Specter of Armageddon; Legacy of the Second World War The second world war was the defining event, or rather, series of events of the twentieth century, it would consume fifty to eighty million lives both military and civilian in only a short six years. Changing the course of human history and determining the entire fate of humanity as a species, World War II is one of the most important and influential events in history.
Being the largest and most costly conflict in human history, the war saw the reorganizing of various ethnicities in wide scale ethnic cleansings, cultural and ideological shifts, the decline of the colonial powers, the development of numerous technologies, and the dividing of the globe behind the Iron Curtain. To understand the second world war, one must understand the first. In 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated by the Serbian conspiracy group, The Black Hand. Austria-Hungary would go on to demand reparations from Serbia, the event spiraling into a world conflict and tangle of alliances. The result of the war, the Treaty of Versailles, would set the stage for the second world war. Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine, all of its colonies, its eastern territories in Poland, and most importantly, its pride. Austria-Hungary was entirely divided, and Russia’s monarchy would fall to a communist revolution. Shortly after the war the Great Depression would sweep across the globe, creating the conditions necessary for fascism to rise in Europe.
Interwar Germany, commonly referred to as the Weimar Republic, was in a terrible economic and identity crisis. The Treaty of Versailles had forcefully removed the nation’s monarchy and replaced it with an unpopular democracy. The treaty also leveled heavy reparations on Germany, strangling its economy even further under the Great Depression. Such heavy economic hardships allowed for the growth of subversive political movements, such as the Bavarian communists, and more successfully, the Nazi party.
Lead by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party restructured Germany into a fascist dictatorship, and dug the nation out of its economic depression through rapid military industrialization, all while violently silencing any opposition. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Japan was plotting the expansion of its imperial holdings. Japan was a highly militarized society, the military being the head of state with the emperor as a mere figurehead. Being the first nation in Asia to westernize by adopting European technologies, Japan was able to quickly industrialize and expand into a colonial empire, holding Korea, Manchuria, and various Pacific Islands such as Iwo Jima and Saipan. Japan dreamed of forming an “East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, a league of nations united under Japan to resist Western influence.To achieve this, Japan had piece by piece viciously conquered land it viewed should fall within the sphere, and by 1937 it would invade China in the second Sino-Japanese war. Back in Europe, Germany made increasingly ambitious demands for annexation of surrounding territory, first Austria, then the Sudetenland, and then the entirety of Czechoslovakia. Unchallenged by the Allies due to lingering scars and fears from the first world war, in 1939 Germany would make its final of such demands during the Danzig Crisis.
Unwilling to yield with French and British guarantees for its independence, Poland would refuse German demands for the Polish Corridor, and would subsequently in September be invaded by Germany from the west, and the Soviet Union in the east, both nations having signed a nonaggression pact agreeing to a partitioning of Poland between the two. While partisan activities would carry on throughout Poland until the end of the war, the nation officially surrendered one month later on October 6th. Britain and France both declared war on Germany when it invaded Poland, but France refused to mount an offensive, overestimating German border defences and believing defence to be the most optimal strategy after the first world war.
Contrasting trench warfare of the 1910’s, the second world war greatly favored the offensive combatant. Along with its reluctance to attack, the French military was stubborn in adopting new technologies such as the radio, which would heavily slow their communications and reaction times to enemy movements. In April of 1940, Germany would invade Denmark and Norway to secure the North Sea and possible staging grounds for amphibious landings in Britain. In May, Germany would invade the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg to open up a northern front against the French. The majority of leaders within Germany, including Hitler himself believed that this move would lead to a refighting of World War I, trenches and all. Some German commanders, such as Erwin Rommel, understood the importance and effectiveness of mobile warfare and often disregarded official orders to halt advances. Using Panzer divisions to great effectiveness, and often great amounts of luck, the Germans would break French defences, taking Paris in mid June and capitulating France by June 22nd. Occupying the Atlantic coast of France, Germany quickly moved its airforce and began a bombing campaign over Britain.
