World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.
The Second World War was fought from 1939 to 1945. In those six years, more soldiers were killed than in any war that had ever been fought. More civilians died because of the war than ever before in history. In no other war did so many people lose their homes, their possessions, their whole way of life. The total number of deaths from World War II has been estimated at 50 million, which is about 1 out of every 5 people in the United States today.
The Most Terrible War
World War II was the first time a war was fought all over the world. By the time it ended, there had been fighting on every continent except South America and Antarctica, and in almost all the oceans. Armies had battled one another on jungle islands in the Pacific Ocean, and in the deserts of North Africa. Planes had bombed Australia and Hawaii, London and Moscow, Norway and Egypt. Large parts of Europe and eastern Asia were in ruins. Two cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been utterly destroyed by atomic bombs. Almost 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, had been murdered in Europe simply because they were Jews.
Nazi Germany and the Special Nature of World War II
From 1933 until 1945 Germany was ruled by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis). This was a harsh and brutal government. Any opponent of the Nazis was arrested and sent—without a trial—to a concentration camp. Concentration camps were brutal prison camps run by Nazi soldiers. The Nazis controlled what could be published in newspapers and magazines, what was reported on radio broadcasts, and what books people could read. The Nazis’ main political goal—to make Germany the ruler of Europe—and their theories about race contributed greatly to the brutality of World War II. Hitler believed that Germany needed Lebensraum or “room to live” if it was to survive. The Nazis also believed that Germans were a master race, superior to all others, and that the superior race had a right to attack, conquer, and enslave weaker ones. Based on these beliefs the Nazis justified the murder and enslavement of the citizens of countries it conquered. Eventually, the Nazis instituted an official policy of mass murder that led to the systematic murder of 6 million Jews.
Two Theaters of War
This terrible destruction began as two separate wars, one in Europe and one in eastern Asia. The background and causes of these two wars were different. In Asia and the Pacific, the war was fought between Japan and several countries, but mainly with China, Great Britain, and the United States. The background to that war was Japan’s attempt to control much of Asia.
Japan invaded Manchuria, a region of China, in 1931. At the time China was in the middle of a civil war (different factions of the government were fighting each other for control of the country), and did not immediately resist this invasion. War finally broke out between Japan and China in 1937, as Japan moved to take over the rest of China. Japan also began expanding its empire to the Pacific islands off the coast of the Asian continent. Much of this territory was controlled by such countries as the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Japan prepared to go to war with these countries over the territory. In December 1941, Japan bombed the U.S. port of Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian Islands and America declared war on Japan.
The other war began as a European war. Although almost every nation in Europe was soon involved, a few countries played more prominent roles. It began in September 1939 when Germany launched an attack on Poland and found itself facing Great Britain and France, who had sworn to defend Poland should the Germans attack it. Great Britain, France, and the countries that would eventually join them against Germany were called the Allied powers. Germany was joined by Italy and later by Japan to form the Axis powers.
Although the Allies declared war on Germany in 1939, the fighting didn’t begin until the spring of 1940 when Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union (Russia). In December 1941, it declared war on the United States. By that time, Germany had conquered much of Europe.
Memory of Another War in Europe
When war came in September 1939, the people of Europe were still haunted by the memory of World War I. Fought from 1914 to 1918, this war began as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia and escalated into a war involving 32 countries. On one side were Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Turkey, fighting against 28 other nations, including France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
To many people, that war now seemed senseless. It hadn’t accomplished much, except to destroy a whole generation of young men. In Germany alone, almost 2 million German soldiers had been killed and another 4 million had been wounded. In France and Britain (the major European powers that along with the United States had won World War I), the memory of this slaughter was a very important factor in the years between the two world wars. The idea that there would be another war seemed unthinkable. Some countries felt that almost any price should be paid to avoid that possibility.
