Louis Nemeth/U.S. Army Signal Corps
From “The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge”
In much of Europe, the collapse of the world economy after 1929 was exacerbated by the social and ethnic divisions of the successor states, their boundary grievances, and the real or imagined fear of communist revolution. Most of Europe outside the monarchies of the north and west turned to right-wing authoritarian regimes which, though often called “fascist,” made little pretense of being ideologically based; they resembled Italy less than they did Latin America.
Germany presented a very different and very grievous case; there, the 1933 elevation of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) to the office of chancellor proved that thuggery, the repellent doctrines of National Socialism (including virulent anti- Semitism), and German nationalistic resentment over the post–World War I settlement were sufficient to establish the Nazi dictatorship in the heart of Europe.
The Western democracies dithered, deluded themselves, and sought peace through appeasement. Having neglected their own military capabilities while Hitler was rebuilding the German war machine, there were few realistic alternatives to appeasement, in any case.
Domestically, the German persecution of Jews accelerated throughout the 1930’s, while Hitler, bent on overturning the Versailles settlement, successfully remilitarized the Rhineland (1936) and absorbed Austria (in a sudden campaign called the Anschluss) and the ethnically German parts of Czechoslovakia (1938), then turned the remainder of Czechoslovakia into a satellite, took the city of Memel from Lithuania, and began demands on Poland (1939).
In August 1939, Germany and Russia agreed to partition Poland yet again. With Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, World War II began in Europe. (The Asian phase of World War II had begun two years earlier.) The European war was, until 1941, an unbroken series of totalitarian triumphs; by June of 1940, when France fell, all of Europe outside Britain was neutral or an ally or satellite of Germany.
But in June of 1941, Hitler invaded Russia, and in December, Hitler’s ally, Japan, attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The attack was designed to cripple the American Pacific fleet, thus giving the Japanese a free hand for the invasion of southeast Asia, which brought Japanese forces by mid-1942 to occupy the American Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, British Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, while French Indochina and independent Thailand collaborated. But the American carrier fleet survived the attack on Pearl Harbor; having failed to defeat the United States in a single blow, the Japanese war effort gradually was ground down by American industrial and military might.
In Europe, German armies penetrated as far east as Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad before being fought to a stalemate on the Eastern Front. The grand alliance of Britain and the U.S. with the USSR forced Nazi Germany to fight a two-front war, which ultimately spelled utter defeat in May of 1945 — but not before Germany killed 6 million Jews and a like number of Gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped people, Communists, and other “undesirables” during the Holocaust.
In Asia, the great powers, especially America, kept up the illusion that China was a great power with Chiang as its ruler, which helped to keep Japanese troops tied down on the Asian mainland. In August 1945, atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, major Japanese cities, hastened Japan’s surrender, and World War II came to its end. The United States and the Soviet Union, with Great Britain a very junior partner, bestrode the globe. Japan itself was occupied by American forces.
In China, civil war led to the establishment of a Communist state within four years of the end of the war, while Eastern Europe came under the domination of the Soviet Union.
A new era in world history had begun.
On September 1, Germany invaded Poland from the west. Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. The United States had declared its neutrality on May 1, 1937, when Roosevelt signed the Permanent Neutrality Bill into law, and on September 5, he invoked that law. On September 8, however, President Roosevelt authorized a military buildup.
The Soviets invaded Poland from the east on September 17. Warsaw surrendered on September 27, and the Germans and Soviets partitioned Poland on September 29. The Soviets then invaded Finland on November 30. In mid-December, the Royal Navy battled the German warship Graf Spee off the South American (Montevideo) coast. The ship’s captain scuttled the Graf Spee on December 17, giving the British a morale boost.
With little action on the main front, the Germans occupied Denmark, and invaded Norway on April 9. The so-called “phonywar” in Europe came to an end on May 10 with a massive German invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) resigned and was replaced by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
On May 13, Churchill told Britain and the world that he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” German troops crossed into France that same day. On May 26, with the battle in France lost, the British began evacuating their expeditionary force from the port of Dunkirk.
