By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the Allied and Axis operations in Europe and Africa during World War II
- Explain why the Battles of Stalingrad and Midway are considered turning points in World War II
- Discuss U.S. operations in East Asia and the Pacific during World War II
- Describe the evolution of the Holocaust after the German invasion of Poland
World War II was perhaps history’s most globalizing event. Troops fought battles on three continents, in the air, and at sea. Britain and the United States planned early in the war to focus on defeating Italy and Germany before Japan but left the Soviet Union to battle Germany alone. In Asia, the “liberation” of the inhabitants of European and U.S. colonies by Japanese troops only replaced Western rule with Japanese rule, igniting or giving impetus to nationalist movements. Fought on so many fronts, World War II proved to be the deadliest conflict in history. Among those who perished were millions of noncombatants, including the victims of the Nazi death camps. The experiences of survivors shaped the rest of their lives and the course of the societies to which they returned.
Europe and Africa
Beginning in 1938 and through the spring of 1941, U.S. military leaders produced several plans of action in the event of war with the Axis powers. Immediately after winning an unprecedented third term in 1940, Roosevelt was briefed by his chief of naval operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, who advised him that the best military strategy was “Plan D”—a Europe First plan. This focused the United States and Britain on defeating Germany and Italy first and adopting a defensive posture against Japan if it entered the war.
Mussolini decided to expand his African holdings and in August 1940 occupied British Somaliland, threatening the British in Egypt. The British counterattacked. Losing ground in Africa from June through December 1940, Mussolini turned his eyes on the Balkans. In October 1940, expecting an easy victory, Italian units invaded Greece but were badly defeated. To forestall further disaster, Hitler dispatched General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps to duel with the British in northeast North Africa. Not only did Germany wish to support its Italian ally, but it also sought to gain control of the Suez Canal and guarantee its access to Middle Eastern oil, which would be crucial in winning the war. To further aid his faltering ally and deal with an anti-German uprising in Yugoslavia, Hitler postponed his invasion of the Soviet Union by several weeks and invaded Greece on April 6, 1941.
Fearing that any substantial British effort against the Germans in Norway or northern France would become a slaughter, Winston Churchill conceived Operation Gymnast, a plan to engage the Germans in northwest Africa instead. On a military mission to London in July 1942, General Eisenhower was deeply disappointed in Churchill’s approach, considering how badly the Soviets were suffering from German offensives. General George C. Marshall favored opening a front in northern Europe in order to draw German resources away from its attack on the Soviet Union before the Soviets collapsed. But Churchill prevailed, and the Allies, now including the United States, invaded French North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) in November 1942. Key British possessions Egypt and the Suez Canal were saved, and in a January 1943 summit meeting at Casablanca in French Morocco, Churchill and Roosevelt planned the next phase of the war, Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. This choice disappointed Stalin, who had been hoping for an invasion of western Europe instead, to draw German troops away from the fighting in the east and the Soviet Union.
All the while, desperate battles were being waged on the eastern front in the Soviet Union. In August 1941, given the initial success of the German invasion and poised to capture Moscow, Hitler delayed the advance to decide strategy. The German general staff wanted to drive directly for Moscow and take it before winter. Hitler, however, diverted a significant part of his forces to the south. Both Allied and Axis thinkers had long recognized the strategic military importance of oil. For some time prior to the war, the British government had interjected itself into the politics of Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, and Egypt for this reason. The Germans too had taken a keen interest in the Middle East and central Asia in the 1930s. In 1925, in Iran, Reza Shah had consolidated his rule and commenced a program of modernization, increasing ties with Germany and employing hundreds of Germans.
To block potential German access to Iranian oil, the British first demanded the possibly pro-German Shah expel Germans and sever ties with Berlin. Taking no chances, British and Soviet forces then invaded Iran in August 1941. Iranian resistence collapsed in a couple of days, and Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Germans were expelled, and the Allied occupation lasted until 1946. During those years, Iran became a funnel through which much Allied aid, especially from the United States, was delivered to Stalin as he struggled to hold out against the Wehrmacht.