Many Germans were also horrified by the memory of World War I. But Germany was on the losing side of the war and its experiences after World War I were different from those of the victorious countries. The events in Germany after World War I led to the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis) and put Europe on the road to World War II.
The End of World War I
World War I started in 1914 and after a few years of fighting the armies and people of Europe were exhausted. So many men had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner that both sides were running out of soldiers. In 1917, the United States joined Britain and France (known as the Allies) in the war against Germany. As hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops began arriving in Europe, it became clear that Germany would run out of men first.
The British fleet prevented all ships, including those carrying food, from reaching German ports, and hunger was increasing. Germany’s allies, the Austrian Empire and Turkey, were collapsing. The German generals knew that the war was lost, and they told the German emperor, the kaiser, that Germany had to give up.
Then, a revolution broke out in Germany. In the face of the growing disorder throughout the country, the kaiser left on November 10. The next day, November 11, 1918, the new leaders of the German government signed an armistice with the Allies, ending the Great War. (An armistice is a temporary halt to a war, until a peace treaty ends it permanently.)
The Treaty of Versailles
The new government of Germany had to negotiate a permanent peace treaty with the Allies. The Treaty of Versailles, named after the city near Paris where the Peace Conference met, was intended to make Germany permanently poor and weak. The terms were very harsh. The German armed forces were strictly limited. The army could have only 100,000 men, the navy 15,000. They could have no planes, tanks, or submarines.
Germany lost all its colonies, which were taken over mainly by France and Britain. Germany also lost some of its own territory. Alsace and Lorraine, which Germany had taken from France after a war in 1870, went back to France. A section of western Germany near France, called the Rhineland, would be controlled by Allied troops for a number of years, and no German armed forces would be allowed there. Large sections of eastern Germany went to the newly independent country of Poland. These areas had been in German hands since before 1800, when Poland had been divided among Russia, the Austrian Empire, and Prussia, the country that later became the modern country of Germany. The easternmost part of Germany (called East Prussia) was cut off from the rest of the country by a section of Poland that became known as the “Polish Corridor.” Germany lost about one-eighth of its territory.
War Guilt and Reparations
The Allies made two other demands that angered Germans more than anything else. They forced Germany to admit that it was responsible for starting the war. The Allies demanded that Germany make payments to them, especially to France, for the enormous destruction the war caused. When the amount of these reparations (repayments) was later revealed, it was staggering. According to the Allied demands, Germany would continue making reparations for almost sixty more years.
No one in Germany liked the treaty, especially the admission of guilt for starting the war. But the threat of the Allied armies invading the country meant that Germany had no choice, and it signed the treaty.
The “Stab in the Back”
Because of the way the war ended, with the confusion of revolution and the kaiser who had started the war leaving his country without resolving it, an important myth developed. Some Germans said that their armies had never been defeated. They believed that Germany had lost the war because the army had been “stabbed in the back” by the leaders who surrendered. This idea was most popular among extreme nationalists, people with intense feelings of loyalty to their nation who combined these emotions with a dislike of other countries and foreigners.
They accused the new democratic government that replaced the kaiser of betraying Germany. They also blamed Jews, socialists, and communists. Socialism is a political and economic system based on government control of the production and distribution of goods. The German socialist party, called the Social Democrats, was very large, and became the most important party in the new German government. Communism is similar to socialism; communists believe that the community as a whole should share ownership of the methods of production of the country (the factories and farms for example) and share equally the goods (food and all other products) produced by the country. Unlike the socialists in Germany, who argued for changing the government slowly, the communists wanted an immediate revolution.
The myths that these groups had betrayed Germany in World War II by surrendering helped prepare the way for a leader who promised to make Germany strong again and who promised to punish the “traitors” who had “stabbed Germany in the back.”
During the next several years, different groups— including the communists and extreme nationalists—made repeated attempts to overthrow the new government. The government defeated each of these attempts, but at a high cost. Often, the government depended on extreme nationalist volunteer troops to defeat the communists. There were brutal street battles that sometimes approached civil war.
