World War II: The Final Crisis of European Global Dominance
World War II was the convergence of separate drives for empire by Japan, Germany, and Italy into a single conflict. Although most historians date the war from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, it is also possible to date it from the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 or the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Until 1941, Germany, Japan, and Italy, which came to be known collectively as the Axis Powers, succeeded in their aggression. With the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Britain stood alone against Hitler in Europe. But the German attack on the USSR in June 1941 and the Japanese attack on the United States in December brought both these countries into the war on the side of the Allies and turned the tide.
German armies enjoyed a series of stunning successes in the first two years of the war, overwhelming their opponents with the blitzkrieg, a “lightning war” that used fast-moving masses of tanks with close support from aircraft. Poland fell within a month. In the spring of 1940, Hitler rapidly overran Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and France. Britain was left to face Hitler alone, protected by the English Channel, the British navy, and the British air force. But in the Battle of Britain, the German air force (Luftwaffe) failed to crush the British air force and open the way for a land invasion of the islands.
Hitler then turned his troops on the USSR. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Although Stalin had received ample warning of the attack from a variety of intelligence sources, the Germans caught the Soviet army by surprise, advancing two-thirds of the way to Moscow in three weeks and taking a million prisoners. In December, however, the Soviet army successfully stopped the Germans within 20 miles of Moscow. Few Westerners understand the size of the Russian contribution to Nazi defeat. Until the American/British cross-channel attack in June 1944 (“D-Day”), ninety percent of the troops fighting Hitler in Europe were Soviet, and eighty percent of German soldiers killed in the entire war died on the Russian front.
In East Asia, the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 developed into a full-scale bid to overthrow the European and American empires in Asia and replace them with a Japanese-dominated “Co-Prosperity Sphere.” In the summer of 1937, Japan invaded China. Mass murder of civilians and bombing of Chinese cities culminated in the massacre of 250,000 Chinese civilians when Japanese troops took the capital of Nanking in December. When Japan took advantage of France’s surrender to Germany to seize French Indochina in July 1941, U.S. President Roosevelt embargoed American exports of oil and steel to Japan. Japanese leaders determined to launch an all-out attack on American, British, and Dutch holdings in the Pacific in order to gain alternative sources of these vital supplies. On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft carriers launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, sinking much of the American Pacific Fleet. Within the next six months, Japanese troops overran British colonies in Hong Kong, Burma, and Malaysia, the Dutch East Indies colony (today Indonesia), and the Philippines.
The attack on Pearl Harbor unified the American public behind entry into the war. (Before this, a majority of Americans had opposed intervention.) Hitler declared war on the United States several days later. With hindsight, it may seem that the entry of the United States and the Soviet Union into the war tilted the balance of power decisively toward the Allies, but the Axis continued to win victories well into 1942. Turning points on the battlefield were the U.S. Navy’s victory at the Battle of Midway (June 1942), the British army’s defeat of German/Italian forces in Egypt at El Alamein (November 1942), and the Soviet army’s victory at Stalingrad (November 1942–January 1943).
Every combatant nation mobilized its economy for war by streamlining the economy, drafting young men for the military or war work, and converting industry to produce war material. Despite its power and widespread use of slave labor from conquered Europe, Germany fell behind the Allies in these efforts. Hitler failed to realize the need for total mobilization until late 1941, by which time Allied production efforts were far ahead.
The German occupation of continental Europe was brutal and bloody. Determined to create an empire dominated by the supposedly superior Aryan race, the Nazis murdered six million Jews and enslaved many more millions of Europeans, in particular Slavs (Poles and Russian POWs were the hardest hit). Millions of these slaves died of starvation, overwork, and disease.
In 1943–1944, continued Soviet victories on the Eastern Front, the collapse of the Axis position in the Mediterranean and the cross-channel invasion of German-occupied France by Anglo-American forces (June 1944) brought Nazi Germany to the brink of collapse. In conferences at Teheran (1943) and Yalta (February 1945), the Allied leaders Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin envisioned a postwar Europe divided into Anglo-American and Soviet zones of influence. After Germany surrendered in May 1945, this vision became real.
Japan surrendered three months after Germany, in August 1945, her navy destroyed and her army decimated by the land war in China and brutal fighting against American forces on Pacific islands. Although Japanese resistance to the American advance was determined and fanatical, the United States’ dropping of revolutionary atomic weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced the Japanese leadership to surrender. The simultaneous Soviet invasion of Manchuria may also have played a role in convincing the Japanese to submit.
World War II changed the world. Europe emerged divided into two camps: one dominated by the United States, the other by the Soviet Union. The war had so badly damaged Britain and France that their colonial empires eventually unraveled. In Asia, neither the British nor the French were able to restore their prewar empires after the devastating Japanese assault. All over the world, new countries emerging from colonial rule now formed a “Third World” of developing nations. For a number of reasons, World War II strengthened government control of the economy and increased government provision of welfare benefits in most combatant states. The war also prompted revolutionary technological change, with the development of radar and nuclear weapons, and the first mass production of antibiotics and pesticides.
The end of World War II was probably the high point of U.S. world power in the twentieth century. All of the other major combatant powers had suffered huge casualties and massive material damage, both of which the U.S. escaped. The Soviet Union, while fielding a huge military, was devastated. The United States was also in a position to dominate postwar international institutions, including the United Nations (headquartered in New York), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
THE THEMES IN CHAPTER 10
Global interrelatedness. Hitler’s plans to expand German Lebensraum led to conflict throughout Europe. It took an international alliance to defeat the Axis Powers. The Japanese occupation of European colonies in the Pacific theatre during the war contributed to the final destruction of the European empires in Asia and the Pacific.
Identity and difference. Hitler intended to create a state that would include all Germans, even communities that had long been living in other countries. This was a clear manifestation of the growth and spread of racist ideologies in the twentieth century.
Rise of the mass society. The Nazi Party mobilized and coordinated German society to an extent previously unknown, especially using techniques of mass propaganda. All the combatant nations in World War II mobilized the home front politically and economically during the war. This led to a strengthening of the welfare state.
Technology versus nature. New weapons were deployed in World War II: nuclear weapons, massive bombing, tanks, aircraft, and submarines. There was also a mass use of pesticides and antibiotics.