8.3: The Other Fronts of the War
Hitler and the Nazis came very close to completing their “experiment,” but that “experiment” came with a huge price for them: this internal front of the Holocaust likely kept them from winning the Second World War. As it was, even with the massive manpower and money needed for the “death factories” inside the Nazi Empire, that empire came very close to conquering all of Europe. Hitler found himself with Napoleon’s choice: like Napoleon, Hitler made the mistake of attacking Russia. (During summer this time, though, instead of repeating Napoleon’s mistake of attacking during the fall.)
As we have seen, the military advances of the Axis actually began close to a decade before the official start of World War II. By the time the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Axis powers had already built a powerful war machine that paved the way to quick, decisive victories. The Nazis in particular developed a strategy called blitzkrieg (“lightning-war” in German), which relied on massive bombardments of air power in addition to well-coordinated tank attacks. Like the armies of Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great, the Axis armies were able to realize their goals very quickly.
Immediately before the invasion of Poland—the official beginning of World War II—a most unlikely alliance occurred: Hitler and his arch-rival Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union (Communist Russia) signed a non-aggression pact in late August 1939. This meant that these two political enemies would not attack each other in the event of a war. Furthermore, this meant that Eastern Europe—the area between Hitler and Stalin’s territories—would be the first to be invaded and divvied up between these two superpowers.
Sure enough, a few weeks after the Germans took over the western half of Poland, the Soviets invaded the eastern half of Poland in mid-September 1939. Throughout the winter, Germany and the U.S.S.R. firmed up their territories while maintaining the non-aggression pact. Britain and France had declared war on Germany in early September, but their armies were not in a state of readiness compared with those of Germany or the Soviet Union. Throughout late 1939 and early 1940, World War II was known as the “phony war,” because not much fighting in Europe occurred between the Axis and the Allies (the “Allies” in this case being Britain, France, and their allies).
However, that was soon to change in spring 1940. As the weather warmed up, the Soviet Union expanded into Finland. Germany, in quick succession, attacked Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and France. The remaining French and British decided to cut their losses and abandoned the Western Front completely in early June: the armies were evacuated to England from Dunkirk, in France near Belgium. In late June 1940, France surrendered.
The Axis expansion continued around the world: Japan invaded British colonies like Singapore in its quest for Pacific Empire. Italy took French and British territory in North Africa. The Nazi Empire expanded into southeastern Europe (Greece and Yugoslavia) in 1941. From the summer of 1940 until the spring of 1941, the “Battle of Britain” occurred: Germany launched repeated air attacks upon the British Isles, especially the capital city of London. At the same time (1941), the British colony of Egypt was threatened by the Axis in North Africa and the British colony of India was threatened by Japan in Southeast Asia. Britain and its colonies were therefore the “holdouts” in preventing the Western world from shifting into a three-continent Axis Empire.
However, Italy, Germany, and Japan made serious blunders by involving other countries in the war. Italy’s military was certainly the weakest of the three; so, Mussolini asked Hitler for assistance in North Africa, taking away a lot of resources (like oil needed for tanks and planes) from the European war effort. Hitler was left with a choice about how he would acquire more natural resources needed for his global conquest: would he attempt a (likely unsuccessful) attack of the British Isles across the English Channel, or would he break his agreement with Stalin and move towards the resources of Asia through the Soviet Union?
Hitler’s ideology was his downfall, as we have seen with how many resources were needed to launch The Holocaust. Similarly, Hitler had a respect for the English (and the Americans) as a society closer to the “master race” than the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union. (Hitler also liked the order and discrimination of the English class system and the American segregationist policies about African-Americans.) So, a little less than two years into his agreement with Stalin, Germany invaded Soviet territory in Eastern Europe on June 22, 1941. The Soviet Union quickly joined the Allies and a vicious battle along the Eastern Front commenced. By winter 1942, the Nazis were stalled at the cities of Stalingrad in the south and Leningrad in the north.
Meanwhile, Japan honed in on the U.S.-held territory of the Philippines and decided to attack the Pacific naval base of Pearl Harbor in the U.S. territory of Hawaii: this was to serve as a pre-emptive measure for preventing the U.S. from retaliating. On December 7, 1941, the naval station was attacked and, by December 8th, the U.S. had joined the Allies as well. Though the Japanese Empire did get what it wanted by occupying the Philippines the next month, now the “sleeping dragon” (using one Japanese commander’s term) of the United States had been awakened.
Six months to the day after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. gained its first naval victory at Midway Island, leading to a series of “island-hopping” invasions, preventing Japan from attacking the British colony of Australia. However, starting in the month of August 1942, while the Nazis were stalled at Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, the U.S. was stalled on a jungle-filled island called Guadalcanal. The same month that the Nazis retreated from Stalingrad (February 1943), the U.S. cleared out the last of the Japanese soldiers, who had hidden themselves in foxholes and bunkers throughout the island and continued fighting even though the island was controlled by the United States. (This would serve as foreshadowing for the later U.S. conflict in Vietnam.)
From there, the Allies tightened the three different nets closer to the Axis Powers. The Allies had managed to defeat the German armies in North Africa and, from there, to invade Sicily in July 1943. (Though the Italians would later surrender and kill their dictator, Mussolini, the Germans took over the “Italian Front” in 1944.) After the D-Day Invasion, the German Empire was attacked from three sides: from the Italian Front in the south, by the Soviets advancing from the east, and by the British, French, and Americans advancing from the west. These Allied Forces “liberated” territory (and concentration camps) from Nazi control. With both sides closing in, Hitler committed suicide on April 30th and the remaining Nazi officials signed the surrender on May 9, 1945—known as V-E (or “Victory in Europe”) Day. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, by mid-1945 the U.S. had gained the final foothold, Iwo Jima: the island within close bombing range of the Japanese Islands themselves.