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READ: The Second World War

The Second World War was an epic conflict between two great alliances. It was a messy, grueling, and devastating set of campaigns with no predictable outcome. It was also, for those involved, a very personal experience.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. When did World War II start, and why is the date somewhat unclear? What do you think is the most appropriate date to use?
  2. In Europe, what forces dominated the early years of World War II?
  3. When and why did the US join World War II?
  4. How and why did the Soviet Union enter the Second World War?
  5. What was the big ideological difference between Britain and the Soviet Union? How did they find common ground?
  6. What factors shifted the tide of the war around 1942?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How would this article be different without including Getz’s grandfather in the narrative? Do you think you would still understand and remember the major developments in World War II in the way that you do now? Does this personal story help you deepen your understanding of the war? Why or why not?
  2. Consider your friends and family members, and how you might weave the narrative of a grandparent, or someone whose life story you know very well, into historical events on the grandest scale. How does it help you understand and appreciate history when you successfully weave together the personal and the global or universal?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Second World War

Allied troops marching past the ruins of a town, following the Battle of Monte Cassino during World War Two, May 1944.
By Trevor Getz
The Second World War was an epic conflict between two great alliances. It was a messy, grueling, and devastating set of campaigns with no predictable outcome. It was also, for those involved, a very personal experience.

Grandpa Dan goes to war

I am not a military historian today, but it was the Second World War that first got me interested in becoming a historian. When I was a child, I used to sit at the table with my grandfather as he told me stories about the war. The son of a Jewish family that had fled Poland, he joined the British army when the war started. He wanted to hit back against the Germans who had driven his family from their home. What I remember most about Grandpa Dan, aside from his medals and memorabilia, was an account of the Battle of Monte Cassino. That was when he, an officer leading Polish troops in British uniform, fought alongside an army of Indian, New Zealand, French-speaking African, and American soldiers against Germans on top of a mountain in Italy. A world war indeed.
A photograph of several smiling, seated officers.
Dan Gonski (Grandpa Dan) and fellow officers. He is the third from the left in the front row. Picture owned by author, Trevor Getz
For Grandpa Dan and his family, and many other Europeans, the Second World War began in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France, Poland's allies, declared war on Germany in response. But for others, the war started earlier. The Second World War started because the three major expansionist "Axis" powers—Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan—wanted to conquer other countries and build empires. In that respect, one could date the war in Asia back to 1931, when Japan invaded China. Or in Africa, it could be dated to 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia. For Ethiopian partisansstart superscript, 1, end superscript, the war started four years before Germany invaded Poland. In Europe, Italy conquered Albania earlier in 1939. Germany, too, had annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia before it invaded Poland.
But in general, we date the beginning of the Second World War to Germany's September 1939 invasion of Poland. That attack finally provoked Britain and France, who had armies that could actually confront the Axis Powers. Britain and France had been reluctant to confront these expansionist states. But Poland had alliances with France, and more recently with Britain. So when Germany invaded Poland, the British had to react. So, by late 1939, Britain and France (and their colonies) were at war with Germany.

A terrible year, 1939–1940

Following the declaration of war in Europe, two almost-separate wars ran in parallel for two years. In Asia, Japan continued to make war on China, pushing into the interior. Chinese generals responded with counter-attacks, but their troops were poorly armed and not very unified. Still, various Chinese forces, including communist insurgents, managed to slow and even stop Japanese progress.
Map shows Japanese conquests in the Pacific, as well as those of their allies.
Japanese advances and conquests in the Pacific, 1937-1942. By San Jose, CC BY-SA 3.0.
In Europe, meanwhile, Germany and Italy set about annexing smaller states. In the north, Germany occupied Denmark and invaded Norway. Then, in May 1940, German forces swept into France through neutral Belgium. German tanks and airplanes overwhelmed French and British forces and drove them to the coast. Only a nearly- miraculous naval operation managed to save much of the British army at Dunkirk, but France was forced to surrender on June 25.
Photograph of three young man sitting around a radio.
Yugoslav partisans and a Jewish volunteer operating a radio behind Nazi lines. From the National Photo Collection of Israel, public domain.
Once it became clear that Germany was winning, Italian leader Benito Mussolini and his Fascist government formally declared war on Britain and France. After France fell, he turned eastward and south. In October, Italy declared war on Greece, which became Britain's first new ally. Deeply outgunned, Greek fighters nevertheless managed to repel the Italians. Britain sent what aid they could to the Greeks, but it wasn't a lot. With help from German forces, the Italians finally managed to conquer Greece. Yugoslavia also defied its invaders. Even after its conquest, partisans continued to resist the Germans throughout the war.
Italy opened another front in North Africa, where its colonial forces in Libya prepared to attack British forces in Egypt. But the British moved first, and conquered much of Libya before German and Italian reinforcements pushed them back.

