The Second World War, 1939-45 (Part-1)

Unlike the 1914-18 war, the Second World War was a war of rapid movement; it was a much more complex affair, with major campaigns taking place in the Pacific and the Far East, in North Africa and deep in the heart of Russia, as well as in central and western Europe and the Atlantic. The war falls into four fairly clearly defined phases:

1. Opening moves: September 1939 to December 1940

By the end of September the Germans and Russians had occupied Poland. After a five month pause (known as the ‘phoney war’), German forces occupied Denmark and Norway (April 1940). In May, attacks were made on Holland, Belgium and France, who were soon defeated, leaving Britain alone to face the dictators (Mussolini had declared war in June, just before the fall of France). Hitler’s attempt to bomb Britain into submission was thwarted in the Battle of Britain (July to September 1940), but Mussolini’s armies invaded Egypt and Greece.

2. The Axis offensive widens: 1941 to the summer of 1942

The war now began to develop into a worldwide conflict. First Hitler, confident of a quick victory over Britain, launched an invasion of Russia (June 1941), breaking the non-aggression pact signed less than two years earlier. Then the Japanese forced the USA into the war by attacking the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (December 1941), and they folJowed this up by occupying territories such as the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore and Burma, scattered over a wide area. At this stage of the war there seemed to be no way of stopping the Germans and Japanese, though the Italians were less successful.

3. The offensives held in check: summer 1942 to summer 1943

  • This phase of the war saw three important battles in which Axis forces were defeated.
  • In June 1942, the Americans drove off a Japanese attack on Midway Island, inflicting heavy losses.
  • In October, the Germans under Rommel, advancing towards Egypt, were halted at El Alamein and later driven out of North Africa.
  • The third battle was in Russia, where by September 1942, the Germans had penetrated as far as Stalingrad on the river Volga. Here the Russians put up such fierce resistance that in the following February the German army was surrounded and forced to surrender.

Meanwhile the war in the air continued, with both sides bombing enemy cities, while at sea, as in the First World War, the British and Americans gradually got the better of the German submarine menace.

4. The Axis powers defeated: July 1943 to August 1945

The enormous power and resources of the USA and the USSR, combined with an all-out effort from Britain and her Empire, slowly but surely wore the Axis powers down. Italy was eliminated first, and this was followed by an Anglo-American invasion of Normandy (June 1944) which liberated France, Belgium and Holland. Later, Allied troops crossed the Rhine and captured Cologne. In the east, the Russians drove the Germans out and advanced on Berlin via Poland. Gennany surrendered in May 1945 and Japan in August, after the Americans had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki.


(a) Poland defeated

The Poles were defeated swiftly by the German Blitzkrieg (lightning war), which they were ill-equipped to deal with. Polish resistance was heroic but hopeless: they had no motorized divisions and they tried to stop advancing German tanks by massed cavalry charges. Britain and France did little to help their ally directly because French mobilization procedure was slow and out-of-date, and it was difficult to transport sufficient troops to Poland to be effective. When the Russians invaded eastern Poland, resistance collapsed. On 29 September Poland was divided up between Gennany and the USSR (as agreed in the pact of August 1939).

(b) The ‘phoney war’

Very little happened in the west for the next five months. In the east the Russians took over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and invaded Finland (November 1939), forcing her to hand over frontier territories which would enable the Russians to defend themselves better against any attack from the west. Meanwhile the French and Germans manned their respective defences – the Maginot and Siegfried Lines. Hitler seems to have hoped that the pause would weaken the resolve of Britain and France and encourage them to negotiate peace. This lack of action pleased Hitler’s generals, who were not convinced that the German army was strong enough to attack in the west. It was the American press which described this period as the ‘phoney war’.