The German economy was badly weakened by the war, by the disorder that continued around the country, and by war reparations. Economic disaster struck in the early 1920s in the form of hyperinflation, an extremely fast increase in prices. In July 1919, it took about 14 marks (the German unit of money) to buy 1 American dollar. By July 1922, it took about 490. A year later, 1 dollar was worth almost 3 million marks. By mid-November 1923, 1 American dollar was worth 2.52 trillion German marks.
The value of pensions and bank accounts was wiped out. Savings that once would have bought a house now would not pay for a loaf of bread. Most middle class people fell from comfort to poverty. Many Germans became fearful about the future and distrusted the government. When a new economic disaster struck Germany at the beginning of the 1930s, many of them had no faith in the political parties that were loyal to the new German government. They supported the newly founded Nazi party instead.
The Great Depression
For a short while, in the mid-to late 1920s, Germany became more prosperous. The inflation was brought under control, and German industry was producing as many products as it had before World War I. Then in the fall of 1929, an economic crisis called a depression hit the United States. A depression is a period of falling industrial production, lower prices, and increasing unemployment. Depressions had occurred periodically, but this one was much more severe and would come to be called the Great Depression. Companies could not sell their products, so they had to let many of their employees go, or even closed their factories. Fewer people had jobs, so they could not afford to buy anything. That meant that companies sold even fewer products, and closed even more factories.
Although it began in the United States, the crisis soon spread to all the industrial countries of Europe. The economies of all these countries were connected. They bought and sold each other’s products. The United States had been the strongest and largest economy in the world. Now, it was very difficult to sell anything in the United States.
The Depression in Germany
Germany was hit harder by the depression than any other major European country. Partly this was because German companies depended more than others on exporting their products to other countries. During the good economic times of the late 1920s, one-third of German products were exported. The countries Germany exported to were also affected by the depression and couldn’t buy as many of its products.
German banks closed, and industrial production fell rapidly. Unemployment was the worst problem. By early 1933, 6 million Germans were unemployed and only about 12 million still had jobs: 1 out of 3 Germans was out of work. The unemployed and their families were becoming desperate as the government seemed unable—or unwilling—to solve the problem.
Nazis Popularity Grows
As unemployment grew, so did a willingness to turn to political parties who were completely against the system. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis), who had been a party on the fringe of German politics, suddenly became a major force.
Their leader, Adolf Hitler, told his audiences that he would make Germany strong and prosperous again, though he did not explain how. Instead, he stirred up hatred. He had one explanation for every problem people faced and one enemy for them to focus on: Jews. His hatred of the Jews was both his deepest belief and a tactic to win people over to his side. Many of the middle-class people who listened to him thought that Hitler and the Nazis were Germany’s last hope.
While Hitler made his speeches, the Nazis also used street violence to frighten their opponents, break up their political meetings, and beat up Jews on the street. A giant army of uniformed Nazi thugs, called stormtroopers, became more and more powerful. In 1931, there were 170,000 stormtroopers, and a year later over 400,000. At the time, the official Germany army was limited to 100,000 men.
Stormtrooper violence was not just a sidelight for the Nazis. They glorified violence as an expression of strength. The Nazis were often referred to as “fascists.” Fascism is a political movement marked by extreme nationalism, celebration of military strength, strong anticommunism, and a belief in a single all-powerful leader. Fascists do not pretend to be democratic, like other dictators often do. Instead, they openly express contempt for democracy, which they describe as weak and old, in contrast to fascism, which is supposed to be young, healthy, and strong. Using military-style organizations, like the stormtroopers, to help them gain power is one of the most common features of fascist movements. Once in power, fascist governments continue using violence to repress all political opponents and independent organizations, such as labor unions.
