Soviet soldiers during the siege of Stalingrad in 1943 (Photo: RIA Novosti, archive)
World War II was a mid-20th-century global conflict in which participated most of the world’s countries, including all the world’s superpowers. It was the largest and bloodiest conflict, killing between 70 and 85 million people, mostly civilians in the Soviet Union and China. World War II included massacres, genocide, the Holocaust, strategic bombing, and the only use of nuclear weapons.
It directly involved over 100 million people in more than 30 countries, divided into two major military alliances: the Axis powers led by Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the Allies with the United Kingdom, France, the United States and the Soviet Union at the helm. Although it officially began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the subsequent British and French declaration of war on Germany, the clash had been imminent for some time. With the victory of the fascists and Benito Mussolini in Italy in the mid-1920s and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, both countries sought ways to expand their respective territories and change the political map in Europe created after World War I. Japan and China had been at war since 1937. Germany first legally regained the province of Saarland, annexing the Rhineland and the province of Sudetenland shortly after. This was followed by the takeover of Austria (German: anschluss) in 1938 and the annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia and parts of Lithuania. By concluding a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and agreeing on the partition of Poland in the summer of 1939, Hitler and Germany were ready for war.
Poland capitulated by the end of September and was split between Germany and the Soviet Union. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, forcing the Baltic countries to sign the alliance, only to annex them a few months later, along with parts of Romania. In the spring of 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, the first surrendering within hours. France was attacked in May via Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Paris fell on June 14, 1940. France claimed an armistice eight days later, which divided the country into German and Italian occupation zones and the officially neutral Vichy France, Hitler’s rump state. The Battle of Britain, a series of air attacks aimed at destroying Britain’s military and economic forces before the very invasion, began in July. At the same time, Italy occupied Malta and invaded Greece. In September 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, thus formally creating the Axis powers. They were joined by Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and formally by Yugoslavia, occupied shortly after.
Fearing a possible alliance between Great Britain and the Soviets, Hitler called on Stalin to sign the pact. When the Soviets asked for large parts of territory under the occupation of the Axis, Hitler began preparing for the invasion that began in the summer of 1941. The goal of Hitler’s attack was to suppress the Soviets to Asia, eliminate them as a military superpower, destroy communism, and liberate a large Russian plain for settlement of the Aryan race. Although the Axis troops advanced into Russia’s interior, they failed to occupy Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and overcome the Soviet forces that managed to regroup. Blietzkrig in Russia turned into a long, exhausting conflict that benefited the Soviets, while Hitler had to deploy forces on two European fronts.
Although the United States remained neutral at the beginning of the war, relations with imperialist Japan were quickly deteriorating. The coordinated Japanese attacks on the US fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the Philippines, the invasion of Thailand and the Malay Peninsula, and the attack on Hong Kong in December 1941, forced the United States into war on the Allies’ side.
In early 1942, the Allied Big Four – the United States, USSR, China, and the United Kingdom, together with 22 smaller states signed a joint action agreement to unconditionally defeat Germany and its accomplices, and a war plan was agreed. The first objective was to expel the Axis powers from the occupied territories in Africa and to create the preconditions for a major invasion of occupied France. During 1942, the advance of the Axis on all fronts came to a halt, while in 1943 the Allies began to suppress their troops. Japanese dominance in the Pacific was halted by the Battle of Midway in the summer of 1942, Germans in Russia failed to occupy Stalingrad (Volgograd) and suffered heavy losses in 1943, while the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942 turned the tide of the war in Africa, from where the Axis troops withdrew in mid-1943. In the same year, the United States began the heavy bombardment of Germany, and in September the Allies disembarked in Italy, which capitulated soon after.
The planned invasion of France occurred a year later. On June 22, 1944, Allied forces landed in Normandy. On the same day, the Soviets launched a major offensive on the Eastern Front, eventually pushing the Germans beyond western Ukraine and eastern Poland. In September, the Germans withdrew from Yugoslavia, Greece, and Albania in front of the advancing Red Army. The US continued to suppress Japan in the Pacific and by the summer of 1944 had occupied enough far-off islands to launch airstrikes on the Japanese mainland.
In February, Allies entered Germany, advancing from east, west, and Italy. The US and Soviet forces met on the Elbe River on April 25, while Berlin fell a few days later. Italian duce, Benito Mussolini, was killed by Italian partisans while Fürer committed suicide two days later, on April 30, 1945. Germans signed total, unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, thus ending World War II in Europe. Japan refused to sign the surrender, believing it could negotiate better terms, prompting the US to drop two atomic bombs in August, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan capitulated a week later, on August 15th. The surrender itself was signed on September 2, 1945, which also marked the official end of the bloodiest conflict in human history.
World War II changed the political and social structure of the world. Its effects on the economies of the warring countries were far-reaching. To prevent further conflicts of similar magnitude, the United Nations, the successor to the former League of Nations, was established. Although on the same side during the war, the United States and the USSR soon launched an arms race and issued threats that led to the nearly half-century-long Cold War. Europe, hit the hardest by war and devastation, with its economy destroyed, has turned to recovery and stronger political integration as one way of preventing future wars in its territory. In addition to the political and economic consequences, World War II brought unprecedented horrors and crimes against humanity, in the form of genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Europe, unprecedented casualties of civilians while bombing non-military targets, concentration camps, use of nuclear weapons, but also the first war crimes trials shortly after the war.