(c) Denmark and Norway invaded, April 1940

Hitler’s troops occupied Denmark and landed at the main Norwegian ports in April 1940, rudely shattering the apparent calm of the ‘phoney war’. Control of Norway was important for the Germans because Narvik was the main outlet for Swedish iron-ore, which was vital for the German armaments industry. The British were interfering with this trade by laying mines in Norwegian coastal waters, and the Germans were afraid that they might try to take over some of Norway’s ports, which they were in fact planning to do. Admiral Raeder, the German navy chief, realized that the fjords would be excellent naval bases from which to attack Britain’s transatlantic supply lines. When a British destroyer chased the German vessel Altmark into a Norwegian fjord and rescued the 300 British prisoners aboard, Hitler decided it was time to act. On 9 April, German troops landed in Norway; although British and French troops arrived a few days later, they were unable to dislodge the Germans, who were already well established. After a temporary success at Narvik, all Allied troops were withdrawn by early June because of the growing threat to France itself.

The Germans were successful because the Norwegians had been taken by surprise and their troops were not even mobilized; local Nazis gave the invaders every assistance. The British had no air support, whereas the German air force constantly harassed the Allies.

This Norwegian campaign had important results:

  • Germany was assured of her bases and her iron-ore supplies, but had lost three cruisers and ten destroyers. This made the German navy less effective at Dunkirk than it might have been.
  • It showed the incompetence of Chamberlain’s government. He was forced to resign and Winston Churchill became British prime minister. Although there has been criticism of Churchill’s mistakes, there is no doubt that he supplied what was needed at the time – drive, a sense of urgency, and the ability to make his coalition cabinet work well together.

(d) Hitler attacks Holland, Belgium and France

The attacks on Holland, Belgium and France were launched simultaneously on 10 May, and again Blitzkrieg methods brought swift victories. The Dutch, shaken by the bombing of Rotterdam, which killed almost a thousand people, surrendered after only four days. Belgium held out for longer, but her surrender at the end of May left the British and French troops in Belgium perilously exposed as German motorized divisions swept across northern France; only Dunkirk remained in Allied hands. The British navy played the vital role in evacuating over 338 000 troops – two-thirds of them British – from Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June. This was a remarkable achievement in the face of constant Air attacks on the beaches. It would perhaps have been impossible if Hitler had not ordered the German advance towards Dunkirk to halt (24 May), probably because the marshy terrain and numerous canals were unsuitable for tanks.

The events at Dunkirk were important: a third of a million Allied troops were rescued to fight again, and Churchill used it for propaganda purposes to boost British morale with the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. In fact it was a serious blow for the Allies: the troops at Dunkirk had lost all their arms and equipment, so that it became impossible for Britain to help France.

The Germans now swept southwards: Paris was captured on 14 June and France surrendered on 22 June. At Hitler’s insistence the armistice (ceasefire) was signed at Compiegne in the same railway coach that had been used for the 1918 armistice. The Germans occupied northern France and the Atlantic coast, giving them valuable submarine bases, and the French army was demobilized. Unoccupied France was allowed its own government under Marshal Petain, but it had no real independence and collaborated with the Germans. Britain’s position was now very precarious. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, allowed secret enquiries to be made via Washington about what German peace terms would be; even Churchill thought about the possibility of a negotiated peace.

(e) Why was France defeated so quickly?

1. The French were psychologically unprepared for war, and were bitterly divided between right and left. The right was fascist in sympathy, admired Hitler’s achievements in Germany and wanted an agreement with him. The communists, following the non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR, were also against the war. The long period of inaction during the ‘phoney war’ allowed time for a peace party to develop on the right, headed by Laval. He argued that there was no point in continuing the war now that the Poles, whom they were supposed to be helping, had been defeated.