The political parties that supported the government could not agree on how to deal with the depression. The conservative parties, supported by big business and many middle-class people, wanted to cut benefits to the unemployed, cut the pay of government employees, and raise taxes on people who still had jobs. But the Social Democrats, the moderate socialist party that was the largest in Germany, wanted to continue high unemployment benefits and raise taxes on the rich.
Neither side could get a majority of votes in the Reichstag (the German national legislature, equivalent to Congress in the United States) so the legislature remained deadlocked. The conservative chancellor (the head of the government, and also called the prime minister) called new elections for September 1930. He hoped that the voters would elect enough people who agreed with him to break the deadlock.
The Nazis Stun Germany
The results of the election stunned everyone. The Nazis received almost 6.5 million votes, and won 107 seats in the Reichstag. Two years earlier, they had gotten 809,000 votes and 12 seats. They were now the second largest party in Germany. The new Reichstag was even less able to agree on anything than before the elections. The conservatives could not form a majority by themselves without including the Nazis.
This deadlock continued for months. During that time, the president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, had to run for re-election. (Hindenburg was a national hero who had commanded the German army in World War I but was now 85 years old. As president he was head of state, largely a symbolic position, though he did carry considerable influence in government.) In a four-way race, Hitler received over 11 million votes, about 30 percent of the total. In the run-off election, he received almost 13.5 million votes, almost 37 percent. Although Hindenburg was reelected, Hitler and the Nazis had shown their power.
During the election campaigns, stormtrooper violence increased. In June and the first three weeks of July 1932, there were officially 461 political riots in Prussia, the largest German state. Over 80 people were killed and hundreds were seriously injured.
In July 1932, there was another election to the Reichstag. The Nazi gains were again startling. They got almost 14 million votes, and won 230 seats in the Reichstag, more than double their totals from 1930. This was about 37 percent of the votes, about the same proportion that Hitler had received for president a few months earlier. The Nazis had become the largest party in Germany. The Social Democrats dropped to less than 8 million votes and 133 seats.
Hitler Makes a Deal
Hitler and various conservative leaders bargained for months, trying to make a deal to join their parties so that together they would have enough votes in the Reichstag to be able to pass legislation. These leaders felt the Nazis were basically on their side, and could be useful in helping them run the country. They believed the Nazis just needed to be “tamed” a little. They convinced President Hindenburg to name Hitler as chancellor. Most of the members of the cabinet would not be Nazis, but old-fashioned conservatives. Besides Hitler, there were only two other Nazis in the cabinet, out of twelve. The conservatives stayed in charge of the army and the national police. Hitler, they were sure, would be under their control.
On January 30, 1933, Hitler became chancellor, the head of the German government. He came to power legally, though without ever winning a majority of the votes, in an agreement with conservative political leaders. One of the most criminal and brutal governments in history came to power through a back-room deal.
The End of Democracy
Hitler decided to hold one more election, in March 1933, the third in less than a year. He used his increased power and his stormtroopers to ensure that the Nazis would win a majority in the Reichstag. On February 27, 1933, after Hitler had been chancellor less than a month, the Reichstag building was set on fire. The Nazis claimed this was part of a communist plan to start a revolution. No one believes this today. Many people thought at the time that the Nazis had set the fire themselves, but there was no way to prove this.
The next day, Hitler issued an emergency decree signed by President Hindenburg. This decree gave Hitler special powers to “protect” the nation against “Communist acts of violence.” It gave the government the power to ignore almost all the rights in the constitution.
Hitler could restrict freedom of speech and of the press, ban meetings, and outlaw political organizations. His police could tap telephones, open private mail, search homes without a warrant. The government could seize the property of its opponents. The decree allowed Hitler to take over the government of the different states. It was the end of democracy in Germany.
The Beginning of the Nazi Police State
The Nazis moved quickly. The night after the Reichstag fire, the police arrested over 10,000 people. All the leaders of the Communist Party who could be found, including members of the Reichstag, were jailed. The rest went into hiding. The arrested Communists were soon sent to concentration camps, where they were kept under guard of the Nazi stormtroopers. The Communists were the first victims of the Nazi police state.