By 1939, the global supply of oil was in the hands of seven oil conglomerates—none of which were German. Consequently, Germany was heavily reliant on Romanian and Soviet oil between 1939 and 1941. The oil fields in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, one thousand kilometers from Stalingrad, looked like a possible solution, so the German army moved to capture the city of Baku, the center of the Soviet oil-drilling industry. Thus, both winter and the German drive for oil saved Moscow.
In the summer of 1942, the Germans resumed the offensive on all fronts but were unable to get far, except for approaching Stalingrad. Hitler was determined to take the city and Stalin to hold it. In July, Stalin issued Order No. 227 forbidding Soviet troops from retreating: “Not one step backwards!” By the fall of 1942, German troops had actually broken into Stalingrad, but their progress thereafter was gruesomely slow and difficult. For more than two months, the Battle of Stalingrad raged with ferocity, sometimes building by building (Figure 13.11).
Having assembled sufficient forces, in November 1942 the Soviet Red Army counterattacked at Stalingrad and managed to trap the Germans in a noose. The only way for the Germans to resupply was by air, which was far too limited to sustain them for very long. Despite being specifically forbidden to do so, on January 31, 1943, German field marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered what was left of his Sixth Army. The Soviets captured close to 100,000 German troops. Total casualties in the battle had reached nearly two million, including substantial numbers of civilians. The Battle of Stalingrad stopped the German advance into the Soviet Union. It was the first clear defeat for Hitler’s Germany and the turning point of the war in Europe, setting the Nazis on a defensive course for the remainder of the war.
From the time of his first meeting with Churchill in August 1942, a frustrated Stalin had been calling for a second front against the Nazis in Europe. In the summer of 1943, the Soviets, fresh from saving Stalingrad, went on the offensive against the Germans. The ensuing Battle of Kursk was the biggest land battle of the war and the largest tank battle in history. The Soviet victory damaged Germany’s war-making capacity by compromising its armaments.
Mussolini had insisted on contributing 200,000 troops to the invasion of the Soviet Union, and by early 1943, half of them had become casualties. Allied victories in North Africa and Sicily, along with the Allied bombing of Rome in July 1943, further humiliated Mussolini. In Italy, a coalition of former fascist supporters, military officers, the few surviving liberal politicians, and the king himself reached the conclusion that Mussolini must go. The Grand Fascist Council met for the first time in three years on July 24, 1943, and voted overwhelmingly to remove him from power and place him under arrest.
A government was formed under Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who initiated secret negotiations with the Allies. The Allied invasion of the mainland of Italy at the beginning of September provided the impetus for Italy’s surrender on September 8, 1943. Four days later, Hitler had German special forces rescue Mussolini. German troops already in Italy then moved to disarm the remnants of the Italian army and established a government called the Republic of Salo in northern Italy, with Mussolini as its figurehead. However, Italian communist partisans captured and executed Mussolini in April 1945.
Earlier, with Iran secured through the Allied invasion, Tehran had been the site of the first of the World War II conferences between the “Big Three”: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. From November 28 to December 1, 1943, the Tehran conference addressed relations between the Allies, relations between Turkey and Iran, operations in Yugoslavia, the fight against Japan, and plans for the postwar settlement. A protocol signed at the conference pledged the Big Three’s recognition of Iran’s independence. The Big Three also agreed on a cross-channel invasion of Europe scheduled for May 1944, in conjunction with a Soviet attack on Germany’s eastern border. Stalin dominated the conference, using Soviet victories to get preliminary agreements on the borders of Poland after the war. Churchill and Roosevelt also consented to the USSR setting up governments sympathetic to itself in the Baltic states. Roosevelt and Stalin continued their discussions of a general international organization that had been proposed a few months earlier.
East Asia and the Pacific
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines beginning in December 1941, the limited U.S. and Filipino forces put up stiff resistance in jungle fighting. Outnumbered, however, they surrendered their positions on the Bataan Peninsula on April 9, 1942. The command headquarters surrendered at Corregidor Island nearly a month later. The resulting sixty-mile forced march to an internment camp led to the deaths of more than a quarter of the estimated eighty thousand Allied prisoners and became known as the Bataan Death March. Over the course of the war, the Japanese held approximately 140,000 Allied troops under severe conditions at various camps in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and on the Japanese home islands. By the end of the war, as many as thirty thousand had perished there.
