The world at war (1936-1945)

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

The spanish civil war

Monday’s in the city of northern Spain, Guernica was market day. In April 26, 1937, which was on a monday, two nuns looked up at the sky and yelled “Aviones” (planes) and in that day 1600 people got killed. The dead of Guernica were the victims of the Spanish civil war that had broken out in 1936. In Spain, 1931 the king was forced to leave and a Republican government was set up with Socialists and Liberals in control. The government reduced the size of the army and also affected the Catholic church, which lost its status as the country's official religion and much of its properties were confiscated. A continuous political unrest went on, with Socialist unions staging disruptive strikes and anticlerical forces set fire to Catholic convents. The Clergy denounced the policies of the government and monarchists called for the return of the king. 1933, a more conservative government was elected. However in 1936 elections, a coalition of liberals, socialists and communists won, who assigned military officers who opposed the Republic to remote posts. As a result, some large estates were confiscated from the military and instead given to the peasants and thus a violent response awoke from the right.

Spanish Civil War started in July 1936, with a group of Nationalist generals led by Francisco Franco revolted against the Republican government with the aim to turn Spain into a Fascist Dictatorship and they succeeded in 1939. This war became an International matter when the League of Nations tried to stop arms of the Republicans and Nationalists from reaching either side, but failed. Mussolini and Hitler supplied manpower and arms to the Nationalists. Spain was a great battleground for Germans and Italians to test out new weapons and tactics and Germany and Italy’s cooperation led to the military alliance “Rome-Berlin Axis” in October 1936. An example would be that the planes above the city of Guernica were German bombers testing out their air power. Stalin however, sent manpower and arms to the Republicans but sadly his power did not match the Rome-Berlin Axis. Britain and France also wanted the Republicans to win, but they did not provide military aid. When it comes to US, the Isolationist feelings kept them neutral. As a result of the fallen republic system, Hitler and Mussolini became encouraged to interfere elsewhere.

Other challenges to peace

Hitler continuously tried to expand German power even before the civil war. Some examples are :

  • In March 1936, he sent German troops to the Rhineland, which was a move against the Versaille treaty and both Britain and France condemned the move but could not take any action, considering France prime minister favored a strong military response but could not take action without British support and many British people believed that Germany was allowed to occupy Rhineland because it was a German territory.

  • Anschluss, which was a union between Austria and Germany and was also forbidden by the Versaille treaty ,but Hitler as always did not care. In March 1938 the pro-Nazi chancellor of Austria asked Hitler to send troops “To help maintain order” and so did troops come in 12th of March following many Austrian cheers. In the next day, Austria became a part of Germany. Again the British refused to get frightened by this, considering he didn't want to destroy the possibility of future negotiations and France’s changed government prevented any actions to take place against the Anschluss.

The policy of appeasement

Chamberlain’s attitude towards the Anschluss grew out of a policy of appeasement, meaning making concessions to an aggressor in order to preserve the peace. Britain and France’s memories from the slaughters of WWI, made their leaders reluctant to go to war against Hitler, however pacifism, or refusal to go to war was strong among the their people. Many other factors contributed to the policy of appeasement. Many people in Britain believed Austria and Rhineland were not important enough to risk a war and some thought a strong Germany would be a check on Soviet power. A member of the British government told Hitler that “Germany rightly had to be considered as a western bulwark (barrier) against Communism”. Some British people also believed that the Versaille treaty was too harsh on Germany and when it comes to France, they could not stand against Germany without Britain and inside political problems switched the morals and determinations of the French as well. Even though the US congress and president, Franklin D. Roosevelt condemned Hitler’s aggression they continued the policy of Isolation and passed neutrality laws in 1935 and 1936 with laws that stopped US from selling arms to countries at war or ships to barry arms to other nations.