Battling for the skies over the isles, the Luftwaffe, or German air force, would slowly lose air superiority over the island due to faster British production of aircraft and support from their overseas holdings such as Canada. In Northern Africa, Italian and German forces pushed into British Egypt in September with the aim to capture British colonial holdings for Italy such as Cairo and the Sinai Canal which would block British fleets in the east from accessing the Mediterranean. The plan for a naval invasion of Britain itself, called Operation Sealion, would never take place due to the Luftwaffe’s failure to fully secure the English skies, and due to military resources being moved east for the invasion of the Soviet Union.On June 22nd of 1941, Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union in a surprise attack, Operation Barbarossa, quickly taking the Western portions of the nation only to be halted by a Soviet counter offensive in December, stopping the German blitz just out of reach from Moscow. In the Pacific, on December 7th, “a day which will live on in infamy” as it was described by American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States by bombing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in the hopes of crippling the US navy by disabling its aircraft carriers. Unbeknownst to Japanese intelligence, US carriers were not in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack despite being scheduled to. In support of its ally, Germany declared war on the United States shortly after. A giant awakening to the scent of its own blood, the United States would rapidly mobilize, dragging itself from the Great Depression in the process.
After months of Japanese advances and taking of allied holdings in the Pacific, such as the Philippines, the Japanese fleet would be irreparably crippled at the Battle of Midway, and their island hopping campaign halted at Guadalcanal. A second German offensive in June of 1942, code named Operation Blau, would push Soviet forces back to Stalingrad, where both armies would struggle for control of the city for a year until the encirclement and destruction of the entire German Sixth Army. By the end of the year, German and Italian forces would be pushed out from Egypt and Libya, and a Soviet counterattack would come in full force. The Battle of Kursk in July of 1943 would permanently cripple German panzer divisions, and signal the end of any possible future offensives in the east. Shortly after, British and American forces would take Sicily, and begin pushing north into Italy, towards Rome. In September, Italy surrendered, but was occupied by German forces, intent on holding the allied offensive from entering the Alps. In June of 1944, Rome was liberated on the 4th, two days later Allied forces made landings in Normandy during Operation Overlord, and on the 22nd the rapid Soviet assault pushed German forces back to Warsaw. By August, Paris was liberated, and the majority of Belgium was freed from German occupation.
In December Germany launched a counteroffensive called “The Battle of the Bulge” in America, or “Ardennes Two” in Europe. Attempting to retake France and force the Allies to retreat from the European mainland, the German counterattack would be costly and would ultimately fail as the last attempted Axis assault in the West. The United States, having slowly liberated territory from Japan in a campaign of island hopping, finally made landings in the Philippines, an ultimately symbolic gesture which would not shorten the war by any measurable duration. With the turn of the year came the Soviet occupation of Warsaw and pushes into Eastern Prussia and Austria. By April, Berlin would become surrounded by a force of two million men from the Soviet Union. After the suicide of Adolf Hitler, and capture of the city, Germany would surrender on May 7th, 1945, and be split into four occupation zones between the Soviets, French, British and Americans. Japan determined to fight on until the end, and refused to surrender and prepared itself to resist to the last man in hopes of inflicting high casualty rates on the US, and negotiating a more agreeable surrender.
After the vicious and costly fighting for control of Okinawa in May, the United States would reconsider a mainland invasion of Japan. On the sixth of August in a bid to force a Japanese surrender, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and after no response from the Japanese government a second was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Having witnessed the devastation caused by atomic weapons, Japan unconditionally surrendered on the 14th, ending the war. The second world war caused a drastic shift and rearranging of ethnicities across Europe and Asia. As the Soviet Union advanced into Germany itself, German civilians in Hinterpommern, Silesia, and Eastern Prussia fled to the West to avoid the vengeful and violent Soviet armies. Of the two million Germans that lived in these territories before the war, barely two hundred thousand remained by 1945. These areas were granted to Poland after the war in compensation for the Soviet Union’s annexation of Eastern Poland after its occupation. Other nations made concerted efforts to remove German populations after the war, such as Czechoslovakia which expelled three million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland to avoid future German claims on its territory.
In Asia nearly all Japanese colonists who lived in China and Korea were expelled following the liberation of occupied territories. Two hundred and twenty thousand Japanese colonists resided in China and Korea, but eighty thousand would die on their forced return to Japan itself. The most horrific of these ethnic cleansings, the Holocaust, was the industrial extermination of eight million people in Germany by the Nazi party.