2. There were serious military weaknesses.

  • France had to face the full weight of an undivided German offensive, whereas in 1914 half the German forces had been directed against Russia.
  • The French High Command was content to sit behind the Maginot Une, a line of defences stretching from the Swiss to the Belgian frontiers. Unfortunately the Maginot Line did not continue along the frontier between France and Belgium, partly because that might have offended the Belgians, and because French believed that the Ardennes would be a strong enough barrier; but this was exactly where the Germans broke through.
  • France had as many tanks and armoured vehicles as Germany, but instead of being concentrated in completely mechanized armoured divisions (like the Germans), allowing greater speed, they were split up so that each infantry division had a few. This slowed them to the speed of marching soldiers (infantry).
  • The German divisions were supported by combat planes, another area neglected by the French.

3; The French generals made fatal mistakes.

  • No attempt was made to help Poland by attacking Germany in the west in September 1939, which might have had a good chance of success.
  • No troops were moved from the Maginot Line forts (most of which were completely inactive) to help block the German breakthrough on the River Meuse (13 May 1940).
  • There was poor communication between the army and air force, so that air defence to drive German bombers off usually failed to arrive.

4; Military defeats gave the defeatist right the chance to come out into the open and put pressure on the government to accept a ceasefire. When even the 84-year-old Petain, the hero of Verdun in 1916, urged peace, Prime Minister Reynaud resigned and Petain took over.

(f) The Battle of Britain (12 August to 30 September 1940)

This was fought in the air, when Goering’s Luftwaffe tried to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a preliminary to the invasion of Britain. The Germans bombed harbours, radar stations, aerodromes and munitions factories; in September they began to bomb London, in retaliation, they claimed, for a British raid on Berlin. The RAF inflicted heavy losses on the Luftwaffe (1389 German planes were lost as against 792 British); when it became clear that British air power was far from being destroyed, Hitler called off the invasion.

Reasons for the British success were:

  • Their chain of new radar stations gave plenty of warning of approaching German attackers.
  • The German bombers were poorly armed. The Germans were hampered by limited range – they could only carry enough fuel to enable them to stay in the air about 90 minutes.
  • The switch to bombing London was a mistake because it relieved pressure on the airfields at the critical moment.

The Battle of Britain was probably the first major turning point of the war: for the first time the Germans had been checked, demonstrating that they were not invincible. Britain was able to remain in the struggle, thus facing Hitler (who was about to attack Russia) with the fatal situation of war on two fronts.

(g) Mussolini invades Egypt, September 1940

Not wanting to be outdone by Hitler, Mussolini sent an army from the Italian colony of Libya which penetrated about 60 miles into Egypt (September 1940), while another Italian army invaded Greece from Albania (October). However, the British soon drove the Italians out of Egypt, pushed them back far into Libya and defeated them at Bedafomm, capturing 130 000 prisoners and 400 tanks. They seemed poised to take the whole of Libya. British naval aircraft sank half the Italian fleet. The Greeks forced the Italians back and invaded Albania. Mussolini was beginning to be an embarrassment to Hitler.


(a) North Africa and Greece

Hitler’s first moves in 1941 were to help out his faltering ally. Together with the Italians, Germans drove the British out of Libya. After much advancing and retreating, by June 1942 the Germans were in Egypt approaching El Alamein. In April 1941 Hitler’s forces invaded Greece, the day after 60000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops had arrived to help the Greeks. The Germans soon captured Athens, forcing the British to withdraw.

The campaigns in Greece had important effects:

  • It was depressing for the Allies, who lost about 36000 men.
  • Many of the troops had been removed from North Africa, thus weakening British forces there just when they needed to be at their most effective.
  • More important in the long run was that Hitler’s involvement in Greece and Yugoslavia (which the Germans invaded at the same time as Greece) may well have delayed his attack on Russia. This was originally planned for 15 May and was delayed for five weeks. If the invasion had taken place in May, the Germans might well have captured Moscow before the winter set in.

(b) The German invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) began on 22 June 1941

Hitler’s motives seem to have been mixed:

  • He feared that the Russians might attack Germany while his forces were still occupied in the west.
  • He hoped that the Japanese would attack Russia in the Far East.
  • The more powerful Japan became, the less chance there was of the USA entering the war (or so Hitler thought).
  • But above all there was his hatred of communism and his desire for Lebensraum (living space).

