The Beginning of World War II

Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki after atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. Taken from the north west.

The beginning of World War II marked a pivotal moment in global history, characterized by a complex web of political tensions, territorial ambitions, and ideological conflicts. The war officially commenced on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland. This aggressive action prompted France and Britain to declare war on Germany, thus triggering a conflict that would engulf much of the world in violence and chaos for the next six years. The roots of the war can be traced back to the aftermath of World War I, as unresolved issues from that conflict, including the harsh terms imposed on Germany and the rise of militaristic regimes, set the stage for the larger conflagration to come. As the war unfolded, it would ultimately claim millions of lives and reshape the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century.

Rising Tensions

The period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II was marked by a series of events and policies that collectively contributed to the outbreak of the latter conflict. The Treaty of Versailles, intended to ensure peace by punishing Germany for its role in World War I, instead sowed the seeds of future discord. The harsh reparations and territorial losses imposed on Germany created a fertile ground for resentment and economic hardship, contributing to the rise of extremist political movements, including Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party.

The 1930s saw the ascension of fascist regimes committed to expansionist and militaristic policies, most notably in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These nations pursued aggressive foreign policies that challenged the existing international order and tested the resolve of democratic powers to maintain peace.

Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 represented an early challenge to the League of Nations and the principle of collective security. Japan’s subsequent actions in China, including the full-scale invasion in 1937, demonstrated the limitations of the international community’s willingness and ability to respond to acts of aggression.

In Europe, Hitler’s consolidation of power and subsequent foreign policy moves, such as the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria, and the demands for the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, progressively eroded the peace established after World War I. The Munich Agreement of 1938, where Britain and France conceded to Hitler’s demands in a policy of appeasement, is often cited as a critical moment of failure that emboldened the Nazi regime and made war more likely.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, a non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, was a shocking development that realigned diplomatic relations and signaled the imminent possibility of war. This agreement included secret protocols dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, demonstrating the cynical realpolitik that characterized the period’s diplomacy.

These events, among others, highlight a period of escalating tensions, failed diplomatic efforts, and shifting alliances that ultimately led to the outbreak of World War II. The failure of the international community to effectively address acts of aggression and uphold the principles of collective security laid bare the weaknesses of the post-World War I settlement and set the stage for an even more devastating conflict.

Outbreak of War

Imperial Japanese Army soldiers during the Battle of Shanghai, 1937

The outbreak of World War II marked a catastrophic turning point in global history, as the invasion of Poland by Germany set in motion a chain of events that would engulf much of the world in conflict. The German strategy of blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” represented a new form of warfare that emphasized speed and surprise, combining fast-moving armored divisions with air support to break through enemy lines and encircle opposing forces. This tactic proved devastatingly effective in Poland, as German forces quickly overcame the Polish military’s attempts to defend their country.

The swift fall of Poland was not solely the result of German aggression. The Soviet Union’s invasion from the east under the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact caught Poland in a pincer movement that made resistance futile. This act of Soviet aggression was part of the wider strategy of territorial expansion and reflected the complex and often opportunistic alliances that characterized the early stages of World War II.

The declaration of war on Germany by France and the United Kingdom on September 3, 1939, two days after the invasion began, was a direct response to the aggression against Poland. Despite these declarations, the Western Allies were unable to provide significant military assistance to Poland in time to affect the outcome of the invasion. This period, often referred to as the “Phoney War” or “Sitzkrieg,” saw little direct military confrontation on the Western Front, as both sides prepared for the larger conflict that was to come.

The division and occupation of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union not only wiped Poland off the map but also demonstrated the ruthless ambitions of both powers. It set the stage for the broader conflict that would see not just military confrontations but also the implementation of genocidal policies by the Nazi regime, particularly against Jews, Poles, and other groups deemed undesirable.

The outbreak of World War II was thus characterized by rapid military conquests, shifting alliances, and the beginning of what would become the deadliest conflict in human history. The war would expand to include many of the world’s nations, involve battles across multiple continents, and lead to significant changes in the global order, with long-lasting effects on international relations, national boundaries, and the collective memory of the nations involved.

Global Impact

The U.S. Navy battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) leads USS Colorado (BB-45), USS Louisville (CA-28), USS Portland (CA-33), and USS Columbia (CL-56) into Lingayen Gulf before the landing on Luzon, Philippines in January 1945.

The outbreak of World War II had far-reaching consequences that reshaped the global landscape, touching every aspect of human life and altering the course of history. From the devastating human toll to the redrawing of national boundaries and the emergence of new geopolitical powers, the impact of the conflict was profound and enduring. Societies around the world were mobilized for total war, leading to significant advancements in technology and warfare, while also causing widespread economic upheaval and social dislocation. The war’s aftermath saw the decline of European colonial empires and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers, setting the stage for the Cold War and a new era of international relations.

The human cost of the war was staggering, with millions of lives lost, including those of civilians who suffered through bombings, massacres, and the Holocaust—the systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi regime, which stands as one of the darkest chapters of human history. Other atrocities and war crimes further highlighted the brutal nature of the conflict and the capacity for human cruelty.

World War II also spurred numerous technological and scientific advances, from the development of radar and jet engines to the creation of the atomic bomb, which had profound implications for both military strategy and civilian life in the post-war world. The war brought about significant social changes, challenging traditional gender roles and laying the groundwork for civil rights movements and decolonization efforts worldwide.

The legacy of World War II continues to influence global politics, economics, and culture. The establishment of the United Nations and the development of international law and human rights conventions were direct responses to the war’s atrocities, aimed at preventing such a conflict from happening again. The memory of the war, its heroes, and its victims is preserved in memorials and educational programs, serving as a potent reminder of the costs of war and the importance of maintaining peace.