Five months into 1942, the Japanese had gathered a significant portion of Burma, Malaya and the Straits Settlements, Indonesia, French Indochina, and the Philippines into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Figure 13.12). While deconstructing White colonial rule, the Japanese began to systematically exploit the liberated areas for their resources in support of a greater Japan. However impressive the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was on paper, however, the Japanese military and civilian administrators were hard-pressed to solve significant problems. The extent of the area under control and the size of the captive population presented governance issues, while geography severely strained communication and transportation networks. Puppet regimes were an attempt to solve some of these problems, such as the collaborationist regime in China under Wang Jingwei in 1940, the Ba Maw government in Burma during the Japanese occupation, and the administration of José P. Laurel in the defeated Philippines.
Successes were short-lived, however, because in June 1942, the United States decisively won what became the turning point of the war in the Pacific—the Battle of Midway, which stopped Japan’s advance across the Pacific. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, and other ships were severely damaged. The balance of power clearly shifted toward the Allies, and the Japanese navy never recovered its momentum.
Pursuing an island-hopping campaign to roll back Japanese seizures of land, the United States frequently had to engage the Japanese in dense jungle terrains. For years, the Japanese army had relied on a doctrine that heroic determination would overcome the technology and other advantages of any foe. Thus, fierce Japanese resistance extended these battles, as in the Battle of Guadalcanal, which raged on the Pacific island for six months between August 1942 and February 1943 before Japan finally retreated.
The Japanese military made many missteps across the Pacific. An early attempt to capture part of the Aleutian Islands failed. The defensive perimeters of Japan’s home islands were constantly redrawn over 1942 and 1943. Without reevaluating its strategies, Japan transferred forces from China to plug holes punched in this perimeter. Its total losses in the China campaign, from its initial invasion in 1937 to its surrender in 1945, approached 500,000. (The Chinese lost as many as ten million. Historians disagree regarding how many millions of people were displaced by the war.) An attempted Japanese invasion of India beginning in March 1944 was called off after massive losses in July 1944. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere began to evaporate into chaos and confusion. Because Prime Minister Hideki Tojo was the face of the war party both abroad and at home, it seemed clear that no peace settlement with the Allies was conceivable if he were in power. Therefore, in July 1944, having lost the support of the emperor for the failure of his strategies, Tojo was forced to resign.
Though the war proved devastating to China, with a severe loss of population, it was able to continue its fight against the Japanese. The western Allied powers hoped China could play a major role in defeating the Axis powers. To that end, Chiang Kai-shek was invited to a conference in Cairo along with other Allied leaders in 1943. In the last phase of the war, Chinese forces were able to advance through Burma and reopen the major road between China and India. Further offensives took back other Japanese-held territory. By the end of the war, China had reclaimed all the land Japan had occupied and emerged as a significant country in world affairs.
South and Southeast Asia
As Japan moved through Southeast Asia, it promised the inhabitants that it ultimately supported independent governments there. In fact, new governments were established in Vietnam, Burma, and other places, and though they were always clearly under the thumb of the Japanese military, there was some optimism that “Asia for Asians” might prove to truly work (Figure 13.13).
In many ways, however, the colonial experience continued for these areas, because their natural resources were simply redirected to the Japanese government’s needs rather than to Europe’s. Japanese occupation proved abusive and high-handed, marked by the denigration of local religions and customs and sometimes by physical abuse, such as against workers building the Burma-Thailand Railway. It became clear to many nationalists that they now had an enemy in the Japanese. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh raised his nationalist (and communist) forces against the Japanese in a guerrilla war aided by the United States. In Malaysia, similar guerrilla movements developed to oust the Japanese.