Norway surrendered on June 9; France, on June 22. With Hitler triumphant in Europe, Roosevelt declared a national emergency in the United States on June 27. In preparation for a planned invasion of Britain, the German air force (Luftwaffe) attacked Royal Air Force bases on August 15. The onslaught was massive, but the R.A.F. prevailed. Not long after this pivotal battle, the Germans changed their strategy and began bombing cities. The R.A.F. bombed Berlin on August 25 and 26.
On September 16, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Bill, authorizing the draft of Americans between the ages of 21 and 35. With a cross-channel invasion scheduled for September 21, the Germans launched their largest air raid on Britain on September 15, hoping to destroy the R.A.F. The effort failed, and the invasion was postponed. The Luftwaffe continued to bomb England, leading to a massive raid on Coventry on November 14.
British forces in Libya routed the Italians, capturing Tobruk on January 22. The Australians and British followed up with a victory in Benghazi on February 6. On that day, Erwin Rommel (1891–1944) was given command of Germany’s Afrika Korps, which was sent to Libya to assist the beleaguered Italians.
On March 11, the U.S. Senate passed the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized Roosevelt to send arms and equipment to Britain and other countries opposing the Axis (50 destroyers had already been exchanged in September 1940).
On April 6, German troops invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. Rudolf Hess, the third most-powerful man in Nazi Germany, parachuted into Britain on May 10 on a bizarre, unauthorized mission to broker peace between Germany and the British. The Royal Navy sank the German battleship Bismarck on May 27.
In a move that stunned a world already familiar with the unthinkable, Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. Hitler’s huge commitment of men and material to the Eastern Front meant that Britain was safe from invasion. It also changed the war’s dynamics.
On July 31, the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, used the phrase “final solution” in discussing what was to be done with Europe’s Jews.
Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt met face to face in Newfoundland on August 9-12 to create an eight point program of war aims, subsequently named the Atlantic Charter. After Nazi U-boats attacked numerous American ships, Roosevelt issued the order on September 11 to “shoot at sight” any German or Italian ship encountered by American ships or planes.
Germany ordered Jews to wear a Star of David beginning September 13. The following day, more than a half million Russians surrendered near Kiev. In Asia, Japan’s War Minister, Hideki Tojo (1884–1948), was named Prime Minister on October 16, signaling a more aggressive policy toward the United States.
On December 6, the new Soviet commander of Moscow, General Georgi Zhukov (1896–1974), launched a massive counter-attack against German forces.
On December 7, Japanese warplanes attacked the U.S. naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States declared war on Japan the following day. Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. on December 11.
The German SS, the elite military units of the Nazis, officially adopted a policy of genocide against the Jews on January 20.
The Japanese captured the British garrison of Singapore, thought to be impregnable, on February 15. On March 11, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur left the Philippines, soon to fall to the Japanese. He told the Filipinos: “I shall return.” The Japanese overran an American garrison on Bataan on April 9.
Nearly 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners were captured, and many died during the Bataan Death March. American morale improved on April 18 when General James Doolittle, flying from the carrier USS Hornet, led an air raid on Tokyo. Less than a month later, from May 4–8, U.S. carriers and planes clashed with Japanese forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea. On May 6 American ground forces on Corregidor surrendered.
More than a thousand British aircraft bombed the German city of Cologne during the night of May 30. Thanks to intercepts of Japanese communications, the American fleet won the Battle of Midway on June 4–6. Japan lost four carriers, and America would now go on the offensive in the Pacific. In North Africa, Rommel overran the British garrison of Tobruk in Libya on June 21.
America’s 1st Marine Division invaded Guadalcanal on August 7. British forces under the command of General Bernard Montgomery (1887–1976) launched the battle of El Alamein on October 24, beginning the Allied reconquest of North Africa. American and British troops invaded Algeria and Morocco on November 8. Code-named Operation Torch, it was the beginning of major Anglo-American operations against the Germans.
In Russia, the Red Army began a major offensive to relieve Stalingrad on November 19.
The Battle of Stalingrad ended with a stunning German surrender on January 31, a turning point of the war in Europe. In the Pacific theater, the Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal on February 9. And in North Africa, the leader of Germany’s famed Afrika Korps, Rommel, left the region on March 9 after a string of defeats.
