The Second World War resulted partly from smouldering German resentment following their defeat in 1918 and the terms of the post-1918 peace, and partly from the savage economic recession that floored Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s. These – and the example of Mussolini’s Fascism in Italy – fuelled the rise of Hitler’s Nazism, which embraced nationalism, militarism, virulent racism, violent anti-Semitism and, from 1941, genocide. Elected in 1933, Hitler swiftly abolished further elections and, against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, began to rearm. Unopposed by the Western powers, he successively invaded the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Having made a pact of non-aggression with Stalin, he invaded Poland on 1st September 1939. Two days later, followed by France, Great Britain declared war.
The War cost sixty million lives and was fought across the world on land, at sea and in the air. It began with the Luftwaffe dropping thousands of bombs on Warsaw and ended with the American air force destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with two single bombs of unprecedented power. For the British it involved huge land campaigns – in France (1940), North Africa (1940-43), Burma (1942-45), Italy (1943-45), and France, Belgium, the Netherland and Germany (1944-45).
On 10th May 1940 the Germans once again burst into Belgium on their way to attack France. In 1914 the French had fought like tigers. Now they collapsed, and the small British Expeditionary Force fought its way back to Dunkirk, from where it was evacuated across the Channel. Supported only by her distant Empire, Britain stood alone against an implacable enemy. America was reluctant to get involved in what it saw as another European war. Soviet Russia had made cynical terms with Nazi Germany. In the Battle of Britain, RAF Fighter Command forced Hitler to postpone his plans to invade Great Britain. Meanwhile his U-boats attacked and sank merchant ships bringing precious supplies across the Atlantic. The British had staved off defeat but they were committed to a war that alone they were incapable of winning.
Although a bleak year for the British, 1941 saw the world situation transformed. In June Hitler invaded Russia, committing Germany to a war it could not win and galvanising a powerful enemy who had until now been happy to profit passively from Germany’s invasion of Poland. The bloody land campaign that followed in Russia and Eastern Europe dwarfed the Allied campaigns in the west. In December the Japanese bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, precipitating the neutral United States into the war. Although final victory would take time while the two giants, Russia and America, geared up for war, the tide had turned.
The autumn of 1942 saw Montgomery’s defeat of the German and Italian armies in Egypt and an Anglo-American landing in Vichy French North Africa. A few months later came the destruction of the German army at Stalingrad. By September 1943 the British and Americans had captured Sicily, invaded Italy and knocked the Italians out of the war. The next year saw the Allied invasion of Normandy. An eleven-month campaign liberated France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and then invaded and defeated Germany. In mid-1944 the tide turned in Burma, where General Slim’s army broke the back of the hitherto triumphant Japanese army at Kohima and Imphal before chasing it southwards through Burma all the way to Rangoon.
In Europe the Second World War ended happily in the west and unhappily in the east, where Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states and even Poland – on whose behalf the British had gone to war – all fell under the subjugation of the Communist Soviet Union. Split between east and west under respectively Soviet and Allied control, Germany remained divided for forty-five years. In the Far East the Japanese surrender was forced by the dropping of two atom bombs. Its brutal, militaristic government discredited and removed, Japan was helped by America towards a modern industrial economy and democratic government.