The 1935 India Act had granted significant autonomy to the British provinces of India and introduced directly elected provincial assemblies. Fascism, communism, and nationalist desires for full independence all gained adherents among Indians beginning to more fully engage in politics. The political parties in India were either frustrated over broken British promises or anxious to see what rewards India might obtain for active and full support of Britain. For example, the Muslim League often leveraged its support for Britain for political advantage against the Hindu majority population.
Meanwhile, by mid-1940, anti-British sentiments had begun to erupt across India. In the summer of 1942, while Japanese and Allied forces were sparring in neighboring Burma, Britain’s security concerns about India grew, and its attempts to repress Indian agitation heightened political tensions there. In August 1942, the Congress Party, the largest political party in India, granted leadership to the committed nationalist Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and supported his nonviolent “Quit India” movement. Immediately the British arrested Gandhi and other Congress Party leaders and detained them through most of the war.
A devastating famine in Bengal reached a peak in 1943. It was caused by the dispatch of Indian food supplies to support the war effort in Europe, natural disasters toward the end of 1942, an influx of refugees fleeing the Japanese offensives in Burma, and general governmental mismanagement. The famine added fuel to the Indian desire for independence.
Continuing to assert its intention to liberate Asia from White rule, Japan successfully recruited the support of the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, a political rival of Gandhi and former president of the Indian National Congress. Bose assembled a Free India Legion of fighters that eventually grew into the Indian National Army (INA), about forty thousand strong. Fighting to liberate India, the INA assisted Japanese military operations in Burma. When the Japanese seized the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal in 1942, they set up Bose as the leader of the Provisional Government (Azad Hind) of India, and the State of Burma became another subordinate partner and ally in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere until Japan’s defeat in 1945.
Jewish people had been deeply assimilated into German society and culture since the Enlightenment. But anti-Semitism had been an undercurrent in European history for centuries, and anti-Jewish propaganda and scapegoating began to surface after Germany’s defeat in World War I. It continued through the encouragement of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s. Joseph Goebbels was the master of Nazi propaganda, charged with convincing Germans that Jewish people were an existential threat. A constant drumbeat in all forms of media began, persuading Germans to accept three propositions meant to morally justify anti-Jewish actions. First, Jewish people were a problem. Second, they were like vermin (a tactic of dehumanization). Third, eliminating them would make for a better Germany and a better world.
When the Wehrmacht streamed into Poland in 1939 and encountered the largest Jewish population in the world, the Nazis had the opportunity to begin the genocide known as the Holocaust on a huge scale. Special execution squads called the Einsatzgruppen (“operational groups”) followed the advancing German troops, killing enemies and undesirables—largely Jewish people. Jewish people were gathered in ghettoes for better control and subjected to forced labor. The largest was the Warsaw ghetto, which by 1941 housed 441,000 people. That same year, six major concentration camps were established, and railroad lines were built specifically to transport prisoners to them. There had been anti-Jewish pogroms (massacres) in Poland before the war, and some Polish citizens joined these German extermination activities.
Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, a military court was convened in the city of Nuremberg to try Germans accused of war crimes. During questioning by Colonel John Harlan Amen, a U.S. Army intelligence officer and lawyer, Otto Ohlendorf described the work of Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union. (Ohlendorf, thirty-eight years of age, who was head of the Nazi agency in charge of intelligence and security, was found guilty of war crimes and executed.)
COL. AMEN: What were [the] instructions with respect to the Jews and the Communist functionaries?
OHLENDORF: The instructions were that in the Russian operational areas of the Einsatzgruppen the Jews, as well as the Soviet political commissars, were to be liquidated.
COL. AMEN: And when you say “liquidated” do you mean “killed?”
OHLENDORF: Yes, I mean “killed.”
. . .
COL. AMEN: Do you know how many persons were liquidated by Einsatz Group D under your direction?
OHLENDORF: In the year between June 1941 to June 1942 the Einsatzkommandos [men working for the Einsatzgruppen] reported ninety thousand people liquidated.
COL. AMEN: Did that include men, women, and children?
. . .
COL. AMEN: Will you explain to the Tribunal in detail how an individual mass execution was carried out?
