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Second World War

Second World War

Immediate Cause of War

  • Having taken Memel, Hitler began to mature plans for an assault upon Poland. He demanded that Danzig should be incorporated in the German Reich and the Polish corridor should be ceded to Germany. This was the last straw. Chamberlain gave up his policy of appeasement and announced that in the event of an aggression on Poland, Great Britain would come to the rescue of the Polish Government. He concluded a formal alliance with France and Poland and the three Powers agreed to guarantee one another’s independence and territorial integrity. Hitler mocked at the British guarantee but Great Britain was now determined to act. Chamberlain announced a scheme of compulsory military service and entered into negotiations with Soviet Russia, the only great power which could give effective help to Poland. But Russia had not been allowed to take part in the negotiations leading to the Munich Agreement and felt offended at her exclusion from the councils of the Western Allies. Hence Chamberlain’s negotiations with Russia did not make satisfactory progress. While the negotiations were still going on, the world was startled by the news that Germany and Soviet Russia had concluded a Non-Aggression Pact for ten years (23rd August. 1939). Britain and France had been completely fooled by Stalin. Hitler was convinced that Britain and France would not fight. On September 1, German troops invaded Poland without any declaration of war. On 3rd September Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Thus began the Second World War in 1939.
  • It should be noted that the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles was largely responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War. That treaty displayed a spirit of vengeance by imposing on Germany terms which were staggering in their severity. It had stripped her of all armaments and left her naked before her enemy. It had deprived her of all colonies, saddled her with a crushing war indemnity and fastened the war guilt squarely on her shoulders. All this was done without giving Germany any opportunity to plead her cause. Forced to accept a dictated treaty the Germans felt deeply humiliated and a bitter sense of injustice rankled in their minds. This coupled with a series of economic crises, heightened their resentment. They wanted to be lifted out of the slough of depression and despondency. Hitler promised to do so and he began by demolishing the structure elaborately raised by the Treaty of Versailles. Had this Treaty been timely revised the crises of the war might have been averted. Hence the short sighted and selfish policy of the victor Powers was as much responsible for this war as Hitler’s aggressions.

Ideological Fronts in the War

  • The international tensions which culminated in the Second World War were in part due to ideological conflicts and in part to conflicts of national interests. The combined operations of these two factors produced a cleavage between nations and led to their alignment in rival groups. In the formation of these groups a common ideology was no doubt an important factor, but the most powerful incentive to join a particular alignment was supplied not so much by a common political faith as by considerations of furthering national interests. The rival systems often overlapped. Hence to attribute the tensions and conflicts of inter-war period to only one of these factors would be an over-simplification of a fact which was essentially complex.
  • After the First World War there was an apparent triumph of liberal democracy all over Europe. With the fall of the three old royal dynasties in Europe—the Hohenzollern, the Hapsburg and the Romanoff—democratic constitutions were adopted by almost all the countries of Europe. It was only in Russia that the democratic movement became entangled with Bolshevism. But within a decade of this triumph of democratic movement, Europe was confronted with the most complete denial of democratic ideals and institutions.
  • Two types of dictatorship sprang up—the Communist as in Russia and the Fascist as in Italy. Before long, Germany also was gripped by the Nazi dictatorship under Hitler. All these types of dictatorships, although holding different views on some of the vital problems of the day, were at one in their denunciation of the fundamental ideas of democracy such as individual freedom, freedom of speech and the press and the right of the people to participate in the government. They stood for a totalitarian state and single-party government. The rapid spread of these new ideas and concepts constituted a serious challenge to the democratic ways of Western Europe. Again Fascism was at odds with Communism and was determined to arrest its progress. The result was that something like a triangular contest began to rage between the ideological forces of Communism, Fascism and Democracy. Thus there arose in Europe several “ideological fronts” such as the anti-Comintern Pact of 1936, concluded between Germany and Japan, to which Italy also subscribed next year. Its ostensible object was to check the spread of Communism. In France and Spain were formed anti-Fascist coalitions and Popular Front Governments. These ideological fronts soon came into the open. In the Civil war that broke out in Spain in 1936 Germany and Italy supported insurgents headed by Franco, while Russia supported the existing government. Thus the Spanish war ceased to be the domestic concern of Spain alone, but developed into a struggle betweeri Communism and Fascism, fought on Spanish territory. It was a prelude to the larger struggle that followed very soon.
  • When the Second World War broke out Mussolini who was Hitler’s co-adjutant in the war, formulated the ideological challenge in these words, “The struggle between the two worlds can permit no compromise. Either we or they.” In view of this challenge the Allied Powers clearly declared their war aims in the famous Atlantic Charter in 1941. President Roosevelt summed up the war aims of the Allies as consisting of “four freedoms” – freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of worship and political freedom. The same principle was announced in a joint declaration issued by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. In declaring the objective of the war to be the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis Powers they said, “unconditional surrender means not the destruction of the German populace, nor of the Italian or Japanese populace, but does mean the destruction of a philosophy in Germany, Italy and Japan, which is based on the conquest and subjugation of other peoples.” Thus the ideology of Allies stood in marked contrast to that of the Axis Powers. It is thus clear that more than just political liberty was at stake. It was civilisation as it has grown up in Europe that was threatened.

