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"If Hitler invaded hell,
I would make at least a
favorable reference to the devil
in the House of Commons,"
Winston Churchill


World War II

World War II (1939-1945) was the largest armed conflict in human history. It was actually three related wars, the Western Front contest between Germany and the UK and USA, the Great Patriotic War fought between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Pacific War, fought between Japan and China, later joined by the United States.

The Axis had no chance of defeating the Allies. The United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China outnumbered Germany, Japan, Italy, and their few stooges by five to one and outproduced them by a much greater ratio.

Ranging over six continents and all the world's oceans, the war caused an estimated 50 million military and civilian deaths, including those of 6 million Jews. Global in scale and in its repercussions, World War II created a new world at home and abroad. Among its major results were the beginning of the nuclear era, increased pressure to decolonize the Third World, and the advent of the Cold War. The war also ended America's relative isolation from the rest of the world and resulted in the creation of the United Nations. Domestically, the war ended the Great Depression as hundreds of thousands of people, many of them women, went into the defense industries. At the same time, African Americans made significant strides toward achieving their political, economic and social rights.

The roots of World War II, which eventually pitted Germany, Japan, and Italy (the Axis) against the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union (the Allies), lay in the militaristic ideologies and expansionist policies of Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. The weak response of the European democracies to fascist aggression and American isolationism allowed the Axis powers to gain the upper hand initially.

Germany, Italy, and Japan embarked on an unchecked series of invasions during the late 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini supported the Spanish Falangists in their successful civil war against the "Loyalist" Spanish government (1937-39). Although many Europeans and North Americans considered the Spanish Civil War an opportunity to destroy Fascism, the United States, Great Britain, and France remained neutral; only Russia supported the Loyalists.

The military generally recognized that the prospects of peace in Europe were doubtful. The Luftwaffe was, therefore, instructed to prepare for war with a target date of 1943. The guidance received from Hitler consistently led the senior military leaders to believe that war was not imminent. As late as July 1939 Hitler informed Adm Erich Raeder no war was at hand, and Hitler further reinforced this thought in a separate discussion with Milch when he confided "that recently in Rome, Mussolini had stated, 'War is inevitable, but we shall try to postpone it until 1942'. Hitler reassured Milch that the Duce's fear of war breaking out even then was quite mistaken.

To the shock of those who admired Russia for its active opposition to Fascism, Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact in August 1939.

The vast majority of the fighting in September 1939 occurred near the Polish-German border, and was conducted by marching or horse-drawn infantry, which made up 90 percent of the German Army. Additionally, as Poland possessed a small number of obsolete tanks, the Germans opposition consisted almost exclusively of infantry and horse cavalry. The two German mechanized columns, consisting of tanks supported by infantry in trucks, had faced only sporadic opposition, rather than major fighting.

Hitler was concerned about the threat to the east that the Russians imposed. On 02 June 1940 Hitler said, "Now that Britain will presumably be willing to make peace, I will begin the final settlement of scores with Bolshevism."

Although the war began with Nazi Germany's attack on Poland in September, 1939, the United States did not enter the war until after the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Between those two events, President Franklin Roosevelt worked hard to prepare Americans for a conflict that he regarded as inevitable. In November 1939, he persuaded Congress to repeal the arms embargo provisions of the neutrality law so that arms could be sold to France and Britain. After the fall of France in the spring of June 1940, he pushed for a major military buildup and began providing aid in the form of Lend-Lease to Britain, which now stood alone against the Axis powers.

America, Roosevelt declared, must become "the great arsenal of democracy." From then on, America's capacity to produce hundreds of thousands of tanks, airplanes, and ships for itself and its allies proved a crucial factor in Allied success, as did the fierce resistance of the Soviet Union, which had joined the war in June, 1941 after being attacked by Germany. The brilliance of America's military leaders, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who planned and led the attack against the Nazis in Western Europe, and General Douglas MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who led the Allied effort in the Pacific, also contributed to the Allied victory.

With the German invasion of Poland, Einsatzgruppen (special action groups) had been formed to function behind the advancing army, rounding up Jews, aristocrats, professionals and clergy who were taken to natural ravines, pre-dug pits or wooded areas and summarily shot. These actions expanded with the June 1941 invasion of Russia, but this approach was problematic from the beginning. On 20 January 1942 Chief of the Security Police and of the SD, SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Heydrich, convened a conference at Wannsee in Berlin to arrange preparations for the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe. The Wansee Conference settled on of using extermination camps and railroads as the most efficient and preferred logistical mechanisms for would rendering Europe Judenrein (Jew-free).