Of the eight million, six million were ethnic jews, and the remaining two million were a mix of political prisoners, resistance fighters, slavs, the disabled, and any other groups the Nazi party deemed “lives unworthy of living”. The Holocaust not only lead to the merciless murder of two thirds of all jews in Europe, but after the war millions of the survivors fled the continent to avoid possible future persecution. Some fled to the Americas or stayed in Europe, but the majority moved to the British mandate of Palestine, the original homeland of the Jewish faith, often in spite of British attempts to prevent these migrations. This mass influx of Jewish refugees, coupled with preexisting Jewish colonies lead to the uprising of Jewish populations throughout Palestine, and in 1948 Israel declared itself an independent nation. Shortly after it was invaded by the Five Arab Armies, a coalition of surrounding Islamic nations. Despite being far outnumbered and sustaining heavy casualties, through sheer determination and armaments provided by the United States, Israel defeated the coalition, and has remained an independent power to this day. While other British colonial holdings did not see the influx of persecuted demographics, they did suffer from one of the numerous problems plaguing the British Mandate of Palestine; colonies were too expensive to upkeep after the economic strains of the war.
Britain’s entire economy had been devoted to the war, and by the time that peace was signed the nation was heavily in debt, and economically devastated, with wartime rationing not ending until 1950. Other colonial powers in Europe such as France and Belgium were also devastated after years of occupation. The United States pressured Britain and other colonial powers to grant independence to their subjects, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressing these wishes directly to Winston Churchill in the Atlantic Charter, the Allies’ plans for the postwar world. Before World War II the United States had been considered a colonial power, owning the Philippines and various other islands in the Pacific. Before the Japanese invasion, the United States had been moving towards granting the Philippines independence and encouraged other nations with colonial holdings to do the same with their subjects. President Roosevelt pressed Churchill heavily with the idea of self-determination, the allowing of people to freely pursue the political, social, and economic system they wish to live in by democratic means. With their colonial overlords in dire financial straits, American support, and rapidly growing nationalism the various colonial holdings of European powers from Africa to East Asia would slowly be granted independence, with the majority of European overseas holdings gone by the mid 1960s.
Borders in Africa and the Middle East were mostly determined by the nation’s former European overlords, and as a result most borders were drawn according to geographic location and natural borders rather than ethnic or religious distinctions. As a result, much of the chaos and strife within these regions in modern times can be traced back to these decisions.With the defeat of the Axis powers, fascism was largely destroyed as a world political force. Fascism would linger on within Spain until 1975, but with the fall of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy threats to world stability were halted, only to be replaced by the spread of communism. Shortly after Japanese forces left China the Chinese Civil War was reignited. Split between the communist north and democratic south in 1927, the war between the two Chinas was put on hold after the Japanese invasion. Mao Zedong, leader of Communist China, withheld his forces and avoided engagements with the Japanese throughout the war.
When peace was signed, Democratic China was weary, underequipped, and demoralized. Its forces stronger than before World War II, Mao relaunched the civil war the year after peace with Japan and by 1950 the democratic government of China was forced to retreat to Taiwan where it remains today. No official treaty or armistice has been signed between the nations, and thus they remain in a state of limbo, both claiming ownership over the other under the “One China” policy.
Korea was another region split between a communist dictatorship and a western inspired democracy directly following the war. Before World War II Korea was occupied by and a part of the Japanese Empire. After peace, the southern half was occupied by the United States, and the north by the Soviet Union.
Unable to agree upon how the country should be unified, both powers created their own governments modeled after their own on the peninsula and declared them independent nations. While a peaceful solution for the time, in 1950 communist North Korea would invade the South, eventually dragging both the United States and Communist China into the conflict that would end in ceasefire, borders returned to their original, pre-war location. Much like China, no official treaty has been signed as of 2017.
With the occupation of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union installed various communist governments loyal to Stalin. Despite Allied protests and pleas for democratic elections within liberated nations, as long as the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe, Stalin’s word would be law. This policy was extended to Germany, which similarly to Korea was split into two nations, East and West, its borders defined by the agreed upon occupation zones between the Allies and Soviet Union. Fearful of Western influences, Stalin had always limited the interaction the Soviet people had with Westerners, but in the postwar world, Stalin created the Warsaw Pact, an alliance between the Soviet Union and its East European puppet states. This so called “Iron Curtain” as it was described by Winston Churchill became the dividing line for the ideological conflict that would soon follow World War II, the Cold War.