Polish Jews in Warsaw launched an uprising on April 19. It would end on May 16,with few survivors.
The Anglo-American conquest of North Africa was completed on May 12 with the surrender of remaining Axis troops. The victorious Allies then invaded Sicily on July 10. Fifteen days later, on July 25, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) was overthrown and placed under arrest.
Italy ended hostilities with the Allies on September 3, and the American army invaded Salerno on September 9 to fight German forces in Italy. German troops rescued Mussolini from his captors on September 12. The Soviets continued their dramatic westward push, recapturing Kiev on November 6.
U.S. Marines landed on Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands on November 20. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met together for the first time in Tehran, Iran, from November 28 to December 1. The leaders discussed preparations for an invasion of Nazi-held France. Rommel was named to oversee German defenses in France on December 12. Dwight Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of the Mediterranean unified command on December 24.
Allied troops landed in Anzio on January 22. The Red Army relieved Leningrad on January 27 after a 900-day siege. A million or more civilians most likely died.
American troops entered Rome on June 4 after weeks of bitter fighting. On June 6, American, British and Canadian troops landed in Normandy as part of the long expected invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Five thousand ships, the largest armada in history, took part in the D-Day invasion, Operation Overlord. Some 150,000 troops were put ashore on five beaches.
U.S. Marines, moving closer to the Japanese home islands, invaded Saipan on June 15. American naval forces sank two Japanese carriers during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19–20. Tojo was ousted as the civilian and military leader of Japan in July.
With the Allies pressing on both the western and eastern fronts, a group of dissident German officers attempted to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20. The plot failed. Among those implicated was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was allowed to commit suicide. American and Free French troops invaded southern France on August 15 in what became known as the “Champagne Campaign.” The Russians moved into Poland in late July and into Romania on August 20. The liberation of Paris took place on August 25, with the Free French army leading the way. A new German offensive from the air began on September 8, when a V-2 rocket landed in Britain.
U.S. Marines landed on Peleliu Island in the Pacific on September 15. In a daring but vain move, the Allies tried to get behind German lines by landing paratroops near Arnhemin, Holland on September 17 (Operation Market-Garden).Survivors later were evacuated.
On October 2, German troops put down a two-month civilian uprising in Warsaw that was encouraged but not supported by the Soviets.
General MacArthur made good on his promise to return to the Philippine Islands as Americans landed there on October 20. A huge naval engagement between American and Japanese warships, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, followed on October 23 to October 26. The Japanese lost 34 ships.
After retreating through France since D-Day, the German army counterattacked through the Ardennes Forest on December 16. The fight which ensued became known as the Battle of the Bulge. On December 22 the commander of the besieged American garrison, General Anthony McAuliffe, gave a one-word answer when Germans demanded his surrender: “Nuts.” The siege ended on December 26.
More than a million Soviet troops under Zhukov launched an attack against German troops in Poland on January 12. Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met in Yalta from February 4–11 to discuss postwar plans.
Royal Air Force and U.S. airplanes firebombed Dresden February 13–15, killing some 50,000 civilians. U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima on February 19. On March 7, American troops crossed the Rhine River at Remagen.
The American air force firebombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities on March 9, killing more than 80,000 civilians. On April 1, American forces invaded Okinawa. The Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated on April 11. The following day, President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. Harry Truman succeeded him.
Soviet troops reached Berlin on April 23, and on April 25, American and Soviet forces linked up on the Elbe River.
The former dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, was captured and killed by Italian irregulars on April 28. Hitler committed suicide on April 30 as Russian troops closed in on his bunker. Germany surrendered on May 7. The allies designated May 8 as V-E Day — Victory in Europe. In his victory speech, Churchill reminded his nation that Japan remained unconquered. Never the less, he would be turned out of office on July 26 when British voters chose the Labor Party to lead them.
The atomic bomb was tested successfully in New Mexico on July 16. On August 6, the American war plane Enola Gay dropped the bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Another atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. The Japanese surrendered on August 14, and August 15 was designated as V-J Day.