligerent until the last few days of the Pacific War.
 War in the Pacific
Japanese soldiers showed a determination beyond anything the Allies had expected, preferring to die than surrender. Moreover, beginning with the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese military adopted a policy of brutal treatment of the captured, including torture.
Although it is given less attention than amphibious assaults and aerial bombardment in cartoon History Channel retellings (again), 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 necessary for war. The American aerial bombardment of Japanese cities repeated the horrors of the British firebombing of German cities, but this added much 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 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 human history. After the battle, the Imperial Japanese Navy became a mere shadow of its former glory. The last of Japan's aircraft carriers, and their highly skilled pilots, were gone, and with them, the most serious threat to Allied forces in the region. This battle was also the first in which Japan implemented the concept of a "special attack", better known as the kamikaze, against the US Navy. Suicidal pilots tried to crash their planes or manned missile into American warships. Meanwhile, sailors attempted the same thing with manned torpedoes. In spite of this desperate and horrifying tactic, the American war effort pushed ever closer to the Japanese homeland, and an Allied invasion looked imminent. US ground forces captured the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa after a bitter and prolonged fight. During the battle of Okinawa, Japan's flag ship Yamato and some escorts were sent on a one-way trip as a last ditch attempt to defeat the Americans but ended up being sunk by US carrier strikes. This definitively eliminated the Imperial Japanese Navy from the war.
Originally begun because Nazi Germany was believed to have begun work on a nuclear bomb, the Manhattan Project succeeded in creating a usable nuclear weapon. Rather than sending troops in, President Truman (taking over for the now-deceased FDR) 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. This made World War II the world's first (and so far, only) nuclear war. The same day, the Soviets launched a massive invasion of Manchuria, quickly defeating the Japanese occupation force. The sudden Soviet invasion and the obliteration of two large cities were a profound shock to the Japanese, and the next day their government informed the Allies that they were willing to surrender, only asking to be allowed to keep the emperor as a figurehead. Note that this made the surrender "conditional."
 Turning the tide against the Axis
The turning point (according to Americans, the British and Canadians) came in 1944 when the US, Great Britain, and Canada made an amphibious landing on the northern French coast in Normandy — the largest amphibious operation in human history. From there, Germany found herself officially trapped in a nightmarish war on two (major) fronts, with the Western Allies on one and the Soviet Union on the other.
Likely it was much earlier. As mentioned above, in the Pacific the moment was just six months after Pearl Harbor, with Japan's crushing loss at Midway, and in Africa it was the second battle of El Alamein in November 1942. In Europe the three pivotal events were:
- The German defeat in the Battle of Moscow in late 1941, which officially ended Operation Barbarossa and forced the Nazis to fight a war of attrition they had no chance of winning;
- The massive German defeat at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in late 1942 — the Soviet Union engaged in a fierce (and fierce is an understatement) battle with the Nazis, depleting their resources and manpower whilst suffering horrendous casualties (it was at that point Hitler stopped making public speeches and made Goebbels his main PR guy); and
- The Battle of Kursk during July-August 1943, the greatest tank battle in history, after which the initiative was firmly in the Soviet hands and the German Army Group Center was broken.
The Wehrmacht was forced into retreat, the Red Army gained significant momentum from then on, and they eventually captured Berlin while the 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 (and facing a barrage of Internet memes), 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 further 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, again, also engaged in horrific activities, ranging in the deaths of millions. Most infamous were the murders in Nanjing and Manila, and many more suffered horrific medical experiments or were exposed to biological weapons at the hands of Unit 731 and many women were forced into prostitution ("comfort women") to service the Japanese military. Oddly, these atrocities were largely ignored, or even denied by later Japanese governments, and serious international debate about these atrocities as war crimes or acts of genocide did not begin until around the 1990s.
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. The UN and NATO were formed. 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 via the Marshall Plan (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 became the new norm. Both Germany and Korea were divided along the lines drawn by the occupying Allied and Soviet forces (and leading to the Korean War), and the world settled into a long era of deep hostility and mistrust.
Even before the war was over, people and governments were intentionally distorting events. This is not a great surprise; wartime propaganda was rather common. Afterwards, various factions have continued to rewrite the history of the war to their own ends, portraying themselves or a group they support as the "good guys." For example, holocaust denial became popular in neo-Nazi circles, as are distortions of the events in China and Korea took place in postwar Japan.
 Morals of the story
- Diplomats, don't impose a treaty overly harsh enough to doom a country's economy and, as a result, feed a reactionary political upheaval.
- Art teachers, don't be overly condescending to your students or you'll create a lunatic willing to scapegoat and/or kill millions.
- Because it always bears repeating...
 See also
- ↑ The French record on treatment of Jews was decidedly mixed; French Jews were protected to the extent possible, while foreign Jews were turned over to the Nazis with what has been described as "enthusiasm."
- ↑ in part because, like a true psychopath, Stalin had had most of his own military's leaders slaughtered a few years prior to the invasion.
- ↑ In fairness, it's best not to forget Lend-Lease, which proved the States did something before they entered the war two years late.
- ↑ For those of the Russian persuasion
- ↑ Ghuhl, Wernar (2007) Imperial Japan's World War Two Transaction Publishers pg 7
- ↑ Spencer C. Tucker (23 December 2009). A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East. ABC-CLIO. p. 1850. ISBN 978-1-85109-672-5
- ↑ Cheng, Chu-chueh (2010) The Margin Without Centre: Kazuo Ishiguro Peter Lang Page 116
- ↑ Stein, R. Conrad (1994) World War II in the Pacific: "Remember Pearl Harbor" Enslow Publishers Page 117
- ↑ Rollins, Peter (2008) Why We Fought: America's Wars in Film and History University Press of Kentucky Page 246
- ↑ Prelude to War (1942) US Government
- ↑ The Bombing of Guernica
- ↑ Some seriously crazy shit in here.
- ↑ Mythbusting time!
- ↑ See the Wikipedia article on Enigma machine. (And don't forget Alan Turing.)
- ↑ ...it came from Germany.
- ↑ The 5 Most Widely Believed WWII Facts (That Are Bullshit), Cracked
- ↑ Submarine Special Operations in World War II, US Navy
- ↑ Woodward, C. Vann (1947). The Battle for Leyte Gulf. New York: Macmillan.
- ↑ Estimates vary, but typically range to a total of 2 million on both sides.
- ↑ Hitler finds out about the Downfall Parodies
- ↑ Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity - Japan