The war that defined the 20th century spurred the rapid development of new technologies never before seen, such as rocketry, radar and atomic fission. Rocket technology was originally pioneered by Germany in 1944 with the V-1 flying bomb, a rocket designed for terror bombings of cities, specifically in England. After the war numerous German scientists were captured by both American and Soviet forces, and employed under both nations along with various captured rockets which were subsequently reverse engineered.
Much of the research seized, and the scientists captured would be put to use for both nations, laying a foundation for the technology that would be used in the Space Race of the late 50s. A new technology that greatly influenced the outcome of the war, and technologies developed afterwards was the radar. Adopted by the British military in mid 1940, radar technology was invaluable in detecting and tracking German U-Boats. The use of radar made German wolfpacks, groups of submarines tasked with disrupting supply lines, far less effective. The radar was so effective at detecting German U-boats that German U-boat crews had the highest casualty rate of any group in the war at eighty percent.
The weapon that ended the war in the Pacific and defined the later half of the century, the atomic bomb, was successfully developed first in the United States by a research team called the Manhattan Project. While nuclear fission was discovered by German chemists in 1938, its ability to be used as a controlled weapon was entirely theoretical at the time. A blend of native born Americans and scientists fleeing fascist regimes, the Manhattan Project developed and tested the first atomic bomb in July of 1945 in the New Mexican desert.
Directly following peace in Europe and Asia, the Cold War was a period of world tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two premier superpowers that emerged in the postwar world. With the Soviet Union’s development of atomic weaponry in 1949, the world was thrown into a state of limbo that it still remains in today. From that date forward any form of open warfare between the two powers would likely result in the extinction of not only humanity, but possibly all life on the planet.
Thoughts of the apocalypse date back far into humanity’s past, however these thoughts are often given little attention and linger within man’s mind briefly, as only a fantasy. In 1949 when the number of nations with nuclear capabilities ticked over from one to two, for the first time in its history, mankind held the power to bring the apocalypse itself. As time has progressed the number of nations with nuclear weaponry has only increased, and is likely to continue increasing. A specter of armageddon was cast over the world, a gun held to the head of every man, woman and child, with less than a dozen fingers on the trigger. Nuclear proliferation has made the majority of nation states reluctant to use such weapons out of fear of retaliation and mutually assured destruction, however history is filled with lapses in judgement that have lead to devastating consequences. With the number of nations capable of launching nuclear strikes increasing, the number of men holding the trigger to humanity’s ultimate demise grows ever larger, and the margin of error ever smaller. With the world divided down the barrel of a gun, the United States and Soviet Union could not engage each other in open warfare, and thus fought through proxy wars with both sides funding, training, aiding, and occasionally directly intervening in world conflicts.
Such conflicts included the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and numerous others. The Cold War came to a head in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union, attempting to station nuclear missiles on the newly communist nation of Cuba was met with resistance from the United States in the form of a naval blockade of the island. With both nations refusing to stand down, a nuclear exchange nearly occurred before Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, offered a deal to US president John F.
Kennedy in which the Soviet Union would not station missiles in Cuba in exchange for a guarantee on the independence of communist Cuba. Due to economic and social upheaval the communist nations of Europe, commonly known as the Eastern Bloc, would fall in 1989 and be largely replaced with democracies friendly to NATO, the democratic powers. Collapsing under its own weight in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved into the Russian Federation and numerous other nation states.
Though the Cold War ended with the Soviet collapse and global tensions lowered, the specter of armageddon lingers over the world to this day, threatening to reach a boiling point at any given moment. World War II was the defining moment for a generation. A time when young men and women sacrificed sweat and blood to continue the survival of not just their nations, but their very ideals and ways of life. Not only instrumental in their lives, but the lives of every human being that would be born after, the war left scars that have lingered into the twenty first century. Mass demographic shifts, the end of colonialism, world ideology shifts, rapid technological advancements, and the geopolitical climate of the entire later half of the twentieth century all can be attributed to this global conflict.
From mass ethnic cleansings to the dividing of the world down ideological lines, World War II has made an impact on humanity unlike any war before it.