Crisis over Czechoslovakia

After the Anschluss, Germany turned its focus on Czechoslovakia mainly because of the 3 million Germans living in Sudetenland, western border region of Czechoslovakia. It begun in 1938, with Hitler encouraging the Sudeten Germans to demand self-control and as a result Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the French premier tried appeasement and convinced the unhappy Czechs to give up control. Hitler demanded once again the right to send in German troops in Sudetenland, thus Chamberlain asked for a four-power conference to settle the Czech crisis. Hitler agreed and invited France, Britain and Italy but not Czechoslovakia or its ally Soviet Union to Munich on September 29, 1938. On that day, everyone agreed the right of German troops to enter Sudetenland but guaranteed the independence of the rest of Czechoslovakia,. Hitler said that he had no more territorial claims in Europe, which was a relief to Chamberlain and when he returned to Britain he declared the agreement means there would be “Peace for our time”. Hitler however did not keep his promise and in March 1939, six months after Munich, German troops occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, which shocked Chamberlain and the policy of appeasement was bankrupt after trusting Hitler.


A week after occupying Czechoslovakia, Hitler demanded the return of Danzig and the Polish Corridor. The Versaille treaty had made Danzig an independent international city, which had created the Polish corridor and which was a small strip of land connecting Poland to the Baltic sea. France and Britain were finally alarmed and Chamberlain announced to the House of Commons that they would support Poland from German attacks, thus the British started rearming and voting for more money for defence and France did the same. The tension grew more in 1939, thus Britain and France both tried to negotiate with the Soviet Union because of its long border with Poland. However, the Soviet Union was especially concerned about the Polish crisis and so wanted to create alliance with Britain and France. The alliance was a bit delayed because of France and Britain's fear of communism and doubts of the Soviet army and they also rejected the demands for Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe. Hitler detested communism and Russians, but on August 23 he signed a nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union, which pledged not to take each other and in secret they promised to divide Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe between them. As a result of the German troops could now move against Poland without the fear of Soviet interference and the Soviet Union was now at least temporary assured that Hitler would not attack them. At dawn on September 1, 1939 german troops crossed the Polish borders and two day later, France and Britain declared war on Germany and WWII of the century had begun.

Early months

“Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death like cattle interests me only insofar as we need them as slaves to our civilization” - Hitler summed up the Nazi attitude toward the nations they conquered during WWII. Axir against the Allies with Germany and Italy being the major Axis powers in 1939. Japan joined the Axis in 1949 and several other Eastern European nations supported the axis. The Allies eventually included France, Britain, USA, Soviet Union, China and 43 other nations. On September 1, 1939, the German army launched a new attack on Poland called Blitzkrieg, meaning lightning war in German, which was combined forces of planes, tanks, artillery and mechanized infantry swiftly pierced Polish defenses. The German air force destroyed the Polish ones on the ground and many cities. In accordance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Soviet troops seized the eastern half of Poland and on September 27, 1939 Poland surrendered. Because Stalin feared Hitler would attack Soviet Union, he started strengthening his defenses by first occupying and then annexing the three small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. When Finland refused to allow Soviet military bases on its territory, the Soviet Union invaded starting “Winter War”, which lasted from November 1939 until March 1940 and Soviet did not occupy Finland but Finland had to give up some territory.

Collapse in Western Europe

For seven months little happened and the rumors about “Phoney war” spread among the people, but then in April 1940 Hitler started another Blitzkrieg and one by one, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Belgium fell to the German onslaught. France massed troops along the Maginot Line in the northeast with the hope to stop German invasion, but German troops just bypassed these defenses and attacked France through belgium. The German army quickly penetrated France and by the end of May they had pushed a combination of British and French force to Dunkirk, a French port on the English Channel. The British immediately sent naval vessels, merchant ships and pleasure boats to rescue the troops trapped in Dunkirk and they managed to rescue 300,00 troops but much valuable equipment was left behind. The French soldiers that escaped formed the Free French, which later took part with the Allies. However, Italy was on the edge of defeat at home with Italy invading Southern France and Germany Paris, thus the French asked for armistice. Looking back, the French surrender took place in Compiegne on June 22, 1940 with German occupying Northern France and governing it directly, but in Southern France the germans oversaw the creation of a puppet state known as Vichy France because its capital was at Vichy.

