World War II: Causes, Course of the War and Consequences

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : December 25th, 2020

World War II (1939–45): World History, UPSC IAS GS Mains Paper-I (Indian Heritage and Culture, History and Geography of the World and Society).

The world witnessed two great wars, World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45), which brought far-reaching changes in global politics.

In this article, you will learn about:

  • Introduction
  • Causes to WWII
  • Course of war
  • Nazi Holocaust
  • Consequences of World War II
  • Decolonisation - Independence to India

World War-II

1. Introduction

  • World War II, also known as the Second World War, was fought for six years (1939–45).
  • The war was fought between the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to some extent, China). 
  • It was the bloodiest and the largest war fought ever in history. Over four crore people died in the war, which is equivalent to about 3 per cent of the world population then.

Also Read: Industrial Revolution

Also Read: World War –I (WWI)

2. Causes

There were numerous causes for World War II. The most important include the impact of the Treaty of Versailles post World War I, the global economic depression, failure of appeasement, the rise of militarism in Germany and Japan, and the failure of the League of Nations.

Treaty of Versailles

  • After World War I, the victorious Allied Powers met to decide the future of Germany.
  • Germany had to sign the Treaty of Versailles. It had to accept the guilt for the war and pay huge reparation. Germany lost most of its territory and was barred from having a large military more than 100000. 
  • The Treaty of Versailles left Germany politically, militarily and economically shattered.
  • She wanted revenge and was ready to have a trial of strength with the Allied Powers. 

Economic Depression 

  • The great depression hit the whole world in 1929.
  • During the depression, economies shrank, trade was reduced, businesses closed, prices fell, banks failed, and unemployment increased. 
  • When the economy is depressed, citizens look for strong political leadership to resolve their problems. After becoming the leader of Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler promised to restore its lost glory, wealth and power.
  • His vision of the reconstruction of Germany into a great nation inspired many Germans.
  • It acted as a balm on the wounds caused by the humiliation after WWI.  Many people supported Nazism because it appeared to offer a way out of economic decline. 

Rise of Fascism / Ultra-nationalism

  • Fascism is a far-right, authoritarian ultra-nationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, as well as strong regimentation of society and of the economy which came to prominence after WWI in early 20th-century Europe.
  • Mussolini introduced Fascism in Italy for the first time. 
  • Adolf Hitler introduced Nazism, the German version of Fascism, on the basis of ethnic purity. Nazism proved disastrous not only for the German people but for entire Europe and many other parts of the world.
  • After WWI, a number of political movements arose in Europe which was given the name Fascism.
  • The growth of the anti-democratic government in so many countries led to World War II.

German Militarism

  • Hitler denounced the Treaty of Versailles and immediately began secretly building up Germany’s army and weapons neglecting the peace Treaty.
  • Though Britain and France learnt Hitler’s actions, they initially thought that a stronger Germany would stop the spread of Communism from Russia. 
  • In 1936, Hitler signed the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis with the fascist powers. 

Failure of Appeasement 

  • Appeasement meant a policy of agreeing to the demands of another nation in order to avoid conflict.  
  • Britain and France understood that the Treaty of Versailles was discriminatory to Germany and that Hitler’s actions were understandable and justifiable.
  • In the Munich Agreement, Britain and France permitted Germany to annex Sudetenland in the Northern part of Czechoslovakia, where German-speakers lived. 
  • In March 1939, Germany broke its promise and invaded the whole of Czechoslovakia. However, neither Britain nor France was prepared to take military action at this point.

Japanese Militarism

  • In 1931, Japanese economy was hit badly by the economic depression. Japanese people had lost faith in the government and turned to the army in order to find a remedy for their economic problems. 

Failure of League of Nations

The League of Nations was envisioned to prevent war with collective security. It was a good idea but ultimately turned into a failure. Major reasons for failure:

  • Many countries did not join the league, e.g. The US, the main architect, itself did not join.
  • The League was powerless and had no army to prevent military aggression such as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in Africa or Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in China.

Also Read: Industrial Revolution

Also Read: World War –I (WWI)

3. Course of the War

  • But the Führer (Nazi leader) turned his eyes to Poland
  • Hitler wanted to take back the Polish Corridor, which Germany lost to Poland after WWI. 
  • To avoid attack from the Soviet Union, Germany signed a nonaggression pact secretly to divide Poland between each other. 
  • Germany invaded Poland with a surprise attack called “lightning war”.
  • After the event, France and Great Britain blatant war on Germany on September 3, 1939.
  • Later Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway to build naval bases along the Norwegian and Danish coasts to attack Britain.

Fall of Franc

  • In May of 1940, as part of a strategy to attack France, Hitler began a dramatic sweep through Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
  • At this time, sensing Germany's victory, Italy (Mussolini) joined German forces and defeated France.
  • On June 22, 1940, France surrendered. The Germans took control of the northern part of France and they left the southern part to a puppet government headed by Pétain.

Battle of Britain 

  • After the fall of France, Hitler now turned his mind to the invasion of Great Britain. 
  • Winston Churchill, the new British prime minister, had already declared that Britain would never give in. Hitler’s planned “Operation Sea Lion” to knock out the British Royal Air Force (RAF). 
  • The battle continued for one year until May 10, 1941. But the British gave strong resistance, and then Hitler decided to call off his attacks. 
  • Instead, he focused on Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The Battle of Britain had ended. The Allies had learned a crucial lesson that Hitler’s advances could be blocked.

Attack on North Africa

  • Mussolini took his next step in September 1940. His aim was to seize British-controlled Egypt. 
  • Egypt’s Suez Canal was the key to reaching the oil fields of the Middle East. 