Forty thousand Nazi stormtroopers had been made special police officers. They still wore their Nazi uniforms as they beat their opponents, kidnapped them, and spread terror everywhere. Only now they were acting legally, under Chancellor Hitler’s orders. The regular police just watched.
As the election campaign continued, only pro-Nazi political meetings were allowed. The offices of anti-Nazi newspapers were smashed. The speeches of Hitler and other top Nazis filled the radio.
The Last Election
Almost 90 percent of the voters cast their ballots on March 5, 1933. Although Nazi control of the government and stormtrooper violence meant that the election was only partly free, voters could choose other parties. The Nazis got over 17 million votes, about 44 percent. The Nationalist Party, the allies of the Nazis in the election, got another 3 million. Much more surprising was the fact that the Social Democrats got 7 million votes, and the Communists, even though they were in jail or hiding, still received almost 5 million votes.
Even in these circumstances, a majority of Germans still refused to vote for the Nazis. A large minority, over 30 percent, voted for the two parties that the Nazis hated most, the Social Democrats and Communists. In was a serious disappointment for the Nazis. But votes did not matter anymore. The Nazis had enough power to control the government, and they used it.
The Nazis Take Control of Germany
On March 24 1933, the new Reichstag passed a law called the Enabling Act. It allowed the government to issue laws, without the approval of the Reichstag, for four years. Unlike the emergency decree, these laws could be issued by Hitler alone, without the approval of President Hindenburg. The Enabling Act clearly said that these new laws could violate the constitution.
From now on, the “law” was whatever Adolf Hitler wanted it to be, and he could now “legally” do the things the Nazis had always intended. During the next several months, almost every organization that might oppose the Nazis was destroyed.
In April, the first law was issued to remove opponents of the Nazis from all government jobs. Soon, practicing law required Nazi approval. Within a few months, this was true for journalists, radio broadcasters, musicians, and people working in the theater.
On May 2, 1933, the stormtroopers took over the offices of all the labor unions in Germany, beat up union leaders, and sent them to concentration camps. The free labor unions were replaced by the German Labor Front, run by a Nazi official. All workers had to belong. Later that month, the workers’ right to bargain with their employers, and the right to strike, were abolished.
In June, the Social Democratic Party was officially banned as “an enemy of the people.” The same month, the stormtroopers took over many offices of the Nationalist Party, the Nazis’ ally in the last election, and still their partner in the government. Knowing that it would soon be eliminated anyway, the Nationalist Party announced that it had dissolved. The same sort of thing happened to every other political party.
On July 14, 1933, Germany officially became a one-party state. On that day, a new law was published. It said that “the National Socialist German Workers’ Party [the Nazi Party’s full name] constitutes the only political Party in Germany.” It also said that anyone who tried to keep another political party going, or who tried to form a new political party, could be sent to prison.
Within six months after becoming chancellor, Hitler was now the dictator of Germany. The Nazi Party was the only legal political party.
Military Power for Germany
One of Hitler’s goals was to make Germany a great military power again. To build up the armed forces meant that Germany would have to ignore the Treaty of Versailles, which limited Germany’s army to 100,000 soldiers, did not allow a military draft, banned tanks and an air force, and kept the navy very small. In this goal, Hitler had the support of the military officers. Long before Hitler came to power, the military had been secretly making plans to get around the treaty, doing things like training pilots on glider planes and experimenting with designs for modern tanks. Hitler expanded the rearming of Germany secretly, but he was also determined to defy the Treaty of Versailles openly.
Defying the Treaty
Early in 1935, Germany announced that it would again draft men into the army. Although this violated the Treaty of Versailles, Britain and France did not do anything about it. Within weeks, Hitler announced the creation of a German air force, again violating the treaty. On March 16, Germany officially announced that it would no longer respect the t21reaty’s limitations on the German armed forces.