The Nazis made death a system. It was Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's "final solution" to the "Jewish problem." Jews and other "undesirables" -- Gypsies, homosexuals and anyone who disagreed with Hitler -- were moved to the concentration camps. Those who could work in the slave labor camps did so until they died. Those who could not work went straight to the gas chambers and were murdered. Hundreds of concentration camps stretched across Germany and Eastern Europe. The largest was Auschwitz, in Poland. Established in 1940, it was really a series of camps, including concentration, extermination and forced-labor camps. More than one million people were murdered at Auschwitz alone, nine of 10 of them Jewish. The four largest gas chambers could each kill 2,000 people at one time. Nordhausen was the site of a concentration camp that supplied workers to underground factories that produced the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rockets. From 1943 until 1945, 60,000 prisoners worked in these factories. Of these, 20,000 died from various causes including starvation, fatigue and execution.

In May 1942 the Germans adopted a policy that gave the Russian Front first priority for troops, and garrisoned the west with those who, because of wounds or other disabilities, were unable to endure the rigors imposed by the Russian front. Over the year that followed, twenty-two infantry and six armored divisions left France for the Eastern Front, along with the best equipment and men from the divisions that stayed behind. They were replaced by soldiers who were over-age or convalescing from wounds and by units composed of Russian, Italian, and Polish defectors. A few first-line units were present on the Western Front, but most of the rest had been shattered in the east and required replacements and refitting. The weapons they used were often leftovers.

From early 1942 through much of 1943, the Grand Alliance was on the defensive. Even after the Soviet Union began to advance after its victory at Stalingrad, the Western powers were unable to establish a major second front in Western Europe. Whether the alliance could hold together, or whether the Soviet Union might make a separate peace, was uncertain.

Among the war's major turning points for the United States were the Battle of Midway (1942). But it was not until 1943 that the American and British forces would invade Italy. Then, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Americans and British invaded Western Europe on the beaches of Normandy, France almost one year after the German army began its retreat from Russia.

An assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July failed. By the winter of 1944, the Allies had turned the tide of the Second World War. Allied forces had liberated the Italian peninsula and were gaining ground in France and the Low Countries. By mid September 1944, the ground attack had reached the Rhine and some bombers were switched back to strategic bombing of Germany.

In mid-December 1944, in a desperate attempt to halt this steady advance, Adolf Hitler launched a furious and massive counteroffensive. On December 16, 29 German divisions flooded the Allied line in the Ardennes Forest region of Belgium and Luxembourg. The Battle of the Bulge had begun. Facing superior enemy numbers, rugged terrain, and bitter weather, the American troops at first fell back. But their determination to defeat the Nazis never wavered. For 6 weeks, US soldiers responded to fierce German offensives with equally determined counterattacks, refusing to succumb to the Nazi onslaught. The siege of Bastogne in Belgium remains an enduring symbol of their indomitable spirit. At that strategic crossroads, a small detachment of the 101st Airborne Division and other attached troops were encircled.

When called upon to surrender by the much larger German force, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe dismissed the demand with his legendary one-word reply: "Nuts." Against all odds, he and his men held firm during the siege until reinforcements arrived and helped halt the German offensive at a critical point in the Battle. At the end of the Battle of the Bulge, some 19,000 Americans lay dead, and thousands more were wounded, captured, or missing in action.

By late January of 1945, the American and Allied counterattack had succeeded in pushing back the Nazi forces, eliminating the threat of further German offensives and ultimately sealing the fate of the Nazi regime. The Battle of the Bulge could not halt the Allied advances on both the Eastern and Western fronts. In January 1945 the Russians mounted their greatest offensive of the war. After Hitler committed suicide on 30 April German forces began surrending in May, and 08 May 1945 was proclaimed V-E Day - Victory in Europe.

On August 6, a US plane, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. The bombs destroyed large sections of both cities, with massive loss of life. On August 8, the USSR declared war on Japan and attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria. On August 14, Japan agreed to the terms set at Potsdam. On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered. Americans were relieved that the bomb hastened the end of the war. The realization of the full implications of nuclear weapons awesome destructiveness would come later.

In November 1945 at Nuremberg, Germany, the criminal trials of 22 Nazi leaders, provided for at Potsdam, took place. Before a group of distinguished jurists from Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States, the Nazis were accused not only of plotting and waging aggressive war but also of violating the laws of war and of humanity in the systematic genocide, known as the Holocaust, of European Jews and other peoples. The trials lasted more than 10 months. Twenty-two defendants were convicted, 12 of them sentenced to death. Similar proceedings would be held against Japanese war leaders.

On October 24, the United Nations came into existence following the meeting of representatives of 50 nations in San Francisco, California. The constitution they drafted outlined a world organization in which international differences could be discussed peacefully and common cause made against hunger and disease. In contrast to its rejection of U.S. membership in the League of Nations after World War I, the U.S. Senate promptly ratified the U.N. Charter by an 89 to 2 vote. This action confirmed the end of the spirit of isolationism as a dominating element in American foreign policy.



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