The battle of Britain

With France giving in, Britain now stood alone and the Germans attacking the British Isles was certain. On the other hand, Hitler was planning to weaken the British will to resist before invading the Island, thus on July the German bombers started attacking Britain. The city of Coventry was nearly destroyed, buildings were set on fire and people were trapped in subways. This so called “Battle of Britain” went on for years but never weakened Britain as Hitler planned, it instead strengthened them and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) fought back gracefully. Churchill told the brave soldiers “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so dew”, thus by 1940 Hitler cancelled his plan to invade britain but continued bombing for years. Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign because of his failed appeasement policy and now Winston Churchill, the new prime minister was in charge. Churchill was an inspiring leader that told the people how hard times were gonna come but he would offer “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” in any circumstances for the British. Even though hopes were gone with the bombed House of Commons in May 194, he continued saying “We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of his nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us, Nothing”. On June 4, after the Dunkirk rescue Churchill said : We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender”.

The nazi Empire in Europe

Even after the German setback in the Battle in Britain, the Axis powers soon controlled all of the Western Europe except the neutral Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Spain was also neutral but pro-Axis and allowed Germany to use its ports. In the east, Germany had Western Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria. Hungary and Romania joined the Axis in 1940 and Bulgaria 1941. The occupied countries like Western Poland and The Netherlands, Germany ruled the government directly, but in other countries Germany created Puppet states ruled by local people. The Nazis used the economic resources of the occupied countries, sent goods in ships to Germany, sent women and men as slaves to german factories and the Nazi leaders plundered the museums of Europe. At the same time the Nazis started persecuting Jews, seized their businesses and properties, sent them to the ghettos or restricted areas and forced them to wear yellow identification starts. Jews and others that were according to the Nazis unfit to live were sent to concentration camps and starved or murdered. Only after the war did the Allies realize the Nazi Jew plan. A group known as the Resistance group worked from the underground against the Axis sabotaged Nazi supply depots, derailed trains and blew bridges while supplying valuable information to the Allies about troop movements, escaped prisoners and downed pilots.

Further attacks

The Axis turned their attention to the Balkans and North Africa in fall, 1940. Mussolini invaded Greece in October and with the help of German troops, Greece and Yugoslavia was defeated while Italy attacked the British in North Africa. The Axis invaded Egypt in September 1940 but the British counterattacked and advanced into Libya and Ethiopia and the fights went on for months. Hitler surprised by attacking Soviet Union in June 1941 to seize rich Soviet farmland and oil fields and was willing to risk a two front war, which was something German generals feared since WWI. On June 22, about 3 million German soldiers invaded and Soviet Union was not in shape after all the lost generals from the conflicts in the 1930’s. However, as the Soviet Union withdrew they destroyed crops and farm equipments, which was a move called “Scorched earth policy” or keeping the goods out of the enemies hands. By 1941 Germany had passed Ukraine and approached Moscow and Leningrad when “General Winter” came to Russia’s aid as it had when Napoleon tried to Invade Russia in 1812. The Germans were not prepared for this action and the cold winter ahead, considering they had to rely on long supply lines which often were destroyed by Soviet soldiers. The Germans siege of Leningrad lasted for over two years while one and a half million German soldiers died because of diseases, fights and starvation.