The next year, Hitler sent the German army into the western area of Germany, near France, called the Rhineland. The Rhineland was part of Germany, but according to the Treaty of Versailles, it was not supposed to have any troops in it. This move was a big gamble for Hitler. The German army was still far too weak to do anything if France tried to stop this action. The German generals tried to talk Hitler out of this step, but he believed that France and Britain would not do anything except protest—and he was right.
From 1936 to 1939, a civil war raged in Spain. A general named Francisco Franco led a rebellion against the elected government. Franco and many of his supporters were friendly to the Nazis. Hitler sent German planes and pilots to support Franco’s troops. The German air force used the Spanish Civil War as a way to develop Germany’s modern air warfare tactics. This included purposely bombing civilian populations. The German bombing of the town of Guernica shocked people around the world and inspired a famous painting by Pablo Picasso, “Guernica.”
Germany Expands Without Firing a Shot
In March 1938, the German army moved into Austria, and Germany and Austria were united into one country. This was called the Anschluss, which means “union” or “joining” in German. Hitler worked with Austrian Nazis to bring about the Anschluss, but it was an old dream of many Germans and Austrians. Many Austrians—perhaps most—welcomed becoming part of Germany.
Hitler soon began to look for more territory. He demanded that a part of western Czechoslovakia, called the Sudetenland, become part of Germany. He claimed that Czechoslovakia was mistreating the German-speaking population of the Sudetenland. This was simply an excuse for Hitler, who was probably perterbed that German people were living under the rule of non-Germans. He had told his generals in May that “it is my unchangeable intention to destroy Czechoslovakia by military force in the foreseeable future.”
The crisis over the Sudetenland came very close to starting a war. But Czechoslovakia’s allies, Britain and France, were not willing to defend Czechoslovakia, which could not stand alone against Germany. Instead, in September 1938 the leaders of France, Britain, and Italy met with Hitler in Munich, a city of southern Germany. Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini, was Hitler’s ally. Czechoslovakia was not allowed to attend the conference.
Appeasing a Dictator
At Munich, Britain and France agreed to let Hitler take over the Sudetenland. Hitler told the British prime minister (the head of the British government), Neville Chamberlain, that this was his “last territorial demand in Europe,” and Chamberlain believed him—or wanted to believe him.
The Munich Conference has become famous as the symbol of the British and French policy of appeasement, of giving in to Hitler’s demands to avoid war. When Chamberlain returned to London, he waved a copy of the Munich agreement at the airport and said that he had brought home “peace in our time.”
Opponents of appeasement attacked Chamberlain and the French prime minister, Edouard Daladier, for giving in to Hitler’s threats. The prime ministers were so afraid of war, these critics said, that they were willing to go back on their promises and to sacrifice the people of a democratic country, Czechoslovakia, to the Nazis. In fact, the opponents said, this would make war more likely, by encouraging further demands by Hitler.
But it is important to remember that, at the time, the desire to avoid war was such a powerful feeling in Europe that appeasement was favored by most people. The German people shared this feeling as well. According to both German and foreign observers, people in Germany did not respond well to Nazi propaganda about the Czechoslovakia crisis. They did not want to go to war over the Sudetenland and—like most people in France and Britain—were immensely relieved that the issue was settled. Hitler became more popular, even among some anti-Nazi Germans, because he had shown that he could win gains for Germany without war.
Another factor contributing to appeasement was that Chamberlain and Daladier—along with their military advisers—did not think their armed forces were ready for war. Both Britain and France were rapidly building more weapons and planes and they thought that a delay would help them. Of course, Germany was also building new weapons. In hindsight, many military experts think that Britain and France would have been better off fighting Germany in the fall of 1938 rather than a year later, as actually happened.
