The period 1914 to 1945 is dominated by the First and Second World Wars, in which the level of mobilisation, military technology, and level of violence were unprecedented in the history of warfare. The origins of the First World War (1914-1918) lay in the emergence of Germany as a competing major power with colonial aspirations, but one in a central position with potential enemies, France and the Russian Empire, on either side. A naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany had influenced other powers to increase the strength of their militaries and industrialisation had ensured that they had the ability to do so. The nations of Europe had striven to maintain a balance of power in one form or another for centuries and in 1914 these alliances enabled tensions in the Balkans between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to escalate into a conflict between Belgium, France, Russia and the United Kingdom on one side, and Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Over time it would draw in Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa and the United States (amongst others) and the involvement of the colonial powers ensured that the conflict reached into the Middle-East and Africa.
The First World War is typified by the deadlock of trench fighting on the Western Front between Germany and the allied French and British, yet another central conflict was also being played out in Eastern Europe, with substantial German resources being drawn away from the west in a two front war, which Germany had sought to avoid. Away from the central European battle grounds, the Atlantic battle between Great Britain and Germany had led to unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany and a conflict in the Middle-East due to the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with Germany. Battles were also fought over colonies in Africa. The United States entered the war in 1917 as a consequence of Germany’s submarine warfare, and the Russian Empire’s involvement ended in the same year due to the Russian Revolution.
By the war’s end the maps of Europe and the Middle-East had been profoundly altered as the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian empires had collapsed, creating new states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Turkey, and the British and French mandates in the former Ottoman Empire. For the first time, submarines and aircraft were used in force, radio and aerial photography utilised, and crucially, the tank was developed and used to break the deadlock on the Western Front. Germany and Great Britain also fought an inconclusive naval battle between powerful, modern warships known as ‘Dreadnoughts’ after the first ship of its type to be deployed. The artillery used was of a power and number never seen before. Poison gas was used for the first time on the Western Front. In what was a grinding war of attrition dependent on the mobilisation of nations to war, Germany eventually surrendered, a ‘stab in the back’ according to many of her senior military officers. The total number of deaths attributed to the First World War is seventeen million, of which there were close to seven million civilians.
The punishment meted out to Germany in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) by the victorious allies (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) was harsh and contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War. Germany took the blame for the war, lost territory, paid reparations and strict limits were placed on the size of her military. The League of Nations was formed in 1920 with the purpose of preventing future wars and one of its roles was forming ‘mandates’ for areas that were formerly part of the defeated empires of World War One. A notable example, with long reaching consequences, was the British Mandate for Palestine (1923-1948). The British and French effectively carved up the Middle-East between them in what was seen as a major betrayal by the Arabs whom had fought on the allied side during the First World War.
The interwar years, as they became known, saw the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy, then Nationalist-Socialism in Germany, as Adolf Hitler rose to power. The victory of the communists in the Russian Civil War (1917-1923) and rise to power of Josef Stalin meant that two totalitarian states with strong leaders emerged whom were implacably opposed to each other. The failure of the League of Nations to stop the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935-1936) demonstrated its weakness as Germany was rearming and in Asia Japan had become increasingly militaristic and nationalist. In what was a tumultuous period, two events stand out as indicating the nature of the world war to come. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War began after a coup led by the Nationalist General Franco against the Republican government. Franco was supported by Italy and Germany, while the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union and brigades of international volunteers. The conflict ended in 1939 with a Nationalist victory and is remembered for the bombing of Guernica. In 1937 Japan invaded China as a result of a dispute over Japanese occupied Manchuria and the capture of the Chinese capital in 1937 resulted in a massacre. In Europe, an increasingly belligerent Hitler had rearmed Germany and taken control of Austria and Czechoslovakia despite protests by the British and French. As Germany prepared to invade Poland to recover territory lost in the Treaty of Versailles an ultimatum was issued by France and Britain and ignored.
