World War 2 Facts
At World War 2 (WW2), Why did the Allies win the war and the Axis states lose? How were victory and defeat defined by participants? What role was played by factors of production, moral commitment, planned or unplanned attrition, as well as by the personalities of democratic leaders and dictators alike and specific policies leaders followed or abjured? What did the major powers hope to gain from pursuing certain military and political strategies and not others? Were their choices wise and prudent, or reckless and self-destructive, or inescapable, given contemporary knowledge and options as well as known outcomes? What effects did the war have on minor participants, neutral states, and ordinary people whose lives it pounded and uprooted or utterly destroyed? To the degree possible in a general work such as this, I tried to weave in a sense of the extreme clash of will and force that characterizes all war, of the blood and smashed bone and suffering that always attends real war as waged by real people.
In a deep sense, World War 2 was a resumption of mass violence after “an armistice of twenty years,” as Maréchal Ferdinand Foch accurately predicted in 1919 would be the fate of the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. The greatest war the world has ever known, or fears to know, was closely linked to that other stupendous clash of nations, of will and arms, economies and technology, of mass emotion and mass armies, called the “Great War” by the generation that fought it. Not least of these connections was a sense of horror and exhaustion among those who waged the first world war of the 20th century. Too often forgotten, however, are accompanying feelings of triumph and vindication among those who won the war. Instead, near-caricature images portray World War I as an utterly futile conflict on all sides, a dreary slog of mud-splattered lambs led to their slaughter by abysmally inept and dull-witted generals. Better known is that dread of more war and satisfaction with the peace on the winning side was opposed by a deep desire for revenge and a revolutionary overthrow of the Great War’s outcome by many of those in the losing camp. Dissatisfaction in support of violence was even felt by populations in some countries, most notably Italy and Japan, which numbered among the victors of 1918.
Historians point to many other connections between the world wars: German and other national dissatisfaction with the Versailles system and international order; competitive, militant nationalisms among a host of injured or newly minted countries that nursed real and imagined grievances across several generations; conflicting imperial ideologies and interests; unresolved territorial issues; the growing capacity for total mobilization of whole societies and economies for industrialized war; emergence of new military technologies accompanied by aggressive, offensive fighting doctrines; and ever more clearly as time recedes, the path to genocide that is traceable from the Ottoman slaughter of Armenians in 1915 to the Shoah, the mass murder of European Jews, and to multiple other ethnic holocausts and horrors of the early 1940s.
The persistent conflicts of the first half of the 20th century encouraged erection of “war states” by several Great Powers, both in response to World War I and in preparation for what became WW2. Germany and the Soviet Union, and in some measure Japan, mobilized tens of millions to war and reorganized their economies and societies in readiness to fight with radical drive to impose their political and ideological will on enemies. Latterly, and to a degree neither they nor their opponents foresaw, after first disarming voluntarily to levels that matched the forced disarmament of Germany, Britain and the United States proved even more capable of organizing their peoples and market economies for war. Under pressures of making total war, many countries underwent root social and governmental reorganization deemed necessary by elites to harness national or imperial economic capabilities. Multiple societies witnessed new commitments in the scale and depth of public loyalty and sacrifice demanded from citizens, a call to arms and workplace, to supreme effort for the nation, reinforced by intense propaganda that aimed to inculcate ideological motivation and emotional commitment among mass populations. There was also a great deal of raw coercion.
There were some continuities, but more important discontinuities, in military lessons drawn from World War I about operational as against merely tactical mobility. New offensive doctrines were introduced by all sides that strove to overcome profound defensive advantages and quicken the pace of battle. Not all were successful, as realities of industrial attrition meant that by 1945 the killing rate in battle exceeded that of the Great War. At the same time, old ideas about sea power and armies on the move had to be adjusted to incorporate new ideas and realities of air power. Everywhere, there was newfound devotion of government and science to weapons development. That process meant the means of destruction available were vastly greater by 1945 than when the war began, more than a single technological generation ahead of what planners anticipated just a few years before it started. Armies and navies were subjected to protracted attritional combat for which few had planned and none were really prepared, even as military leaders searched for alternate strategies that might provide a quicker route to “decisive victory.” Everyone learned better utilization of combined arms and radio-linked command and control systems so that more powerful killing machines became more efficient as well as more numerous in late-war battles. Accompanying rising military capabilities was a deterioration in moral and operational restraint, until WW2 became a true total war.
WW2 was more truly global in its causes and theaters of extraordinary violence, and perhaps in lasting demographic and geopolitical consequences, than the preceding world war. It had a pronounced and ultimate character as a war not just among opposing national militaries, but as a “race” war: a confl ict so deep in the ambition of hatred that some parties sought not just permanent political and economic domination, but biological extermination of their enemies. Perhaps the most important difference between the world wars was that World War 2 was fought not mainly to adjust national borders or gain imperial provinces or colonies. Right from the start, it was waged by Nazi Germany as a Vernichtungskrieg (“war of annihilation”), a war of “race and blood” beyond the normal clash of nations, wherein whole peoples and civilizations were marked off to disappear from the face of the Earth. Some very nearly did.
On the German side, WW2 was a total war in ends sought from the first day to the last. Dedication to total victory by any means did not mark, at least at first, the goals pursued or methods employed by most other participants. Neither the French nor British began the fight dedicated to total destruction of the German enemy. Far from it; the RAF spent much of the first winter of the war dropping leaflets instead of bombs on the Ruhr. That changed starting in mid-1940, as progressive decisions were made to smash Germany’s war production from the air, then to destroy its cities and morale by targeting its people for bombing. Despite the horrors of Shanghai and Nanjing, the Japanese war of aggression underway in China was essentially a traditional war of conquest of territory and for regional geopolitical and economic dominance. Once fighting in Asia and the Pacific merged with war in Europe from the end of 1941, however, those theaters also took on the general character and methods of total war. Ultimately, the main Axis partners accelerated into climactic cults of dominance and death, while the major Allied powers turned away from pity to deliberate targeting of civilians for vengeance sake or to carpet a quicker path to victory.