The war spreads, 1941

With its allies mostly conquered and France occupied, Britain now stood almost alone against the triumphant forces of Germany and Italy. They hoped for help from the United States, but the Americans were only willing to lend some resources. Much of their attention was on Japan, whose expansion in the Pacific worried the United States enough that they put an embargo on selling oil to Japan.
Photo of two soldiers, standing in a snowy trench operating weapons.
Winter fighting on the Eastern front. From the German Federal Archives, by Bild Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Fortunately, Britain was a vast empire and was surrounded by ocean. The British Royal Air Force also managed to stop a German mass bombing campaign. But things looked quite dark throughout 1940 and in the early months of 1941. Then, suddenly, on 22 June, 1941, Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler made an enormous error that changed the war. This mistake was a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler hoped to do to the Soviets what had been done to France—a quick conquest using masses of tanks and planes. But the Soviet Union was a lot larger and more populous than France. German troops got bogged down in the defenses around Moscow, and as winter came, unprepared German soldiers began to freeze.
Capitalist Britain and the communist Soviet Union were ideological opposites, but when it came to Nazis they managed to find common ground and create an alliance. Soon, Britain got another great ally. On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This was a response to the U.S. oil embargo but also part of Japan's plan to invade Southeast Asia, where they could obtain their own oil. At the same time, Japanese forces attacked British colonies in Southeast Asia and annexed many French colonies as well. Soon after, Germany declared war on the United States.
Map of German and Italian conquests in Europe. Germany conquered a very large, central portion of the country.
German and Italian conquests in Europe, 1941-1942. By San Jose, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The hinge of fate, 1942

The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union formed a powerful alliance. But the Axis war machine continued to advance. German forces pushed into the Soviet Union. Italy and Germany were poised to drive the British from North Africa. Japanese forces occupied the Philippines and New Guinea, and drove westward into China towards Burma.
Then, in the second half of 1942, the tide shifted. This was partly a result of the massive industrial power of the three allies. The U.S., Soviet, and British forces and their allies were rapidly equipped with huge amounts of new weapons. Another reason was Allied intelligence gathering. Allied intelligence broke both the Japanese and German codes. Code-breaking informed the United States that Japan was going to invade Midway Island in June, and American naval forces managed to arrive in time to sink numerous Japanese aircraft carriers.
Midway was only the first in a series of victories for the Allies that turned the tide of war. In October and November of 1942, a British-led army—including my Grandpa Dan—drove German and Italian forces from the North African town of El Alamein back into Libya. But probably the most important victory was the Battle of Stalingrad, which culminated in February 1943 with the Soviets encircling a German army and beginning the long push back towards Germany.
Photo shows an aircraft carrier moving downward through the sky.
The Japanese carrier Hiryu trying to escape attack by American bombers during the Battle of Midway. From the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, public domain

Driving to victory, 1943-1945

Of course, the Axis powers were not yet defeated. For the next two-and-a-half years the Allies would have to grind out a victory against tenacious opposition. Soviet forces fought a massive, deadly, see-saw war against German troops across Eastern Europe. In Asia, Chinese forces coordinated with the British in Burma while Americans, Australians, and their allies recaptured island after island from Japan, often with huge losses of life.
Grandpa Dan, meanwhile, was involved in driving German and Italian forces out of North Africa. This was a campaign aided by British and American troops under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and they landed along the western ports of the North African coast. From there, the combined forces invaded Italy, landing on the mainland in September 1943. Mussolini's government soon fell, and many Italians joined the Allied side. But German forces held on, forcing that massive battle at Monte Cassino that was the story I remember most about Grandpa Dan and the war.
Map shows the area, once conquered by Germany, now occupied by the Allied forces.
The reconquest of Europe, 1943-1945. By San Jose, based on maps from the University of Texas Libraries, CC BY-SA 3.0.
In June 1944, British, U.S., and allied forces landed in Normandy, in northern France, and began to push towards Germany. Another force landed in southern France. The forces in Italy continued to push north, towards Germany. But these efforts were all smaller, in the number of troops, than the Soviet push into Germany from the East. The forces all met in Germany and finally, in April 1945, the Soviets captured Berlin—and Germany surrendered.
The task that remained? Defeat Japan. Having lost their empire, without access to raw materials, with almost no navy or air force left and their biggest army stranded in China, Japan was in no condition to fight on. But they refused to surrender, and so an invasion of the Japanese Isles had to be planned. But then, controversially, the President of the United States decided that it might be better to use a new technology—the nuclear bomb. The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities—Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later. The devastation caused by these bombs forced a Japanese surrender.
The Second World War was over, but it left a long legacy. That legacy is global in scale, as you will see over the rest of the course. But it is also very personal. Grandpa Dan's memories of the war stuck with him—even haunted him—and he always wanted to share them with those who would listen. I remember asking him once if he had killed anyone during the war. I remember that he paused before he answered that question, telling me that he had shot several soldiers (he did not call them "enemies"). His response made me think about the human tragedy of the war. But I was also drawn in by these stories, and all these years later, it is this kind of human dimension that keeps me interested in history.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and World History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user wonderhelen91
    What is the reason that Britain and France were reluctant to fight the Axis powers before 1939, when the expansionists were invading, for example, Ethiopia and Albania? Of afraid or underestimate?
    (2 votes)
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