This war, that took place less than 100 years ago, that irrevocably changed the socio-political alignment of virtually every single nation, whose impacts are felt still today, is one of the most studied events in human history.

Curiously enough, for all of the focus on it, there is substantial disagreement over which event actually started the global conflict, and when.

One prominent British historian, Alan J. P. Taylor posits that the European and Sino-Japanese wars started at the same time and merged in 1941.

Antony Beevor, another British historian, pins the actual starting date of this global conflict to the battles fought by Japan against Mongol and Russian forces along the Russian border, at Khalkhyn Gol, that started in May 1939.

One last, prominent postulate dates the start of the second World War to the second round of fighting between Italy and Ethiopia that started on October 3rd, 1935.

At that time, many countries were still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and thoughts of war most likely came second to survival and rebuilding economies.

Seen from that perspective, some might think it odd that the one European country that suffered the most from the Depression would author the bloodiest war of all time.

Conventional analysis puts the actual start of the Second World War in Europe on September 1st, 1939, the date of Poland’s invasion by Nazi forces.

That event and date will be our springboard as we launch ourselves into the examination of tactics and weaponry, alliances and innovations that cost so many lives and changed humankind forever.

Prelude to the Second World War

The League of Nations meets in 1930
To prevent another world war, the League of Nations gathered in 1930 to discuss disarmament and collective security Source: Wikipedia

The end of the first World War left Germany tactically isolated because all of its allies either surrendered or capitulated. Furthermore, just about every nation on Earth had declared war on Germany before the cessation of those hostilities.

Thus we can imagine that nobody was in a hurry to align themselves with German forces. Besides, everybody was too busy recovering from the double hits of war and economic depression.

Left to their own devices, Germany’s president placed a man formerly convicted of treason in the chancellery, someone who had radical worldviews and intended to promulgate them – whether the world liked it or not.

Adolf Hitler pulled his country out of the Great Slump though a three-pronged approach that included rearmament – the single biggest economic booster to the country’s coffers.

Clearly, that alone should have been an indication of his intent!

He also ‘programmed’ children as young as 10 into Nazi ideology through compulsory membership in Hitler Youth groups. Later, they would be drafted into military service.

By no means should anyone believe that the globe was conflict-free between world wars; smaller skirmishes flared with astounding regularity during those 11 years.

Thus it would be understandable that, while Germany remained reviled, the world’s focus was not necessarily on its manoeuvering at all times.

This is a critical aspect of developments of the war in Europe the would shape postwar policy and politics for years to come.

Elsewhere in the world...

  • The Russian Civil War, a raged for five years (1917-22)

  • The Finnish civil war lasted just under a year (1918)

  • The Polish border conflict carried on for decades against the Czechs

  • The War of the Insane in Indochina took up most France’s military might and money, followed shortly thereafter by the Franco-Syrian War (1920)

By no means were only European lands so embroiled. However, our abbreviated list shows that all of Germany’s neighbours were otherwise engaged; nobody had the resources to monitor German goings-on.

What about Great Britain during that interwar period?

We had our own troubles: the Malabar Uprising, the Ikhwan Revolt, the Cyprus Revolt...

All told, hardly anyone raised an eyebrow when Germany annexed Austria. That mild reaction possibly led Hitler to believe he could simply take any land he wanted, through political bullying or by force.

Those same tactics were evident when the Crown attempted to maintain control of the American colonies, some 300 years before...

People took shelter from the bombing in tube stations
During the London Blitz, tube stations served as air raid shelters Source: Wikipedia

The European Theater

After several false flag incidents along the German-Polish border, the actual invasion of Poland took place in the form of a battle. Polish forces held out for seven days against a multi-pronged assault that included naval warfare.

Great Britain immediately served Germany with an ultimatum to cease all military activity; 48 hours later, France, Australia and New Zealand joined the UK in declaring war against Germany because no reply to the ultimatum was given.

Although none of those allies provided direct support to Poland, they set up a naval blockade intended to limit supply routes, and thus the war. Germany responded by attacking the various fleets with submarines, kicking off the Battle of the Atlantic.

On land, once the Wehrmacht reached Warsaw, Russia entered Poland from the east. They did not consider that an invasion, reasoning that Poland had fallen and therefore was up for grabs.