American neutrality

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “We are not isolationist” in 1936, “Except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war”. As the war broke out in 1939, US still resisted to get involved, however when the Nazi’s marched through Europe Franklin declared he was ready to pursue “All measures short of war” to ensure the survival of the Allies. The Americans sympathized for the Allies but never did want to get into war with Germany, until in September 1940 they sent 50 destroyers to the British navy and passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the President to supply the allies with military supplies “Vital to the defense of the US”. To Franklin, US had to become the “Arsenal of democracy”, supporting the Allies. Under the Lend-Lease Act, US sent many supplies to Britain and Soviet Union and as a response Germany sunk many of US submarines even though they were protected with convoy. But it was not until the events in Asia that USA truly entered the war.

Japanese expansion

USA had Asia under watch as Japan aggressively attacked China in 1937 as their troops marched from Northeast to south and west of China. Late 1938, Central and Northern China was under the control of Japan. Japan restricted activities of foreign investors, announced “New order in Asia” meaning Japan claiming commercial supremacy in China. In fall 1950, the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis was made with Japan now joining in to support Germany. With France and Netherlands falling against Germany, Japan occupied French Indochina and announced the assumption “Protective custody” over the Dutch East Indies.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

USA condemned the seizure of French Indochina in 1940 and Japan occupying China, thus they stopped exporting oil and scrap metal to Japan. US also moved their Pacific fleet from West Coast of US to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to show military readiness. However, Japan continued expanding and gaining region resources throughout Southeast Asia. In october 1941, An outspoken expansionist General Hideki Tojo became the prime minister of Japan, which became a bigger threat to US. Tojo sent envoys to negotiate with US in Washington D.C. by leaving Southern Indochina but still remaining in China, which US rejected as a proposal. Even though Japan was negotiating, they had already decided to attack US and saw no way around it, thus they planned a surprise attack. US already knew trouble was on its way but they expected an attack in Philippines or in Southern Asia. December 7, 1949 japanese planes flew above American naval base in Pearl Harbor, damaged 8 American battleships, damaged 10 other ships, destroyed 188 planes and killed over 2,500 Americans. Pilots sent the message “Tora”, meaning tiger which was a codename for success. Despite the attack in Pearl Harbor, not all the US Pacific fleet was destroyed considering three aircraft carriers were not in the Harbor and in the naval warfare these aircrafts played a big role in WWII. The next day Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the congress to declare war as he called 7th of December “A date which will live in infamy” and congress ated at once. Three days later Japan's allies, Germany and Italy declared war on US.

Japanese victories

After the attack in Pearl Harbor, within months the Japanese marched across the Pacific and too over the British colony of Hong Kong, Malay Peninsula, Singapore, The Dutch East Indies, Burma as well as American Islands of Guam and Wake. When Japan started attacking Philippines, US general Douglas MacArthur could not stop Japan and by March 1942 when the Japanese had conquered most of philippines MacArthur who led the allied defence left with a promise “I shall return” and built a headquarters in Australia and took command for the allied forces in the Pacific.

The Japanese Empire

The great mobilization

Turning points in north Africa and Europe

Allies offensives in Europe

Advance on Berlin

Turning points in the Pacific

Defeat of Japan

The Aftermath of the war

The Holocaust revealed

War crimes trials

The Postwar world

Key words :

Irish republican Army = An underground force that waged guerrilla war against Britain.

General strike = A mass walkout by unionized workers in all industries.

Mobilization = Process involves calling troops into an active service, which does not necessarily mean war but is a step towards war.

Annexed = To incorporate territory into an existing political unit such as a country, state, county, or city.

Stalemate = In chess, a position in which one player cannot move, but their king is not being attacked, which means neither of the two players win. A situation in which neither group involved in an argument can win or get an advantage or an action can be taken : deadlock.

Jingoism = extreme patriotism ( new word added to the English dictionary)

Propaganda = Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular

political cause or point of view.: "he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda".

Armistice = An agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce.

Reparations = The making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.: "the courts required a convicted offender to make financial reparation to his victim".

Puppet state = A state that is supposedly independent, but in fact is dependent.

Siege = a military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling the surrender of those inside.: "Verdun had withstood a siege of ten weeks""siege warfare".

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