OHLENDORF: A local Einsatzkommando attempted to collect all the Jews in its area by registering them. This registration was performed by the Jews themselves.
COL. AMEN: On what pretext, if any, were they rounded up?
OHLENDORF: On the pretext that they were to be resettled.
COL. AMEN: Will you continue?
OHLENDORF: After the registration the Jews were collected at one place; and from there they were later transported to the place of execution, which was, as a rule an antitank ditch or a natural excavation. The executions were carried out in a military manner, by firing squads under command.
COL. AMEN: In what way were they transported to the place of execution?
OHLENDORF: They were transported to the place of execution in trucks, always only as many as could be executed immediately. In this way it was attempted to keep the span of time from the moment in which the victims knew what was about to happen to them until the time of their actual execution as short as possible.
COL. AMEN: Was that your idea?
. . .
OHLENDORF: Some of the unit leaders did not carry out the liquidation in the military manner, but killed the victims singly by shooting them in the back of the neck.
COL. AMEN: And you objected to that procedure?
OHLENDORF: I was against that procedure, yes.
COL. AMEN: For what reason?
OHLENDORF: Because both for the victims and for those who carried out the executions, it was, psychologically, an immense burden to bear.
—Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 4
- How well organized do the mobile death squads seem to have been?
- What tactics were adopted to prevent the prisoners from resisting their fate?
- Does Ohlendorf seem to show any remorse for his actions? Explain your answer.
The concentration camps were simultaneously labor and death camps. In 1941, Adolf Eichmann, a leader of the German SS (the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary corps), noted the challenges of the coming winter: “the Jews can no longer be fed. It is to be seriously considered whether the most humane solution might not be to finish off those Jews not capable of labour by some sort of fast-working preparation.” In January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, the Final Solution to the “Jewish question” was discussed. It was decided that German state policy would be to eliminate European Jewish people by working them to death, starving them, or otherwise exterminating them. They were persecuted in place or sent to death camps.
Auschwitz in western Poland was the largest of the death camps, originally constructed in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. It became a death camp in 1941 when Polish and Soviet prisoners were executed there. That same year, a new camp (known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau) was built nearby. Its main purpose was to kill Jewish people who were brought on freight trains from all over Europe. Other camps also existed at Auschwitz, including labor camps where prisoners worked for the chemical company I.G. Farben. Some 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau before Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, ordered the camp closed and evacuated in January 1945 as the Soviet army rapidly advanced on it. Of these 1.3 million, 1.1 million would die there. The vast majority, nearly one million, were Jewish. Most were murdered with poisonous gas, usually immediately upon arrival. Others were shot or beaten to death or died from disease, starvation, or exhaustion caused by hard labor.
Other gas chambers were constructed at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka in 1942, and arriving prisoners deemed unsuitable for work were usually sent almost directly to the “showers,” actually gas chambers. The systematic implementation of these policies required the collaboration of tens of thousands of people from across Europe, which culminated in the murder of more than six million Jewish people and at least three million members of other minority groups, including gay and Roma people, communists, socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, before the war was over. Historians disagree about how many died in the camps, and the true number will likely never be known.
There were many instances of resistance, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. This was ruthlessly crushed by the Germans, however, resulting in the deaths of thirteen thousand Jewish people. Unsuccessful uprisings also took place in three of the concentration camps, one of which, in Sobibor, perhaps saved some lives by forcing the closure of the camp. Beginning in 1942, Irena Sendler, a member of the Polish Underground Resistance, participated in the Great Action in the Warsaw ghetto to smuggle out Jewish children. She is credited with saving some 2,500 children before she was discovered. Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, ran a factory in Poland and worked to shield his Jewish workers from the Nazis, saving the lives of thousands. Loukas Karrer, the mayor of the Greek island Zakynthos, saved the island’s entire Jewish population of 275 by refusing to surrender them and then hiding them. In Bulgaria, Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, had supported anti-Semitic legislation, but he refused to accept the German request to deport forty-eight thousand Jews and got the government to rescind the order. Still, the Nazis sent millions to their deaths.