According to historian Alan Bullock, ‘Hitler invaded Russia for the simple and sufficient reason that he had always meant to establish the foundations of his thousand-year Reich by the annexation of the territory lying between the Vistula and the Urals.’ It has sometimes been suggested that the attack on Russia was Hitler’s greatest mistake, but in fact, ‘to Hitler the Russian campaign was not a luxury: it was the be-all and end-all of Nazism; it could not be delayed. It was now or never.’ Hitler did not expect a long war; he told one of his generals: ‘We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’

The German attack was three-pronged:

  • in the north towards Leningrad,
  • in the centre towards Moscow,
  • in the south through the Ukraine.

It was Blitzkrieg on an awesome scale, involving close on 5.5 million men, and 3550 tanks supported by 5000 aircraft and 47000 pieces of artillery. The Russians had been caught off their guard, in spite of British and American warnings that a German attack was imminent. Stalin apparently believed that Hitler could be trusted to honour the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, and was extremely suspicious of any information which came from Britain or the USA. The Russians were still re-equipping their army and air force, and many of their generals, thanks to Stalin’s purges, were inexperienced.

However, the German forces failed to capture Leningrad and Moscow. They were severely hampered by the heavy rains of October, which turned the Russian roads into mud, and by the severe frosts of November and December. The Germans had inadequate winter clothing because Hitler had expected the campaigns to be over by the autumn. Even in the spring of 1942 no progress was made in the north and centre as Hitler decided to concentrate on a major drive south-eastwards towards the Caucasus to seize the oilfields.

(c) The USA enters the war, December 1941

The USA was brought into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (their naval base in the Hawaiian Islands) on 7 December 1941. Until then, the Americans, still intent on isolation, had remained neutral, though after the Lend-Lease Act (April 1941), they had provided Britain with massive financial aid.

Japanese motives for the attack were tied up with her economic problems.

The government believed they would soon run short of raw materials and cast longing eyes towards territories such as Britain’s Malaya and Burma, which had rubber, oil and tin, and towards the Dutch East Indies, also rich in oil. Since both Britain and Holland were in no fit state to defend their possessions, the Japanese prepared to attack, though they would probably have preferred to avoid war with the USA. However, relations between the two states deteriorated steadily. The Americans assisted the Chinese, who were still at war with Japan; when the Japanese persuaded Vichy France to allow them to occupy French Indo-China (where they set up military bases), President Roosevelt demanded their withdrawal and placed an embargo on oil supplies to Japan (26 July 1941). Long negotiations followed in which the Japanese tried to persuade the Americans to lift the embargo. But stalemate was reached when the Americans insisted on a Japanese withdrawal both from Indo-China and from China itself. When the aggressive General Tojo became prime minister (16 October), war seemed inevitable.

The attack was brilliantly organized by Admiral Yamamoto. There was no declaration of war: 353 Japanese planes arrived undetected at Pearl Harbor, and in two hours, destroyed 350 aircraft and five battleships; 3700 men were killed or seriously injured.

Pearl Harbor had important results:

  • It gave the Japanese control of the Pacific, and by May 1942 they had captured Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma (all part of the British Empire), the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and two American possessions, Guam and Wake Island
  • It caused Hitler to declare war on the USA.

Declaring war on the USA was perhaps Hitler’s most serious mistake. He need not at this stage have committed himself to war with the USA, in which case the Americans might well have concentrated on the Pacific war. However, the Germans had already assured the Japanese that they would come to Japan’s aid if she was ever at war with the USA. Hitler assumed that President Roosevelt of the USA would declare war on Germany sooner or later, so he wanted to get Germany’s declaration of war in first, to show the German people that he, and not the Americans, controlled events. In fact the US Congress was naturally determined to have their revenge on Japan, but was still reluctant to get involved in Europe. Roosevelt would have had a difficult job to persuade Congress to declare war on Germany; Hitler’s action saved him the trouble. As it was, Germany was now faced with the immense potential of the USA. This meant that with the vast resources of the USSR and the British Commonwealth as well, the longer the war lasted, the less chance there was of an Axis victory. It was essential for them to deliver swift knock-out blows before the American contribution became effective.

