World War II was the mightiest struggle humankind has ever seen. It killed more people, cost more money, damaged more property, affected more people, and caused more far-reaching changes in nearly every country than any other war in history. The number of people killed, wounded, or missing between September 1939 and September 1945 can never be calculated, but it is estimated that more than 55 million people perished.
More than 50 countries took part in the war, and the whole world felt its effects. Men fought in almost every part of the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Chief battlegrounds included Asia, Europe, North Africa, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea.
The United States hoped to stay out. Drawing on its experience from World War I, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts between 1935 and 1939, which were intended to prevent Americans becoming entangled with belligerents. Americans in general, however, while not wanting to fight the war, were definitely not neutral in their sympathies and the acts were manipulated, to the frustration of genuine isolationists, to lend more support to the Allies than the Axis.
Historians do not agree on the exact date when World War II began. Most consider the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, to be the beginning of the war. Others say it started when the Japanese invaded, which culminated in the Peace with the Central Powers in 1921 and World War II as parts of the same conflict, with only a breathing spell in between.
War officially began on September 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland. Germany then crushed six countries in three months — Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and France — and proceeded to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece.
Japan`s plans for expansion in the Far East led it to attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941, bringing the United States into the war. By early 1942, all major countries of the world were involved in the most destructive war in history.
World War II would go down in the history books as bringing about the downfall of Western Europe as the center of world power, leading to the rise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), setting up conditions leading to the Cold War, and opening up the nuclear age.
Causes of the war
The Great Depression crippled the economies of Europe and the United States. That, combined with the outcome of World War I, led to major repositioning of world power and influence. That was fertile ground for the emergence of various forms of totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, and Germany, as well as other countries. Many countries had liberal democratic governments following World War I, but dictatorship developed during the 1920s and 1930s, which destroyed democratic rights.
Many historians trace the roots of World War II to the Treaty of Versailles and other peace agreements that followed World War I. The Germans found it easy to blame the harsh Treaty of Versailles for their troubles.
Germany set up a republican form of government in 1919. Many Germans blamed the new government for accepting the hated treaty. People who could not find jobs began to drift into the Communist and National Socialist parties. As the government lost power, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist or Nazi party grew stronger.
Prior to 1914, Britain, France, and Germany were the industrial and financial centers of the world. Following World War I, those countries lost their positions and the United States filled their place. America dominated the world market of food, minerals, and industry.
When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, the financial crisis had worldwide consequences and the reaction of nations to the dire financial straits of the Depression had a huge impact.
After World War I, Germany, Italy, and Japan — all anxious to regain or increase their power — adopted forms of dictatorship. The League of Nations was unable to promote disarmament. When Adolf Hitler came into power, he promised to end the humiliating conditions caused by German defeat in World War I.
Economic problems were among the fundamental causes of World War II. Germany, Italy, and Japan considered themselves unjustly handicapped in trying to compete with other nations for markets, raw materials, and colonies. They believed that such countries as Belgium, France, Great Britian, the Netherlands, and the United States unfairly controlled most of the world`s wealth and people. So, Germany, Italy, and Japan began to look for lands to conquer in order to obtain what they considered to be their share of the world`s resources and markets.
The Depression destroyed the market for imported silk from Japan, which had provided the country with two-fifths of its export income. Military leaders took control of the government, and in 1931, Japan invaded China, looking for more raw materials and bigger markets for her factories.
The League of Nations called a conference of 60 nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1932. The conference was one in a long line of disarmament conferences that had been occuring since the end of World War I.
Germany, whose military power had been severely limited by the Treaty of Versailles, announced that world disarmament had to be accomplished, or Germany would rearm and achieve military equality. France refused to disarm until an international police system could be established.
The conference adjourned temporarily and by the time it was back in session, Hitler had become chancellor of Germany and was already preparing to rearm. Germany withdrew from the conference, which ended in failure, without any hope for disarmament.