The Second World War

NB: World War Two began in Europe between September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland; and September 3, when Britain and France declared war on Germany. For China, the war began on September 18, 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria and set up the puppet kingdom of Manchukuo.

The Outbreak Of World War II

A full-scale Japanese invasion on Nationalist China began in July 1937, and lasted till 1945. So it could be said that the world war lasted from 1931 till 1949, when the civil war in China ended. For Vietnam, the cycle of anti-colonial struggle lasted till 1975, when the American imperial invasion was conclusively defeated by the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, resulting in the unification of Vietnam. I give below some of the main events of the 1930’s that led to the generalised conflict, and include some readings and links to audio-visual material:

Events leading to Outbreak of the Second World War: The fifty years after Waterloo saw the emergence of an international commercial capitalist economy, the relative stability of the Great Power system, and the world hegemony of Britain, which reached its peak in the 1860’s. Political and industrial changes were far more rapid than changes in militaries. The peasant societies of the non-European world entered long-term decline, as did the less industrialised countries of Europe such as Russia and the Habsburg Empire. Germany in 1870 produced 13% of world industrial output, and the USA 23%. Thus, even though there were no major conflicts in the post 1871 period, the balance established by 1815 was being undermined, and a new international system becoming visible.

Apart from the American Civil war, there had been no mutually exhausting struggles between the great powers in the period 1815-85. The Franco-Austrian war of 1859, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and the Crimean war of 1855 were regional conflicts which did not disturb the balance of power. The Austro- Prussian and Franco-Prussian conflicts were over in a season’s campaign; and the strategists would plan swift and offensive warfare, rapid mobilisation, short-service armies and quick-firing guns. The defeated powers were those which had failed to adapt to the military revolution of mid-19th century, based upon new weapons, large armies, trained manpower, the telegraph, railways and steamships, and a productive industrial base.

All this changed after the Great War of 1914-18; and the ensuing settlement. A stable world order proved impossible to achieve, the system of emergent nation-states was domestically superficial and internationally unstable, and subject to authoritarianism. There took place an intensification of national feelings; and disputes over new frontiers (with revisionist powers ranged against those who wished to preserve the arrangements). Further problems included the delay in the economic recovery of Europe, and the challenge posed by Bolshevism. Added to these were the failures of the League – of 63 members, fourteen had left by 1939, two were eliminated due to annexation and the USSR was expelled in 1939.

The League could not prevent the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 or the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. The USA had remained aloof since its foundation.

All these factors contributed to a global military-political crisis.

World crisis 1936 onwards:

Spanish civil war 1936-39;

Sino-Japanese war July 1937 to Sept 1945

Berlin-Rome Axis: November 1936; followed by Anti-Comintern Pact that included Japan and was joined by Italy in January 1937 and Spain in 1939.

November 1937 – Hitler’s Hossbach memorandum revealed that lebensraum was to be obtained by force. A decision was taken to expand the army

1937-39: Stalin’s purges in the Red Army in 1937-38 included 3 marshals, 13 generals and 62 corps commanders including a hero of them civil war, Marshal Tukachevsky. Many Spanish war veterans were liquidated, including 22 Heroes of the USSR. 35 to 50% of the entire officer corps was liquidated – the most experienced, especially those from Spain and the Far East, according to Khrushchev. Confidence in the Red Army was undermined.

May 30, 1938: Hitler’s secret order to destroy Czechoslovakia led to the resignation of the German Army chief Ludwig von Beck. This tested its mutual security arrangements with the USSR and France, under which France was to act first. But France and Britain decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia rather than test Soviet faithfulness. In any case, it is doubtful whether Poland and Roumania would have permitted the Red Army through their territories.

March 1938: Anschluss: Austria was annexed to Germany on March 13, 1938

September 29, 1938: Munich Conference of Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier, Chamberlain. The Sudetan German areas were ceded to Germany and annexed (October 1-10). An Anglo German declaration of non-aggression and a Franco-German recognition of borders were agreed upon.

Munich was intended to keep the USSR out of Europe (Isaac Deutscher). Despite this, on 21 October 1938, Hitler secretly ordered ‘the liquidation of the rump Czechoslovakia’ – in March 1939, the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established.

March 1939: At the 18th congress of the CPSU Stalin hinted at a rapprochement with Germany, while still holding the door open to the western powers. But his suggestion of an anti-Nazi confederation of Britain, France, the USSR, Roumania, Poland and Turkey was rejected out of hand by Britain.

March 21, 1939: Hitler demanded the incorporation of Danzig and a corridor from East Prussia to Germany. This was rejected by Poland. By the end of March, Britain and France guaranteed Polish frontiers. (The British-Polish alliance was signed later, on August 25, 1939)

In April Hitler annulled the German Polish non-aggression treaty and the Anglo German naval agreement.

April 1939 – Stalin’s proposal for an alliance of Britain, France and the USSR to guarantee the frontiers of all countries from the Baltic to the Black sea also met with a luke warm response. In May Litvinov was replaced by Molotov – was this a preparation?