(d) Brutal behaviour by Germans and Japanese

The behaviour of both Germans and Japanese in their conquered territories was ruthless and brutal. The Nazis treated the peoples of eastern Europe as sub-humans, fit only to be slaves of the German master-race. As for the Jews – they were to be exterminated. Millions of decent, innocent men and women were driven into forced labour, millions were tortured in the concentration camps, and millions more still (including nearly six million Jews) were massacred in cold blood or deliberately starved to death and their remains burned.

This was both amoral and foolish: in the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and in the Ukraine, the Soviet government was so unpopular that decent treatment would have turned the people into allies of the Germans.

The Japanese treated their prisoners of war and the Asian peoples badly. Again this was ill-advised: many of the Asians, like those in Indo-China, at first welcomed the Japanese, who were thought to be freeing them from European control. The Japanese hoped to organize their new territories into a great economic empire known as a Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere, which would be defended by sea and air power. However, harsh treatment by the Japanese soon turned the Asians against rule from Tokyo, and determined resistance movements began, usually with communist involvement.


In three separate areas of fighting, Axis forces were defeated and began to lose ground:

  • Midway Island
  • El Alamein
  • Stalingrad

(a) Midway Island, June 1942

At Midway Island in the Pacific the Americans beat off a powerful Japanese attack. There were several reasons for the American victory against heavier odds:

  • They had broken the Japanese radio code and knew exactly when and where the attack was to be launched.
  • The Japanese were over-confident and made two fatal mistakes: they split their forces, thus allowing the Americans to concentrate on the main carrier force; and they attacked with aircraft from all four carriers simultaneously, so that when they were all rearming, the entire fleet was extremely vulnerable.

Midway proved to be a crucial turning point in the battle for the Pacific: the loss of their carriers and strike planes seriously weakened the Japanese, and from then on the Americans maintained their lead in carriers and aircraft. Although the Japanese had far more battleships and cruisers, they were mostly ineffective: the only way war could be waged successfully in the vast expanses of the Pacific was by air power operating from carriers. Gradually the Americans under General MacArthur began to recover the Pacific islands, beginning in August 1942 with landings in the Solomon Islands. The struggle was long and bitter and continued through 1943 and 1944, a process which the Americans called ‘island hopping‘.

(b) El Alamein, October 1942

At El Alamein in Egypt Rommel’s Afrika Korps were driven back by the British Army, commanded by Montgomery.

El Alamein victory was another turning point in the war:

  • It prevented Egypt and the Suez Canal from falling into German hands.
  • It ended the possibility of a link-up between the Axis forces in the Middle East and those in the Ukraine.
  • More than that, it led on to the complete expulsion of Axis forces from North Africa. It encouraged landings of British troops in the French territories of Morocco and Algeria to threaten the Germans and Italians from the west, while the Eighth Army closed in on them from Libya. Trapped in Tunisia, 275000 Germans and Italians were forced to surrender (May 1943), and the Allies were well-placed for an invasion of Italy.

The desert war had been a serious drain on German resources that could have been used in Russia, where they were badly needed.

(c) Stalingrad

At Stalingrad the southern prong of the German invasion of Russia, which had penetrated deeply through the Crimea was finally checked. The Gennans had reached Stalingrad at the end of August 1942, but though they more or less destroyed the city, the Russians refused to surrender. In November they counter-attacked ferociously, trapping the Germans, whose supply lines were dangerously extended, in a large pincer movement. With his retreat cut off, the German commander, von Paulus, had no reasonable alternative but to surrender with 94 000 men (2 February 1943).