The End of Appeasement
The Munich settlement did not bring peace, of course. By March 1939, Hitler’s army took over all of Czechoslovakia. The provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (most of what is now the Czech Republic) became part of Germany. The Nazis set up an “independent” country of Slovakia, but it was really a German puppet (a country that claims to be independent but is really being controlled by another more powerful country).
The destruction of Czechoslovakia violated the Munich agreement. It showed everyone—even those who had wanted to believe otherwise—that appeasement could not work. Even Chamberlain was now determined to stop Hitler’s next move, by force if necessary.
Hitler’s next target was Poland. The port city of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk) had been made a “free city” after World War I, which meant it was not part of Germany or Poland. Poland had a right to use the port for its exports and imports. But the people of the city were almost all German, and local Nazis ran the city and followed Hitler’s orders. Germany demanded that Danzig be returned to Germany, something that most people in Danzig wanted.
This demand might have seemed reasonable a few years earlier. By now, however, most people understood that giving in to Hitler’s demands—even if they seemed justified at first—would only lead to more and more demands. In fact, Hitler did not want Poland to agree: he was determined to destroy Poland as an independent country. This had been one of his major goals from the beginning.
The British and French governments said they would defend their ally Poland if it were attacked by Germany. Since Britain and France had not defended Czechoslovakia, Hitler thought they would back down again. On September 1, 1939, the German army launched a full-scale attack on Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. World War II had begun in Europe.
War in Asia
As a new war in Europe became more and more likely, another war was already being fought in Asia between Japan and China. This conflict spread to much of eastern Asia and the Pacific, and eventually became part of the world war. The causes of World War II in Asia are closely connected with the history of Japan.
Japan is an island nation located off the eastern coast of Asia. In the early 1600s, ships from Portugal and Spain began to arrive in Japan. After a short period of welcoming them, the Japanese closed off their country. For the next two centuries, Japan was almost completely isolated from other countries, including its Asian neighbors. Japanese were not allowed to leave the country. Foreigners were not welcome— neither merchants who wanted to buy and sell in Japan, nor western missionaries who wanted to convert people to their religion.
Japan is Humiliated
Beginning in the 1850s, western influence was forced on the Japanese. (The United States and countries in Europe are often referred to as western countries while countries in Asia are referred to as eastern countries.) In 1853, a group of American warships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay without permission of the Japanese government. The big guns of the American ships could have destroyed the city. After a year of pressure, Japan was forced to sign a treaty with the United States, allowing American ships to enter Japanese ports. Japan soon had to sign treaties with Russia, Britain, and the Netherlands as well. From then on, American and other western merchants could not be prevented from doing business in Japan.
The Japanese were humiliated and angered over the way western countries forced their will on Japan. Japan was technologically and militarily far behind Europe and the United States and many Japanese feared that the western powers would turn Japan into one of their colonies. At that time, the western nations were taking over many foreign countries, especially in Asia and Africa, and making them colonies—running them without regard to the wishes of the native people. The Japanese believed that allowing western merchants into the country was the first step in this process.
Japan Becomes a Modern Country
To avoid being colonized, some Japanese leaders decided their country needed to become more modern. Beginning in the late 1860s, Japan changed quickly and dramatically. One important change involved the political system. The emperor, who was supposed to be the supreme ruler of the whole country, had lost all of his real power. The real ruler of Japan was the Shogun, the head of a powerful family and a kind of military dictator. While the Shogun ran the central government, great local lords controlled much of Japan. They held large areas of land and ran these domains almost as if each were a separate country. Their word was law on their own lands. Japan didn’t have a national tax system or a national army.
In 1868, after years of conflict, a group of powerful local leaders were able to overthrow the Shogun in a bloody rebellion. Officially, power was returned to the emperor. In fact, the emperor still didn’t make decisions. Instead, the small group of powerful leaders who had led the rebellion ran the country.
