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Second World War

(1939-45) The most widescale military conflict in the history of the world began as a European war when Germany invaded Poland. Germany, impoverished and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, had begun rearming and annexing neighboring territories such as the Saarland, Austria and the Sudetenland.

The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler preached the inferiority of other Europeans - especially Slavs and Jews - to the so-called Aryan Germans, and planned to conquer Europe to allow more 'living space' (lebensraum) for Germans.

Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement until Hitler overran Poland in 1939. Denmark and Norway capitulated next, before the German army swept through Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to attack France, which surrendered in 1940; the puppet Vichy regime was allowed to operate in the south.

Throughout 1941 German planes bombed Britain, which continued to hold out with only material assistance from the United States (the Lend-Lease Act). The Soviet Union remained neutral under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, though Hitler secretly planned to invade. He was distracted by the need to assist his Axis ally, Italy, in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

At the same time, European Jews, gypsies and other 'undesirables' were rounded up and sent to concentration camps for forced labor or the gas chambers: the Final Solution. The US entered the war when Japan, which had already overrun China, bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. Asian nationalist sentiment in British and French colonies assisted the Japanese in their conquest. By 1942 Japan controlled a huge sweep of territory from Manchuria to the Philippines. Island by island, the US reclaimed the Pacific, and after capturing Iwo Jima it began bombing Japan.

Meanwhile, the British army had begun to liberate Asia; and the Soviet Union had joined the war in Europe. Italy changed sides in 1943, and Germany, overextended, exhausted and outmaneuvered, surrendered in May 1945, several days after Hitler's suicide. Japan fought on until US president Harry S Truman authorized two atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally as demanded by the Allies' Potsdam Declaration. Of the nearly 50 million dead, half were civilians.


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