World War II

When: 1939 – 1945

Beginning at the end of the 1930s, WWII was really a series of interconnected regional conflicts. Every human being on earth was touched in some way by the unprecedented carnage of the war, whether on the front lines, at the home front, or in the concentration camps. More so than perhaps any other conflict in recent memory, WWII is easy to define as a struggle between good and evil. Although this is partially due to the fact that (as is always the case) the victors wrote the history of WWII, it’s largely because the losers – the Axis powers – carried out some of the most heinous and well-organized crimes in the history of humankind.

Many argue that WWII was merely a continuation of WWI, and this is (in some ways) true – the unresolved frustrations of the Axis carried on throughout the Interbellum period before being abruptly ended in 1945. But the world of 1939 and 1945 were two very different places: colonial empires, like that of England and France, were hugely diminished by the fighting while younger powers like the United States and the USSR emerged stronger than ever at the war’s end. The experiences of women and African Americans in the war effort galvanized movements that challenged the post-war social order, while the rise of young, newly-independent nations like Indonesia and Vietnam posed new threats to their former colonial overlords.

American GIs at a mass military grave. Entire generations of human beings were wiped out during the conflict. (National WWII Museum)

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Allies (America, the Soviet Union, France, England, the Commonwealth, China, Mexico, and more). They faced off against the Axis (Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and more).
  • Where?  In Asia (the Pacific theatre), Africa, Europe (Mediterranean, Northern, Central, and Eastern), the Americas (parts of Central and South America, as well as the Aleutians), and the high seas.
  • When?  From September 1st 1939 to September 2nd, 1945 – over 6 years. Germany surrendered in spring of 1945 while the Japanese surrendered later. (Note: one of the most significant battles of the war, Khalkhin Gol, took place earlier in 1939. The above date is the common Eurocentric timeline, although many regional conflicts that impacted the overall war began much earlier).
  • What?  Beginning in the late 1930s, a rapid German invasion of Europe (backed by a treaty with the USSR and inspired by Adolf Hitler’s racist nationalism) and Italian military actions in North Africa took the Allies largely by surprise. Japan attacked the United States, and the war grew in scale. Although the Axis made massive territorial gains, a series of Allied victories on all fronts in 1942 and 1943 changed the tide of war. The conflict ended in 1945 after battles in the air, on sea and on land.
  • Why?  Although the “why” of WWII is a complicated question, the events that began the fighting in 1939 were directly tied to the racist nationalist goals of the Axis. Fanatic leadership in the Axis countries, as well as sometimes inept leaders amongst the Allied troops, resulted in the conflict lasting much longer than it would have if more rational people had in charge.
  • Result:  Complete collapse of the Axis powers. Over 75 million people were killed – a majority of them civilians – in camps, crossfire and bombings.

The World at War

The world in June of 1942, at the near-peak of Axis reach. Although the Nazis pushed farther into the USSR, many of the initial Axis gains had been reversed by 1943. Western Allies = Blue, Eastern Allies = Red, Axis = Black. (Wikimedia Commons)

Important Names

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (US president)
  • Harry Truman (US president)
  • Adolf Hitler (German Führer)
  • Benito Mussolini (Italian “Duce”)
  • Chiang Kai-Shek (Chairman of Republican China)
  • Emperor Hirohito (Emperor of Japan)
  • Rosie the Riveter (American Feminist Propaganda/Labour Icon)
  • Winston Churchill (UK PM)
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (US general/president)
  • Joseph Goebbels (German Propaganda Minister)


  • Total War
  • Home Front
  • Lebensraum (“living space”)
  • Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”)
  • The Allies
  • The Axis
  • The Holocaust

The above themes, name and terms are intended as a guide to kickstart your research. Because ASAP History is generalists’ site – that is, we cover all eras and events (within reason) – it is impossible for us to provide detailed insight on every important event or person. With that in mind, below is a collection of articles on significant events. Longer, more in-depth articles are bolded.

The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front was, in and of itself, the most destructive war in human history. Over 40 million human beings – the majority of whom were civilians – lost their lives in clashes from the Finnish border to the steppes of Mongolia. Characterized by intense racial animosity, the Eastern Front saw a blurring of the lines between soldier and civilian as both sides, Axis and Allied, murdered and raped all accused of collaborating with the enemy. The messiest, least-organized stages of the Holocaust – the so-called “Shoah by bullets” – took place as German soldiers and collaborating civilians murdered countless Jewish people. The determination and fanaticism of two men in particular – Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – resulted in the deaths of millions and an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”)
  • Shoah by Bullets
  • Spheres of Influence
  • Lend-Lease
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The Pacific

