World War Two  

World War II


World War 2 > European Theatre | Pacific Theatre

World War II era Flying Fortress bomber World War II was the largest-scale conflict the world has ever seen, involving 61 countries and covering more of the globe than any other war, either before or since.  While the struggle began with only a few nations, it expanded to include every major world power before its end.

After World War I, not all nations were happy with the outcome.  Germany, on the losing side, was bitter about the Treaty of Versailles, whose conditions included reparation payments and territorial losses.  Although among the victors, Italy was not happy with its limited territorial gains, and Japan had hoped to gain control of China.

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Germany succumbed to economic depression in the 1930s.  Sentiment was at a high against the Versailles Treaty, which many Germans considered unfair.  The climate was ripe for a leader such as Adolf Hitler, a brilliant orator who made grand promises of conquest and prosperity.  Once in power, Hitler quickly established himself as dictator — the "Fuhrer" of the Nazi party.

Also during the 1930s, Japan used minor skirmishes with China as a license to occupy Manchuria and several Chinese ports.  Their brand of military totalitarianism was similar to Germany's fascist government.  Italy joined sides with Germany during the Spanish civil war, when both nations came to the aid of the Spanish rebels.  From 1936-1937, treaties were signed between the three nations, and they became known as "the Axis."  On the opposing side of the growing conflict, "the Allies" eventually expanded to include Britain, the United States, the USSR, and China, along with a score of other nations.

World War II soldier reading a letter (Hulton Archive)

The Nazi army's rapid march throughout Europe drew much of the continent into unity against Germany.  Japan's expansionist ambitions further united Europe, as many of that nation's targets held close ties to the major European powers.  On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States finally entered the conflict after years of isolationism.

Despite multinational involvement, the tide of war did not really turn until D Day (June 6, 1944), when American and British troops crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy.  After a hard-fought battle, they were able to establish beachheads which would prove pivotal in beating back the German army.  After this important Allied victory, Hitler was unable to consolidate troops on his eastern front to strengthen his offense against Russia.  Embattled on both fronts, the German army pulled back towards Berlin and eventually capitulated on May 7, 1944.

The following year saw the finish of a long and difficult war.  The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, respectively, brought a precipitous end to Japanese resistance.  On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered.

Birkenau concentration camp near Cracow, Poland The war had a terrible cost in terms of human life.  Nazi Germany committed atrocities on an enormous scale through the Holocaust, interring Jews, Gypsies, and other "undesirables" in concentration camps and systematically murdering men, women, and children.  Approximately 6 million victims, most of them Jews, were killed during the Nazis' "ethnic cleansing" program.  In addition to the deaths from the Holocaust, an estimated 55 million people — 25 million military and 30 million civilian — perished in the war.

The global political landscape was also significantly altered as a result of the war.  Germany was split into East and West Germany.  Much of Eastern Europe came under Russian control.  As a result, Communism and the Iron Curtain effectively isolated much of Eastern Europe from the rest of the world for over 40 years.

For more information about the major battles of World War II, please visit the European Theatre and Pacific Theatre pages on this website.

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World War Two Words and Phrases

World War II Resources

  • The National WWII Memorial in Washington, DC honors those who served in the armed forces of the United States during World War II.
  • The Perilous Fight is a PBS website that tells the story of America's involvement in World War II.
  • World War Two is a multimedia presentation of WWII history.

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