Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of:

Second World War





In this assignment you should learn to identify and discuss the following:

You should also be able to discuss the following topics:

You might also consider how the supposedly civilized Western nations were capable of such inhumanity. The people of the 1920's would not have believed it possible, just as people of the 1990's probably do not believe it possible of themselves. Is there any reason to believe that modern nations might not be quite capable of this same sort of savagery?


What caused the Second World War? The most obvious answer would be that the aggressiveness of the fascist powers and their attempts to expand were the cause, but then one would ask what had caused the aggressiveness and expansionism of the fascist countries. The answer to that question might be that aggressiveness and a drive for greater wealth and power were fundamental to the fascist philosophy, but then one might ask why people had adopted a philosophy that favored aggression and expansion. This constant questioning of the obvious might seem a bit silly, but a refusal to be content with the obvious is the first step toward discovering the more basic causes of events. In the case of the Second World War, the causes for the outbreak of fighting are more complex than would seem at first glance.

In the first place, the major fascist powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan, and all three were rather late entrants into "the family of nations." Germany had consisted of a number small and independent German states, the remnants of what had once been the Holy Roman Empire. Since the early eighteenth century, the rulers of the kingdom of Prussia had sought to dominate and unify these states but it was not until 1870 that they succeeded. Several small states, including the Papal States and other survivals of the Middle Ages, comprised Italy, and it was not until the 1860's that a band of Italian nationalists toppled all of these states except one and made the kingdom of Italy possible. Japan had been opened to Westernization in the 1850's and had embarked on a program of modernization in the 1860's. Although the progress of the Japanese was remarkable, it was not until the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905 that the Japanese empire began to be recognized as one of the "Western" powers.

The point is that none of these countries had been able to participate in the great days of Western empire building in the first half of the nineteenth century. Germany had managed to secure some African colonies and some scattered possessions in the Pacific, but these had been taken away as a result of the German defeat in the First World War. Additionally, parts of Germany itself, areas rich in coal, had been given to the newly-formed nations of Poland and Czechoslovakia or occupied and exploited by the victors, particularly France. Italy had taken Libya and Somalia, but little else. Although Italy had been among the victorious powers in the First World War, the nation had suffered great losses and received little in the way of compensation. Japan was a somewhat different case. In 1895, the Japanese seized the islands of Hainan and Formosa from the Chinese; in 1905, they acquired control over Manchuria by defeating the Russians; they annexed Korea; and, during the First World War, they took over German trade settlements in China as well as some several Pacific islands. Each of these powers had the same weaknesses in that they lacked petroleum and rubber. They were many other raw materials for which they did not have secure access, but oil and rubber were essential to an industrial power. As long as they lacked these resources, they were under the control of those who possessed them. A sense of forced inferiority and dependence fueled those emotions that underlay fascism.

One example might illustrate this situation. German had pioneered the development of lighter-than-air transportation and, in the 1930's, the giant Hindenburg was an object of national pride. It was a zeppelin (like the Goodyear blimp, but with a rigid framework) built for passenger traffic. It had flown around the world and, by the mid-1930's, was making regular transatlantic flights faster than the fastest of the great ocean liners. The only problem was that it was dangerous. Its lifting power was supplied by highly inflammable hydrogen gas. The only non-flammable gas that could have been substituted for the hydrogen was helium, and the United States controlled the only sources of helium in the world. The Germans asked to buy sufficient helium to accommodate their air-liners, but the United States, deciding that helium might be of military value and should be conserved, refused. When the Hindenburg exploded in flames while docking in New Jersey, it was a national tragedy for the Germans, and the Germans knew why it had happened. This tragedy did not occur until 1937, however, and is only an illustrative example and not a cause.

An important factor, particularly in the rising aggressiveness of Germany was the fact that most of the world powers were not anxious to curb the fascists. The terrible losses of the First World War had made many people particularly disinclined to face another conflict, and a general sense of disillusionment among the democratic countries convinced many leaders that their people would not gladly go to war as their father had done only twenty years earlier. Beside that, the capitalist democracies saw the fascists as the enemies of the communists and were not unhappy to see an "anti-communist bulwark" being built along the borders of the Soviet Union. Then, too, the League of Nations, an international organization not unlike today's United Nations, proved to be too weak and vacillating to take a stand against fascist aggression once it had begun. Generally, speaking, there was a tendency to give the fascists, particularly Hitler, what they wanted in the hopes that they would finally be satisfied. This policy, called appeasement failed in the long run and only encouraged the fascists to greater and greater demands. There were, of course, many other causes for the fascist powers' desire to expand, but they themselves claimed that they were driven by the need for what Adolph Hitler called Lebensraum, more territory for an expanding population and access to the raw materials that the other powers enjoyed. In short, the fascist powers desired empires similar to those of France, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Most particularly, they wanted access to sources of oil and rubber.