In July 1939; Britain and France sent a low level military mission to Moscow (in stark contrast to the Munich conference), with undefined powers. This was hardly the basis for an anti-Nazi coalition. Stalin now decided that the USSR would be a neutral spectator in any forthcoming war and the arbiter in the event it had to intervene.

Nazi-Soviet Pact: August 23 1939. Hitler was now eager to neutralize the USSR: ‘so now at last he, (Stalin) the pariah of diplomacy was being courted by the man before whom Europe trembled’ (Deutscher). The pact inaugurated the USSR’s period of external expansion, and was rooted in the search for security. Territories lost to Poland in the 1921 war were reclaimed, and in addition, Finland and the Baltic states were to be included in its sphere of influence. All this was done by secret protocol

The strategic viewpoint of the USSR included three objectives

1/ to prevent the new threat in the west from combining with the new one in the east;

2/ to avert the old bugbear of a capitalist gang-up;

3/ to avoid or delay war with Germany, given Hitler’s explicit intentions and Soviet weaknesses in the Ukraine. Soviet entry into the League had been a means of reviving German fears of a war on two fronts.

The Pact of Rapallo (1922) had been ratified (re-affirmed) after Hitler’s accession to power, despite his anti-communism. Soviet Foreign Commissar Litvinov had spoken of sympathy with the plight of German communists, but also reiterated the policy of non-interference. At the 17th Congress of the CPSU, Stalin spoke of the triumph of the idea of revenge in Europe, but also predicted a short life for fascism.

Hitler’s rejection of the Soviet proposal for a joint guarantee-ship of the Baltic frontiers led to an increased pre-occupation with security. The Baltic route was open for Germany, Poland was ambivalent after the German-Polish non-aggression pact of 1934; the Danubian states were antagonistic: Czechoslovakia, Roumania and Bulgaria established diplomatic relations with USSR only in the summer of 1934.

Soviet diplomacy then, brought about the Treaty of 1935 with France, which was used by Hitler to justify the repudiation of Locarno in 1936, along with the remilitarization of the Rhineland.

Stalin’s attempts to allay the suspicions of the West:

The Stalin Constitution of 1936, with its democratic features. The Popular Front strategy adopted in the 7th Congress of the Comintern in July 1935: In an interview in Pravda (5/3/36) Stalin stated that the idea of world revolution was ‘a tragi-comic misunderstanding.’

But the Fronts could not be constrained to suit the needs of Soviet security – there were ramifications in Spain and France. Thereafter the west’s suspicions grew, the value of the French-Soviet pact declined, and the elimination of the ‘extreme left’ in Spain did not elicit a positive response from Britain and France, who kept aloof.

From the viewpoint of the USA: One of Roosevelt’s strategic aims was to prevent hostile states (Germany, Japan, the USSR) from coming together – hence the recognition of the USSR in 1933. The Nazi Soviet Pact of 1939 disturbed this strategy. After the German invasion of the USSR code-named Babarossa (22 June 1941), American aims were to prevent rapprochement between Germany and the USSR; and to enlist the assistance of the latter against Japan. This was the basis for the offer of war materials on 30/July. The British-Soviet alliance came about on 12/July 1941.

Another factor in US decisions was Roosevelt’s reluctance to commit ground troops to a war in Europe; due to his personal experience in the Great War. If Russian armies could take the brunt of German aggression, this would make it possible for US participation to be limited mainly to air and naval power. (Averell Harriman, US Ambassador in Moscow, 1943).

American land commitment was kept at 90 divisions rather than the 215 estimated necessary for the defeat of both Germany and Japan. Moreover, the US had to bear the brunt of the Pacific war with Japan – defeat would have been unacceptable to the American public if at the same time large armies were fighting in Europe. Soviet help was deemed necessary for this end, but if the war in the Pacific had ended earlier, US policy in Europe might have been different ie; a greater commitment aimed at defeating the Nazis as well as containing the spread of Soviet power.

Eastern theatre and German strategy: Molotov’s mission to Berlin: November 10-14, 1940. Hitler was engaged in drawing new frontiers in the Balkans without consulting Stalin. In October, Italy had invaded Greece. By this time British air power and the underground resistance in France and the Balkans had encouraged Stalin, who had been alarmed enough by German victories in the west to incorporate the Baltic states into the USSR in 1940.

East and SE Europe was too small an area for both powers. Hitler wanted the USSR to become a satellite and join the 3 power pact for re-ordering Europe and the Far East. He proposed that the British Empire be partitioned – Persia & India to be taken over by the USSR, SE Asia by Japan, Africa by Germany and Italy. Stalin was more interested in Finland, Bulgaria and the Straits. By mid-December preparations for Barbarossa were begun.

The German strategy of blitzkreig was based on the mistakes of WW-1, a desire for economical military expenditure, combined with a dependence on deception, propaganda, and diplomacy to achieve lebensraum – also a flexible concept. This entailed local wars, and swift, decisive campaigns involving overwhelming numbers, rapid mobility, surprise, preceded by diplomatic subterfuge and propaganda.