If Stalingrad had fallen, the supply route for Russia’s oil from the Caucasus would have been cut off, and the Germans had hoped to advance up the River Don to attack Moscow from the south-east. This plan had to be abandoned; but more than this was at stake – the defeat was a catastrophe for the Germans: it shattered the myth that they were invincible, and boosted Russian morale. They followed up with more counter-attacks forcing the Germans to keep on retreating. Early in 1944 the Germans had to abandon the siege of Leningrad and to retreat from their position west of Moscow. It was now only a matter of time before the Germans, heavily outnumbered and short of tanks and guns, were driven out of Russia.


(a) The fall of Italy

This was the first stage in the Axis collapse. British and American troops landed in Sicily from the sea and air (10 July 1943) and quickly captured the whole island. This caused the downfall of Mussolini, who was dismissed by the king. Allied troops crossed to the mainland and captured Naples (October 1943).

Marshal Badoglio, Mussolini’s successor, signed an armistice and brought Italy into the war on the Allied side. However, the Germans, determined to hold on to Italy, rushed troops to occupy Rome and the north. The Allies landed a force and Rome were captured. The campaign could have been finished much earlier if the Allies had been less cautious in the early stages, and if the Americans had not insisted on keeping many divisions back for the invasion of France. Nevertheless, the elimination of Italy did contribute towards the final Allied victory:

  • Italy provided air bases for bombing the Germans in Central Europe and the Balkans;
  • German troops were kept occupied when they were needed to resist the Russians.

(b) Operation Overlord, 6 June 1944

Operation Overlord – the invasion of France (also known as the Second Front) – began on ‘D-Day’, 6 June 1944. It was felt that the time was ripe now that Italy had been eliminated, the U-boats brought under control and Allied air superiority achieved. The Russians had been urging the Allies to start this Second Front ever since 1941, to relieve pressure on them. The landings took place from sea and air on a 60-mile stretch of Normandy beaches. There was strong German resistance, but at the end of the first week 326 000 men with tanks and heavy lorries bad landed safely.

It was a remarkable operation. Over 3 million Allied troops were landed. Within a few weeks most of northern France was liberated (Paris on 25 August), putting out of action the sites from which the German V1 and V2 rocket missiles had been launched with devastating effects on south-eastern Britain. In Belgium, Brussels and Antwerp were liberated in September

(c) ‘Unconditional surrender’

With the Germans forced to retreat in France and in Russia, there were people on both sides who hoped that there might be an armistice followed by a negotiated peace; this was the way in which the First World War had been brought to an end. However, Hitler himself always talked of a fight to the death, and there were serious differences between the Allies themselves over the question of peace negotiations. As far back as January 1943, President Roosevelt announced that the Allies were fighting for ‘the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy and Japan’. Churchill and most of his staff were dismayed by this because they felt that it ruined all chances of a negotiated peace. Members of the British secret service were actually in touch with their German opposite numbers and with members of the German resistance to the Nazis, who hoped to persuade the German generals to help them overthrow Hitler. This, they believed, would lead to the opening of peace negotiations. The Nazi leaders were delighted with Roosevelt’s announcement; Goebbels remarked: ‘I should never have been able to think up so rousing a slogan. If our western enemies tell us, we won’t deal with you, our only aim is to destroy you, how can any German, whether he likes it or not, do anything but fight on with all his strength?’

Many leading Americans, including General Eisenhower, were against ‘unconditional surrender’ because they realized that it would prolong the war and cause further unnecessary loss of life. Several times in the weeks before D-Day, the American chiefs of staff put pressure on Roosevelt to change his mind, but he stubbornly refused, in case this was taken by the Axis powers as a sign of weakness. The policy was continued by Roosevelt until his death in April 1945, and by his successor, Haffy S. Truman. No attempts were made to negotiate peace with either Germany or Japan until they had both surrendered.