War in Balkan

  • In April 1941, Hitler conquered both Yugoslavia and Greece
  • In Greece, the Nazis celebrated their conquest by raising swastikas on the Acropolis.

The Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor

  • The US had been hesitant to involve in the war initially having witnessed the economic depression.
  • On September 4, 1941, a German U-boat suddenly fired on a U.S. destroyer in the Atlantic. US President Roosevelt ordered navy commanders to respond. 
  • But, the Japanese attacked and destroyed the whole U.S. Pacific fleet.
  • After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese army seized Guam and Wake Island in the western Pacific. They then launched an attack on the Philippines. 
  • The Japanese also hit the British, seizing Hong Kong and invading Malaya. 

America entered the War

  • To revenge the destruction of Pearl Harbour, the US entered into the war which boosted the morale and strength of the Allies.
  • America destroyed Japanese cruises and careers in the Battle of Midway.  This turned the war against Japan.
  • The Allied powers also learnt about the Nazi Holocaust- the mass killing of Jews- and pledged to take strong action.

Nazi Holocaust

Allied Victory

  • Germany’s victories slowed considerably by the mid-1942. 
  • The Allies realised that defeating the Axis powers required mobilizing for total war.
  • The Code-named Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy was the greatest land and sea attack in history. The day June 6, 1944, was chosen for the invasion to begin—called D-Day.
  • The Allies marched triumphantly into Paris. By September, they had liberated France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and much of the Netherlands. They then set their sights on Germany.
  • In the Battle of the Bulge, the Allied forces pushed German troops from the west, the Soviet Union from the east. 

Germany surrendered unconditionally

  • Finally, Germany surrendered at Stalingrad to the Soviet Union, the turning point in the war.
  • By April 25, 1945, the Soviets had surrounded Berlin, as their artillery pounded the city. 
  • Hitler prepared for his end and committed suicide. 
  • On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally. On May 8, The United States and other Allied powers celebrated V-E Day—Victory in Europe Day. The war in Europe had ended at last. 

Japanese Surrender 

  • Although the war in Europe was ended, the Allies were still fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
  • President Truman understood that an invasion of the Japanese homeland might cost the Allies half a million lives. 
  • Truman decided to bring the war to the quickest possible end by using a powerful new weapon called the atomic bomb, or A-bomb.
  • Initially, Truman warned the Japanese to surrender, but Japan did not care.  
  • On August 6, 1945, the United States threw down an atomic bomb on Hiroshima
  • Japanese still continued the war, and then on August 9, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. 
  • The war ended ultimately after Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945.

Also Read: Industrial Revolution

Also Read: World War –I (WWI)

4. Consequences

  • World War II cost millions of human lives and billions of dollars in damages in Europe, Asia and Africa. The war had set an agenda for global governance.
  • Demilitarisation in Japan and the adoption of a new constitution.
  • Rise of Communism: After the war, the Communist Parties promised change, and people were prepared to listen. In both France and Italy, Communist Party membership spiked. However, it later declined.

Rise of New Superpowers

Having shown their military power in the war, the US and the Soviet Union had become two superpowers. Great Britain and France lost their position.

Post War Reconstruction – Birth of New economic Organisations

  • The leaders intended to establish a postwar economic order based on notions of consensual decision-making and cooperation in the realm of trade and economic relations. 
  • At Bretton Woods’s conference, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were set up at a meeting of 43 countries in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, the USA in July 1944. 
  • The leaders of the Allied countries, particularly the US and Britain, sensed that a multilateral framework was required to overcome the destabilising effects of the previous global economic depression and trade battles.
  • They believed that global economic interaction was necessary to maintain international peace and security.

Formation of UNO

  • Though the League of Nations failed to ward off war, it set a condition to have a strong multilateral institution for maintaining international peace.
  • The major post-development was the formation of UNO.
  • During the war, Roosevelt and Churchill met secretly on a battleship off Newfoundland on August 9, 1941, and issued a joint declaration called the Atlantic Charter
  • The charter advocated free trade among nations and the right of people to choose their own government.
  • It later served as the Allies’ peace plan at the end of World War II. This also led to the writing of the UN Charter.
  • Countries pledged to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.
  • The UN aims to ensure peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet.

Cold War

  • The post-war Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe fuelled America’s fears of a Russian plan to control the world. 
  • Meanwhile, the Soviet Union resented American officials’ bellicose rhetoric, arms build-up and interventionist approach to international relations.
  • The US followed a “containment strategy” to control USSR expansive tendencies.
  • However, this led to unprecedented growth of arms built up by the US and USSR.
  • The Allies’ victory in the war set up situations for both the Cold War and today’s post-Cold War world.

Decolonisation

  • Immediately after the war ended, Britain and France were confronted with various domestic and external pressures. They could no longer hold onto their respective colonies. 
  • Decolonisation started in Asian and African colonies. Many colonies got independence.
Independence to India
  • World War II had taken a huge toll on the British Empire. Great Britain had spent billions of pounds and they were looking to their colonies to help them regain their world power. 
  • Popular pressure from colonies across the world increased against British imperialism. Because, the British fought against the colonisation of Germany in Europe, but the same had been continued by Britain across the world. 
  • In India, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement at this time against the British.
  • Post-war, the Labour Party was elected to power in Britain which favoured independence to India.
  • India got independence on August 15, 1947.

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Sudheer Kumar KSudheer Kumar KMember since Sep 2020
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Arti

ArtiDec 25, 2020

Thanks for sand👍👍🏵🌺👌😍😁😄🙏
Rajani Kumari Baodya
Thnk u sir for hindi
Durga Choudhary
Thank you sir

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