Character of the War

  • The Second World War differed in many respects. It was a ‘total war’ – a war in which all the resources of the State and the whole activity of the nation were mobilised for war purposes. Food and many other things were rationed, private houses requisitioned, factories controlled, the universal blackout was declared- these and many other compulsions brought the war home to every family. In a sense everybody was made to contribute to war efforts.
  • The scope of the war was world-wide and so was its strategy. Not only on the major continents but its battles were also fought in the Arctic region, in the deserts of North Africa, in the jungles of Burma and New Guinea, in the Atlantic Ocean and in the islands of the Pacific in the Far East. First World War was static, being fought from trenches. Second World War was fought on the basis of superior mobility.
  • Hitler’s Blitzkreig or lightning war struck down six nations within a period of three months. Use of air planes as a weapon, shattered old traditions of attack and defence and wiped the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. It was a war of ideas as well as nations. Nazis were motivated by the philosophy of a ‘master race’, controlling the inferior races who would work for the superior races.
  • Nazism stood for a totalitarian state in which there was no room for individual freedom of any kind. Hence it was a challenge to the democratic ways of life prevalent in Western Europe. Nazis committed mass murders in concentration camps on a hitherto unprecedented scale throwing all moral considerations and human rights to the wind. Hence to fight against Nazism amounted to a fight for freedom and civilisation.

Stages of War

  • The war began with German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and Blitzkreig or lightning war led Warsaw to fall in 15 days and in roughly a month and a half all Poland was occupied and subdued. Russia also invaded Poland and in accordance with her pact with Hitler the two aggressors partitioned Poland between themselves. Hitler next attacked Norway to secure iron mines for his war production. In quick succession Denmark, Holland and Belgium were occupied by May 1940. In June 1940, Germans entered France and France surrendered unconditionally. At this time, Italy under Mussolini joined Germany’s side.

The Battle of Britain (1940-41)

  • After conquering France, Hitler waited for 2 months and bombarded Britain heavily through his huge Luftwaffe (air force). The English fought with bravery and shot down many German planes even though almost half of London was destroyed. Hitler also caused large scale sinking of British ships. Mussolini, wanting to take advantage of Britain’s precarious position, tried to snatch away British possessions in North Africa like Egypt and the Suez canal. The Italians had some initial success but they were pushed back and defeated soundly and squarely by General Wavell and his British forces and Italy had to surrender its territories of Abyssinia, Eritrea and Cyrenacia. The failure of Italians led Germany to come to their rescue and Germany’s General Rommel scattered the British army but again the resoluteness of British under General Montgomery led to defeat of Rommel in October 1942 at El Alamein.
  • Germany had conquered Greece in the meantime in 1941 and was now in a position to threaten the Middle East possessions of Britain. Opening up a new front, Hitler also threw his army against Russia and achieved spectacular success in the beginning. Japan had signed the non-Comintern pact with Germany and Italy in 1940 and now it provoked US into the war by bombing Pearl Harbour. Hitler made elaborate preparations for the Russian invasion. He opened three fronts, one towards Leningrad in north, second towards Moscow in the middle and third towards Stalingrad in the south. Though the Germans faced stiff resistance in the first two advances (towards Leningrad and Moscow) and were held by Russian army in check but in the third (towards Stalingrad) they succeeded and marched on till Stalingrad. Here the Russians re-employed (they had used the same tactics in the First World War against Germany) the old retreating and destroying technique wherein they retreated and destroyed everything including farms, lands, bridges, supply depots, factories, houses, cattle etc so that the enemy could not use anything. This led to a situation where the German army was dependent on its supply lines from eastern Germany and Polish borders which progressively became too long as the German armies pushed further into Russian territory and owing to the vagaries of winter and opening of several fronts in western Europe and north Africa against Germany, the supply line became untenable leading to depleted stock of arms, ammunitions and starving of the German troops. The Russians made a desperate stand at Stalingrad where the war raged for 6 months. Though the loss of life and property was huge but in September 1942, the Russians made the Germans surrender in Stalingrad.
  • Within months after bombing Pearl Harbour, the Japanese were able to capture Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma in quick succession. Indonesia and Philippines also surrendered within four months to the Japanese. By October 1942, the Japanese were knocking at the eastern gates of India and the northern gates of Austria.
  • From the beginning of 1943, the Allied prospects became brighter and Hitler, owing to reversals at El Alamein and Stalingrad had to start retreating. During the battle of El Alamein in October 1942, Allied forces under General Eisenhower had landed in Algiers and after six months of fighting in Tunisia, they forced the Germans to surrender in May The Allies next invaded Sicily and took it under their control. From there they marched on to Rome and the German army in Italy offered resistance but after five months in June 1944, they were defeated and Mussolini surrendered. Mussolini subsequently was murdered by anti-fascists.
  • Meanwhile the Allies were preparing to invade Germany from the west. This was done by fierce bombing of Ruhr and its industrial complexes, railways and canals. The push into Germany started when Eisenhower landed on Normandy coast on 6th June 1944. The Germans put up fierce resistance everywhere. In August, Paris was liberated, and soon after Belgium and Holland were liberated. By the end of 1944, the Allies were at the western border of Germany from where they marched onto the Rhine and towards Berlin. Meanwhile the Russians had opened up the offensive through Poland and had reached Berlin. Hitler committed suicide in May 1945 and Germany finally surrendered, unconditionally.
  • Although Germany had surrendered, Japan continued to fight. British and Indian armies continued to fight Japanese forces in the jungles of Burma and Americans attacked Japanese bases in south-west Pacific. Philippines was recovered in January 1945 and Japan was asked to surrender which it turned down. Thereupon in August, 1945 the Americans dropped the N-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which were completely destroyed. At this the Japanese surrendered on 14th August, 1945.