Relations grew steadily more tense until the Fall of 1939, when -- to the amazement of much of the world -- Nazi Germany and Communist Russia signed a non-aggression pact, pledging not to attack each other. Germany then invaded Poland from the West and Russia invaded from the East. France and Great Britain had pledged to defend Poland and so war broke out. The Germans soon gained control of France, but failed to gained air superiority over England in the famous Battle of Britain in the Fall of 1940. Much like Napoleon a century and a half earlier, Hitler then turned and, in the Spring of 1941, attacked Russia.

Many Americans were opposed to the United States taking sides in this conflict. The isolationists argued that America was protected by the oceans and had no business intervening in European squabbles. Still others remembered how weapons manufacturers and other great companies had made tremendous sums of money from the First World War and suspected that "Big Business" was maneuvering the United States into another profitable enterprise. In the final result, however, the United States had little choice in the matter. When France had fallen to Germany, Japan had begun to move into French Indo-China, the area that we now know as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Indo-China had been France's source of rubber and was thought to be rich in oil. The United States government had no desire to see Japan in possession of its own stocks of these essential resources and so threatened to place an embargo on these goods, that is, refusing to sell any rubber or petroleum products to Japan. An embargo is generally regarded as an act tantamount o war, and the Japanese responded in perhaps the only way they could have responded. On Sunday, 7 December 1941, Japanese naval aircraft attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands.

The war itself was far too great and complex to cover in such a short space, but one thing should be said. Although Americans focus their attention on the war in Western Europe, the European war was primarily a desperate struggle between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, one in which the USSR may have lost as many as fifty million dead and in which the most highly-developed portion of the country was completely devastated. The United States carried the burden of the war in the Pacific against Japan, and it was a bloody business at best. Nevertheless, the United States did not suffer anything remotely similar to that borne by the Russians, and the United States ended the war a richer and more populous country that when it had entered the conflict.

The Second World War was distinguished by a savagery and lack of humanity that people living before the conflict would have thought impossible among civilized states. There are too many instances of this sort of thing to cover, so three alone might suffice as representative. When Japanese troops took the city of Nanking, the temporary capital of China, the city was turned over to the troops by their officers to be sacked, an old custom whereby victorious troops were simply turned loose to do whatever they wanted with the citizens of a city who resisted too stoutly. The imperial troops killed some 300,000 Chinese during the sack, often using the most barbaric torture.

Then there was the Holocaust. Many people thought that Hitler's venomous attacks on the Jews had simply been the traditional rhetoric of extremist German politicians, much as American politicians in the South were once expected to promise "to keep the Blacks in their place." Hitler meant it, however, and some six million Jews were exterminated under the most brutal conditions in scientifically-designed death camps. Of course, the Nazis did not confine themselves with exterminating only Jews. They also tried to wipe out Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, the mentally retarded, and others. They confined Russian prisoners of war in great camps and simply left them without food, shelter or medical attention.

There was also the American use of the atomic bomb to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a way, public attention is misdirected toward this particular action. The British and Americans had developed bombing techniques capable of destroying entire cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians with the use of conventional explosives, and many more women and children died in such raids than in the cities destroyed by atomic attack. The attacks were, nevertheless, such as to call into question whatever the people of the time might have meant by "civilization."

The savagery of the war apparently knew no bounds, and many more instances of a lack of humanity could be cited. Perhaps one more will do not harm, since it is one that passed unnoticed at the time and is not much remembered now. In 1944, a Japanese force had made its way from Burma into British India. At the same time, a famine broke out in India that could have been alleviated by a re-routing of transport. The British were too involved with the fighting to pay any attention to such a matter, though, and something between two and four million Indians starved to death.



The Rise of Nazi Germany discusses Adolph Hitler's rise to power, while another article by the same author addresses the Invasion of Poland


You can read about the explosion of the airship Hindenburg and about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I have not placed The Rape of Nanking, or pictures of the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany among the required assignments because you may want to think for a moment before viewing these pictures. They are very powerful and may give you nightmares, but it is important to remember what human beings can do to one another. Hiroshima is a detailed account of the building, delivery, and effect of the atomic bomb and is chilling in its way.

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
12 January 1998
Lawrence KS