Barbarossa lacked these attributes. The German military machine was divided into 3 theatres – the west, south and east. The eastern theatre too was too widely spread to permit blitzkrieg-type concentration, which required a combined land (armoured) and air attack. After Crete (April 1941), no more airborne troops were used as they entailed too many losses – this deprived Barbarossa of an important psychological weapon. There was no attempt at a fifth column – Nazi racialism soon dissipated any relief any sections of the peasants might have felt. There was no surprise – over the long term, the USSR was prepared for the attack. Hitler had underestimated Russian strength and the logistic problems involved.


Nazi Germany

Pictures of the Madness (1937 – 1939) –

Opening clip of Leni Riefenstahl’ Triumph of the Will (classic Nazi propaganda film made in 1935): 

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 –

Romanies – roots of antigypsyism: to the Holocaust and after – Ian Hancock

John Cornwell; Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (2008)

Sources for German archival materials

National Citizenship Law & Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German blood and German Honour

Anson Rabinbach et al; The Third Reich Sourcebook  (2013) (PDF)

Hitler’s Assault on the Golden Rule : by Claudia Koontz (video)

Peter Merkl; Political Violence Under the Swastika: 581 early Nazis 

Salvador Dalí’s surreal dalliance with Nazism

The Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals: Written by Benedetto Croce (1925)

Book review: The Colour of Time – a pictorial history of global conflict

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

Trabajadores : The Spanish Civil War through the eyes of organised labourán Casanova – The Spanish Civil War, 80 years after

Indians in..

The Rape of Nanking, December 1937. The ‘blot on the reputation of Japan’

Brian Victoria; Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki

The knights of Bushido : a history of Japanese war crimes during World War II (1958, repub 2002)

HIROSHIMA 75 years after. ‘To my last breath’: survivors fight for memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Book review: The Tragic sense by Algis Valiunas

Dan Diner – Memory displaced: Re-reading Jean Améry’s “Torture”

Books reviewed: Pope Pius XII, Hitler’s pawn?

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). Shrabani Basu on the spy who saved Europe

Noor Inayat Khan: Statue of British-Indian agent to be unveiled

Battle of Britain: July to October 1940. A documentary about the most significant air battle of WW2:

Churchill’s war speeches (1940

“We shall never surrender”:

“This was their finest hour”:

“Never was so much owed by so many to so few”

The Man Who Saved Britain | The Battle Of Britain (WW2 Documentary) | Timeline

The Moment The Battle Of Britain Was Decided

Germany 1945: Restored film footage:

Robert Fisk: Two separate holocausts, Israel and Poland find it difficult to acknowledge the facts of history

Memory displaced: Jean Améry’s “Torture”

Further readings

Ernst Junger; Total Mobilisation (1930)

Leo Strauss lecture on German Militarism and Nihilism (New York, 1941)

J.P. Stern, Hitler: The Fuhrer and the People (1975; 1992)

Ian Kershaw, Hitler – vol 1 – Hubris; vol 2, Nemesis

Richard Evans; The Coming of the Third Reich; The Third Reich in Power

H. Liebau, K. Bromber, et al, (eds); The World in World Wars

Rana Mitter; Forgotten Ally: China s World War II 1937-1945

Richard Evans; The Third Reich at War

John Lukacs; June 1941: Hitler and Stalin

John Lukacs; The Duel: The eighty-day struggle between Churchill and Hitler

Geoffrey Roberts; Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953

Iris Chang; The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II

Brian Victoria – The Zen of Hitler Jugend

Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper; Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire

Goebbels Total war speech Feb 1943:

Lord Russell; The knights of Bushido: a history of Japanese war crimes during World War II

Srinath Raghavan; India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945; 2016

Eyewitness Accounts of Hiroshima/Nagasaki

Richard Tucker on War and the Environment

Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe

Heda Margolius Kovaly (1919-2010) : Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941–1968

The roots of anti-gypsyism: to the Holocaust and after

Peter Duus; The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 6

Leni Riefenstahl Triumph of the Will (Nazi propaganda film – 1935)

Iconic photo from London 1940:

Stalingrad –

Battle for Russia:

Dunkirk Veteran Weeps At Film Premiere: ‘It Was Just Like I Was There Again’

13 Hours That Saved Britain: Timeline:

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Full Film) –

Nanjing 1937:

Iconic photo from London 1940

The 13 Hours That Saved Britain

1945 British newsreel on the concentration camps:

Documentary on Pearl Harbour

Line of fire – Documentary on Stalingrad:

Archive Video Of The D-Day Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944

Russians Enter Berlin (1945)

Charlie Chaplin; The Great Dictator Full Movie

Hitler’s Assault on the Golden Rule: by Claudia Koontz (video)

A Final Warning by George Orwell

When Charles Chaplin Became the Enemy

Megadeaths of the Twentieth Century <>

Book review: Richard Overy – A New History of the Second World War