The invasion of Poland in 1939 triggered the Second World War in Europe when Poland fell to invasions from Germany and the Soviet Union. Whilst the First World War had occurred due to great power interests, rivalries and alliances, the Second World War (1939-1945) was driven by the aims of the leaders of Germany and Japan, two militarised and totalitarian states seeking to correct past wrongs and dominate their spheres of influence. The alliance of the three ‘Axis’ countries Italy, Germany and Japan would lead to decisions that would draw every major power and the majority of the world’s nations into war. In Europe, Britain, France and Poland were woefully unprepared against an experienced and advanced German military and by 1940 the German conquest of Western Europe was complete, stopped only by the English Channel and British victory in the Battle of Britain. Hitler then turned his war aims towards Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, invading the latter in 1941 and came close to occupying Moscow by the end of the year. The battle between the two opposing totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism would critically maim the German military in the later years of the war in Europe. In the Far-East, Japan had turned her attention to the Pacific and was wary of a confrontation with the United States, choosing to eliminate her navy in a surprise attack at Pearl Harbour and launching successful attacks on European colonies in 1941. The subsequent declarations of war on Japan by Britain, China, the United States and Australia (amongst others) and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States transformed two major regional wars into a global conflict between the Axis and the Allies who were led by the ‘big four’ (Britain, China, the Soviet Union and the United States).
The Second World War was ultimately decided by industrial might as Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union retooled for war and transformed their fighting forces and equipment, reversing the early military advantage of the Axis countries. A crucial difference from earlier wars was the use of aircraft in variety of roles, including fighters and bombers, in support of the adversaries war aims. All the major powers used bombers against civilian targets and the differences are in scale. The air war against Germany was driven by the inability of the Allies to open a Western front against Germany and protestations by Stalin that it was Russia that was doing all the fighting on the Eastern front. The Allies were in fact fighting Germany and Italy in North Africa, and later in Italy, and fighting a battle for control of the Atlantic to ensure the supply routes critical to British survival and the movement of troops for the future liberation of Western Europe. The British bombing campaign was on a massive scale, the bomber force building to a size whereby ‘thousand bomber’ raids could be launched at night against German cites, while the United States conducted daylight raids.
The European war changed dramatically after the D-Day invasion on June 6th 1944 as once the Allies had gained a foothold they were able to push forward, liberating Belgium, France and Holland, and entering Germany from the west. Germany was then faced with two numerically superior armies on both fronts and the European war closed with Germany being overrun and Hitler’s suicide. The advance revealed the horror of the ‘Final Solution’ as Nazi concentration camps were discovered and the Jewish genocide revealed to the world. Germany would eventually be divided into four zones of occupation and as Europe became a divided continent would be divided into West and East Germany.
In the East Japan faced similar problems of having begun a conflict that required a quick victory before her opponents could rearm and deploy overwhelming firepower. Japanese success had been as dramatic and overwhelming as had Germany’s in Europe. In 1941 Japan dominated the Pacific and had defeated the colonial powers and the United States on land but at the same time had overreached. Her rapid advance had made an enemy of the United States, threatened Australia, thrown the British into alarm over the possible fate of India (the ‘jewel in the crown’) and Japan still had the bulk of her army committed to the land war in China. As a consequence, Japan was fighting a land war against China and British Commonwealth forces in Burma, and a naval battle for the Pacific led by the United States. Air power was again critical to the eventual outcome, as the United States crippled the Japanese Navy using carrier borne aircraft and amphibious assaults by marines took the American forces within bomber range of Japan. The United States then deployed the most advanced long range bombers ever seen and systematically bombed Japanese cities to rubble. As Russia prepared to declare war on Japan, the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing about a Japanese surrender.
In comparison to earlier wars, the Second World War was short, but the level of violence was without precedence. Estimates of fatalities range from 50 to over 80 million, the latter including deaths due to war related famine and disease. An estimated 50 million civilians died, including an up to six million in the holocaust. In terms of the general impact on world history four consequences stand out. The first was the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as global superpowers who were ideologically opposed rivals. The second was the emergence of nuclear weapons capable of destroying entire cities without the use of massed bomber forces or ground forces. The third was the division of Europe into two implacably opposed halves, exemplified by the division of Germany, and a redrawing of borders in Eastern Europe. The fourth was that the colonial powers in the Far-East had been demonstrated to be fundamentally weak, unable to defend their colonies against Japanese attack and their legitimacy to rule under increased moral challenge from both the United States and the peoples under colonial occupation.