After dividing Poland with Russia, Hitler extended an offer of peace to France and the UK but insisted that Poland would remain under German an Soviet control. The French and British unanimously rejected those terms.

Were it not for bad weather, Hitler’s attack on France would have been immediate.

His troops circumvented the Maginot line in May of 1940. Total surrender came just six weeks later.

Where was the French fighting spirit so evident at the Battle of Waterloo?

Meanwhile, Russia, seemingly emboldened by Nazi audacity, swiftly annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Finns were not so keen on Russian invasion; they fought mightily and ended their conflict with minimum casualties.

You might think that Russia’s emulation of Nazi tactics would lead to an alliance but they could not agree on salient points an ultimately turned on one another.

That left Germany fighting a two-front war with a lone ally.

The Hitler-Mussolini bromance was founded on their mutual desire to have the entire world submit to their leadership so they imagined a Berlin-to-Rome axis around which global policy would revolve.

The name Axis Powers is derived from that imaginary line.

Want to learn more about what life was like in Nazi Germany?

War in the Pacific

Out of fear of becoming colonised by Western powers, as China had been, and a need for raw resources not found on its archipelago, Japan was intent on dominating the Pacific.

To that end, Japanese forces had invaded China two years before the war in Europe had begun although neither country had formally declared war on the other.

The Japanese then went further abroad, launching surprise attacks on European colonies: Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

From there, with their aircraft carriers and fleets of aeroplanes, it was no great stretch to engage the United States through a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese managed something even Winston Churchill couldn’t do...

Whereas the Americans had been supporting Allied war efforts through civilian and monetary contributions, Japan’s attack on their Pacific outpost forced their hand: they were now compelled to join in the fighting alongside the Allied Powers.

The Big Three meet in Potsdam to align the world
Newly-elected British Prime Minister Clement Attlee alongside American president Truman and Soviet leader Stalin in Potsdam Source: Wikipedia, via American National Archives

World War II: Conclusions

The Battle of Midway proved decisive but the end of Japanese aggression came only after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese signed the formal surrender on September 2nd, 1945.

Although Hitler’s death on April 30th, 1945 is generally considered the end of hostilities in Europe, Germany capitulated in an unconditional surrender on May 8th.

And, for years afterwards, many countries lived under austerity measures while rebuilding their cities, their economy; their lives...

In essence, the bloodiest war in history comes down to two factions, the Allies and the Axis powers consisting of Germany, Italy and Japan, duking it out for supremacy at the cost of millions of casualties.

Not just the ones who perished in bombing raids and in concentration camps, as dark a stain on humanity as they were, but those who suffered under Mussolini’s fascist regime and those who perished in the Nanking massacre.

Lessons learned: Germany, having caused both world wars, was not to be left unsupervised.

The Potsdam Conference determined that the French, British and American armed forces would occupy the country and they did so for the next 45 years. The seat of power, Berlin, would also be divided into four sectors.

The Soviets, a member of that alliance, were also charged with occupying German territory.

However, they took that measure too far, claiming fully half of Berlin along with the share of Germany assigned them at the Yalta Conference and promptly annexed it as their own territory.

That caused The Allies to turn against the Soviets, ushering in the Cold War.

Also as a result of this second global war, the Allied powers joined up to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949. Today, this defence pact includes 29 nations.

This is obviously a very simplistic breakdown, along lines of power and regions of influence that completely omits the North African campaign, the Italian campaign, the Mediterranean and Middle East campaign...

Nor does it say anything about the giant leaps in science, technology and military intelligence gathering.

  • Alan Turing improved on Enigma, a code-breaking machine that greatly advanced the field of cryptanalysis

  • The tank, primarily a support of infantry troops in WW1, became a main component of ground fighting

    • Naturally, that led to more powerful guns, capable of destroying tanks.

  • Ernest Rutherford split the atom in 1917 but it is Enrico Fermi who is credited with the creation of the atomic bomb.

  • Women contributed heavily toward the war effort; even today, Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of female empowerment.

Out of the ashes came a lot of good... but what a terrible heap of ashes the second World War was!

Read more about historic events that changed the flavour of politics and economics around the world...

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