Thomas Fleming, writing in History Today (December 2001), calculated that in the period from D-Day until the end of the war in August 1945, close on two million people were killed. Many of these lives could perhaps have been saved if there had been the prospect of a negotiated peace to encourage the German resistance to overthrow Hitler. As it was, concludes Fleming, the policy of unconditional surrender was ‘an ultimatum written in blood‘.

(d) The assault on Germany

With the success of the Second Front, the Allies began to gather themselves together for the invasion of Germany itself. If they had expected the German armies to fall apart rapidly, they must have been bitterly disappointed. The war was prolonged by desperate German resistance and by further disagreements between the British and Americans. Montgomery wanted a rapid thrust to reach Berlin before the Russians, but Eisenhower favoured a cautious advance along a broad front. The British failure at Arnhem in Holland (September 1944) seemed to support Eisenhower’s view. Arnhem operation  was an attempt by parachute troops to cross the Rhine and outflank the German Siegfried Line.

Consequently Eisenhower had his way and Allied troops were dispersed over a 600- mile front, with unfortunate results:

  • Hitler was able to launch an offensive through the weakly defended Ardennes towards Antwerp;
  • the Germans broke through the American lines and advanced 60 miles, causing a huge bulge in the front line (December 1944).

Determined British and American action stemmed the advance and pushed the Germans back to their original position. But the Battle of the Bulge, as it became known, was important because Hitler had risked everything on the attack and had lost 250000 men and 600 tanks, which at this stage could not be replaced.

Early in 1945, Germany was being invaded on both fronts, from east and west. The British still wanted to push ahead and take Berlin before the Russians, but supreme commander Eisenhower refused to be hurried, and Berlin fell to Stalin’s forces in April. Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered.

The question has sometimes been asked: why did the Germans keep on fighting to the bitter end in 1945 long after it must have been obvious that the war was lost? Why was there not some sort of popular uprising to force the government to start peace negotiations?

  1. Adam Tooze believes that one of the reasons was that a large section of German society was completely committed to the war effort, and actually took or suggested many of the initiatives which made it possible for Germany to fight to the death.
  2. In Ian Kershaw’s view, the main reason is obvious: it lies in the nature of the Nazi regime and in Hitler’s belief that relations between states were a life and death struggle for survival and supremacy. Hitler’s attitude was completely irrational: either Germany would be totally victorious – the most powerful state in the world – or Germany would be destroyed. There could be no compromise. When it was all over, many Germans tried to blame the Allied policy of ‘unconditional surrender’ for their determination to fight on.
  3. However, Kershaw is adamant that the reason the Germans fought on has to be found inside Germany itself. Many Germans kept going because they were afraid of the enemy, especially the Russians, but also because they were afraid of Nazi officials. The Nazis hanged or shot people they described as defeatists, deserters and cowards, and generally bullied and terrorised the civilian population. Kershaw is not convinced by historians who claim that the Nazi regime was based overwhelmingly on popular consent. He concludes that terror was a vital element in sustaining the regime, just as it had been even in the years of peace before 1939.

(e) The defeat of Japan

On 6 August 1945 the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing perhaps as many as 84000 people and leaving thousands more slowly dying of radiation poisoning. Three days later they dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, which killed perhaps another 40000; after this the Japanese government surrendered.

The dropping of these bombs was one of the most controversial actions of the entire war. President Truman’s justification was that he was saving American lives, since the war might otherwise drag on for another year. Many historians believe that the bombings were not necessary, since the Japanese had already put out peace feelers in July via Russia. One suggestion is that the real reason for the bombings was to end the fighting swiftly before the Russians (who had promised to enter the war against Japan) gained too much Japanese territory, which would entitle them to share the occupation of Japan. The use of the bombs was also a deliberate demonstration to the USSR of the USA’s enormous power.


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