Peace Making

  • While the war was raging on, advance preparations by a council of the Foreign Ministers of the Big Three (Russia, Britain and US) was being made with conferences in Cairo, Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam.
  • In 1947, peace treaties were concluded with Italy and with Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland, the satellites of Axis powers. Italy was deprived of her colonies of Libya, Eritrea and Somaliland. The treaties provided for limitation of armies, payment of reparations and guarantees of ‘human rights’ and ‘fundamental freedoms’.
  • At the conference of Yalta, it was decided to divide Germany into three major zones (to be allotted to the Big Three) and a minor zone for France. It was decided to completely de militarise and deNazify Germany. An Allied Control consisting of the four Commander-in-Chiefs’ (one each from the Big Three and France) was established which would have complete authority over their respective zones. Prompt steps were taken to eradicate Nazism from every sphere of life. An Inter Allied Military Tribunal at Nuremberg for the trial of leading Nazi war criminals was set up. Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign minister and Rosenberg, the philosopher of Nazi party, were executed with ten other top leaders. Hermann Goering committed suicide before being sent to his death.
  • The Allied powers failed to agree on the terms of treaty to be imposed on Germany. Soviets wanted to set up a strong central government with the communists playing a leading part. US and Britain favoured a federated Germany with competing political parties and great deal of local autonomy.
  • Russia wanted heavy reparations from Germany (owing to its own extreme losses in the German advance) and so wanted Germany to industrialize quickly. US and Britain, on the other hand were unwilling to see Germany quickly rebuilt as an industrial machine.
  • Owing to these factors, separate action was taken by Russia on the one hand in its zone and by the US and Britain in their zones. This resulted in the formation of two German states, the Federal Republic of Western Germany with its seat at Bonn and the German Democratic Republic in the east with its seat in the Russian sector of Berlin. Berlin itself was excluded from both republics. The two states, however, were not sovereign states as their military affairs and foreign relations were controlled by the occupying powers.
  • Japan, after her surrender was occupied by Allied forces under General Douglas Macarthur. Japan was deprived of all its possessions in the Pacific since 1941 and had to restore to China all territories taken from her. The old imperial constitution was abolished and a new more liberal and democratic constitution was set up. State support of Shinto was curbed and teaching of nationalistic doctrines in schools was forbidden. The army and navy were disarmed, decommissioned and demobilised and conscription was abolished. As in Germany, many top military leaders were executed as war criminals. After a protracted negotiation extending over six years, a treaty was signed in 1951.


  • The Second World War profoundly modified the relative position of the Powers in Europe. The fall of the Axis Power and their satellites enabled Russia to consolidate for herself a great position of influence in the Eastern Europe. Russia emerged as the dominant power in Europe. In Western Europe, both the greater and the lesser states turned their eyes towards the US. The balance of power had shifted.



World History

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