Modern World History

The Second World War

Despite their hatred of the Versailles treaty very few Germans wanted another war. Even Hitler was anxious to avoid conflict at the outset. Re-occupying the Rhineland (1936), achieving union with Austria (1938), even the absorption of the German-speaking border lands of Czechoslovakia (1938) - all these were presented to British and French public opinion as part of a strictly limited programme aimed at restoring Germany's pre-1914 borders. Indeed it could be said that these moves were in accordance with the Versailles Treaty's principle of 'self-determination. It was when Hitler seized the remaining part of Czechoslovakia early in 1939 that another European war seemed to become inevitable. The final stage was reached when Germany concluded a non-aggression pact with Russia aimed at the partition of Poland. On September 1 1939 German troops crossed the Polish border and the 3rd Britain and France declared war.

Poland was quickly defeated but in the west hostilities did not begin seriously until April 1940 when the Germans took control of Norway and Denmark to secure much needed supplies of iron ore. The feeble British response to this invasion led to the fall of Chamberlain's government and the installation of Churchill as prime-minister. Within days German armoured divisions were punching their way south through Belgium into France, by-passing French defences on the Rhine and isolating British forces at Dunkirk. Only by a 'miracle' were the men themselves safely evacuated: all their equipment had to be left behind. Before long France capitulated and Hitler made plans to invade Britain ('Operation Sea Lion'). As is well known, his plans were frustrated by the German airforce's inability to win command of the air - the 'Battle of Britain' - after which Hitler tried to bomb Britain into making peace - the 'Blitz'.

At the start of 1941 Britain stood alone against a German army victorious in almost every theatre. Only at sea had there been a victory to celebrate, with the sinking of the pride of Hitler's fleet, the Bismarck, in June 1940. In April 1941 German troops invaded Jugoslavia and Greece and shortly afterwards North Africa, threatening Egypt and the Suez Canal. Then the tide began to turn. In June Germany attacked Russia, having deceived Stalin to the last, and in December 1941 Germany's ally Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbour. Although she still seemed to have the upper hand at the beginning of 1942, Germany now faced a combination of resources and manpower that made her eventual defeat inevitable.

For most of 1943 the Russians bore the brunt of the fighting. Stalin repeatedly called for a 'second front' in the west. However, having first thrown the Germans out of North Africa, the British and Americans preferred to attack Hitler through Italy. It was only when the Italian campaign ground to a halt that serious preparation for a sea-borne invasion of France began. In the same month that British and America forces landed in Normandy (June 1944) Russian and German armoured divisions clashed at Kursk in what was the greatest tank battle of the war. The Germans were decisively defeated, opening the way for a Russian counter-attack that would take them to the outskirts of Berlin in less than a year.

The victorious allies now faced the same problem as had faced the peace-makers at Versailles. As Hitler's 'new order' crumbled what would replace it? Meetings between the leaders at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam resulted in a tacit recognition that Russia would keep control of all those territories that her armies had occupied. In a famous speech in 1946 Churchill would complain about an 'iron curtain' separating Eastern Europe from the West. Nevertheless it was he who made the original deal with Stalin, identifying by a system of percentages which countries would lie within the Soviet 'sphere'. He knew that this was the only way to ensure that the allies stayed on the same side right to the end.

In the Far East Japan proved an even tougher and more desperate foe than Germany. Fortified by a concept of honour ('bushido') which made them ruthless towards their prisoners, Japanese soldiers seldom surrendered. With much of the fighting taking place in tropical jungle battles were long drawn out and costly. It was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that broke the Japanese will to resist. Honour and devotion to the emperor could have no value in the face of such overwhelming power.