Second World War
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
In this assignment you should learn to identify and discuss the following:
- Hindenburg, Helium, League of Nations, Appeasement Lebensraum, Non-
Aggression Pact, Battle of Britain pact, Isolationists, French Indo-China,
Embargo, Pearl Harbor, Nanking, Sack, Holocaust, Death Camp, Hiroshima and
You should also be able to discuss the following topics:
- What were some of the causes of the fascist powers' aggression?
- In what ways were the fascist powers "dependent?"
- Why the United States and Japan come into conflict?
- Why could the fascist powers not be appeased?
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
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
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
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