Although Western scholars tend to count the Pacific War as beginning with the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, the conflict had its roots in decades of American/Japanese economic and political competition as well as a burgeoning civil war in China. As with the Eastern Front, battles in the Pacific were incredibly vicious and saw many civilians murdered by all belligerents. Fanatical Japanese troops – motivated by their emperor to fight til the death – faced off against determined Allied troops led by the Americans, but countless other nations took part in the fighting. A majority of Asian and Southeast Asian people were directly impacted by the war that culminated in the first – and only – use of atomic weapons in human history.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Island-Hopping
  • Kamikaze
  • Northern/Southern Expansion Doctrines
  • Fat Man/Little Boy
  • Unit 731
  • Shinto Directive

The War at Sea

An often-overlooked part of WWII was the war at sea. The Allies possessed a massive advantage in resources, and shipping was the primary means for transporting men and goods from nation to nation; in the early stages of the conflict, these routes were incredibly vulnerable to Axis submarine attacks. The advent of enhanced intelligence assets, as well as the Allies’ superiority in naval strength, eventually won out over the German “U-Boat” swarm attacks – but not before countless sailors (and merchant marines) had lost their lives. Additionally, naval clashes in the Pacific War – where movement from island-to-island was accomplished by boat – helped decide the fate of the war early on.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Ultra
  • Lend-Lease
  • Midway
  • Merchant Navy
  • Aircraft Carriers

Africa & the Mediterranean

The first major engagements between the European Axis (Germany and Italy) and the Western Allies were fought in North Africa and later, the Mediterranean. Described by Winston Churchill as the “soft underbelly of Europe”, Allied war planners sought to thrust upwards into the occupied continent from the south. This strategy was largely rejected after plans for Operation Overlord were drawn up, but not before an incredible series of large-scale battles from El Alamein to Ortona had taken place. North Africa had historically been a resource and manpower-base for the European colonial powers, and its significance – and the effects of war on its population – should not be overlooked.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Special Air Service
  • The Desert Fox
  • “Italy’s Place in the Sun”
  • Colonial troops
  • Operation Compass

The European Theatre of Operations (ETO)

Perhaps the most studied conflict in history, the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) began in 1939 after the failure of the British and French-led appeasement effort. The conflict, which saw almost the entirety of continental Europe under Axis control for a number of years, varied in intensity from place to place. In general, the experiences of occupied territories in the East was much worse than those in the West (although all populations in occupied Europe suffered tremendously during the war). The largest battles between the Allies and Axis took place in 1944 after the start of D-Day; by that point, however, millions of people had been systematically murdered. The Holocaust – a term which encompasses everything from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau to the killing squads of the SS Einsatzgruppen – resulted in the virtual extinction of the European Jewish population, as well as a significant decline in the numbers of Sinti-Roma, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and a variety of other German-labelled “undesirables”.

One important thing to note when studying the ETO is that, contrary to popular mythology, a vast majority of German civilians and soldiers, as well as many civilians in occupied territories, either knew about or actively participated in the Holocaust. There is no such thing as the “clean Wehrmacht.” (For further reading on the topic, see Soldaten by Harald Welzer and Sönke Neitzel).

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Concentration Camps
  • Strategic Bombing
  • Partisans
  • The Phony War
  • Displaced Persons (DPs)

Revolution, Unrest & Decolonization

Many of the colonies, like Dutch Indonesia, took advantage of the war-weariness of their European masters and proclaimed independence near the end of WWII. Although these movements – which had been growing in prominence for some time – achieved varying degrees of success, the post-war decolonization movement upset the balance of power and resulted in a decline of European global dominance. These newly decolonized states were forced to choose their own path: alignment with the East, the West, or, eventually, non-alignment.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Decolonization
  • Revolution
  • The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

Politics, Diplomacy & the Home Front

The war touched everyone’s lives, whether they fought at the front or endured rationing and bombing on the “home front”. Unprecedented economic mobilization characterized the war effort in North America and England, while civilians were often forced into combat roles in the Eastern and Pacific theatres. As the fighting raged, diplomatic agreements – secret or otherwise – helped pave the way for the new world order of the post-war (or Cold War) era.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Home Front
  • Bomb Girls
  • Rationing

Science & Technology

War brought with it an incredibly rapid series of technological advancements. From radar to penicillin, M&Ms to the atom bomb, the Allies and Axis were constantly striving to outdo one another with increasingly advanced weapons and technologies. Many of these innovations directly impacted civilian life, too, such as advances in medical technology and consumer goods.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Wonder Weapons
  • The Manhattan Project
  • Rocket Power
  • Operation Paperclip

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