The emperor during this time was called Meiji, and the period during which he reigned (1868-1912) in Japanese history is known as the Meiji Restoration. Even though the emperor did not run the country, he continued to enjoy extraordinary prestige among the Japanese people. The emperor was a symbol of the country, and he was worshiped as a godlike creature.
In the years following the Meiji Restoration, the government was able to abolish the old system in which the lords had almost absolute power on their own lands. Many lords remained rich and still had great influence, but Japan now had a single powerful government that ruled the whole country, in the emperor’s name. Soon there was a written constitution, and a legal system was organized.
Japan did not just change politically in this period. Factories were built, like those in Europe and the United States. Soon there was widespread use of steam power, electricity, railroads, a telephone system. A modern educational system was created. Most important to the new leaders, the army and the navy were modernized with new weapons, new western-style ships, and the latest military training. In many ways, Japan was becoming a country that resembled the United States and Europe more than its Asian neighbors. These developments were brought about in a matter of a few decades.
The Desire for an Empire
But Japan has very few natural resources. Its factories depended on getting iron and other minerals from foreign countries. It has no oil, and petroleum was becoming more and more important in keeping a modern country going. Japanese factories, and soon the whole Japanese economy, depended on turning raw materials into finished products and then selling them. Almost all the raw materials had to be imported. Many of the finished products had to be sold in other countries.
The logical place for Japan to get these resources was from the mainland of Asia. This was also the logical place for Japan to sell the products made in its factories. The western countries, Germany, France, and especially Britain, had faced some of these same problems many years earlier. One of the things they had done was to build great empires in foreign countries (colonies) where they could use the resources of the colony for the benefit of the home country. Much of Asia was controlled directly by these western countries by the end of the nineteenth century. This was the age of “imperialism,” of empire building.
Japan also wanted to control foreign countries and use them for the benefit of Japan. (Neither the western imperial powers nor Japan were interested in what the people of these countries wanted.) But because Japan was a latecomer, it was shut out of many of these countries—unless it was willing to go to war against the western powers who were already there.
Japan’s First Conquests
Tensions between Japan and China were increasing during the final decades of the nineteenth century, especially over the growing Japanese influence in Korea. Korea was a semi-independent country that for many centuries had owed allegiance to China. But China was too weak to control its outlying areas. Japan began stationing troops in Korea, despite Chinese protests.
From 1894 to 1895, Japan fought a short war with China. China was much larger than Japan, but its government was weak and unable to control the country. The newly modernized Japanese army won an easy victory and Japan forced China to give up the island of Formosa, off the southeast coast of China (today the island is called by its Chinese name, Taiwan). This was Japan’s first colony. In addition, China was forced not to interfere with Japanese influence in Korea, and that country came under the “protection” of Japan. Korea essentially became a Japanese colony. Later, in 1910, Japan officially ended Korea’s independence and made it part of Japan.
In the treaty that ended the war with China, Japan also demanded to make part of Manchuria, in northeast China, a colony. Manchuria is rich in coal and minerals, including iron, and its vast farmable land could grow much of the grain to help feed Japan. China was forced to agree to give up part of Manchuria, but the European powers, especially Russia, France, and Germany, did not want Japan to dominate the region. Russia even threatened to go to war with Japan if Japan exerted its control there. Though Japan was forced to give up this plan, and officially Manchuria remained part of China, Japanese influence in the region was very large and it continued to grow.
War with Russia
Russia was another country that was expanding its empire in eastern Asia at this time. The Russian Czars (emperors) had extended their territory to the Pacific Ocean, and Russia’s influence, like Japan’s, was growing in Manchuria. The conflict between Russia and Japan over Manchuria grew and in 1905 the two countries went to war. The war began with a surprise attack by the Japanese navy against the Russian fleet anchored in Port Arthur (or Lü-shun, on the southern Liaotung Peninsula, which jutted into the Yellow Sea). The Japanese army defeated the Russian troops in bloody fighting in Manchuria, and the Japanese navy won another sea battle, almost completely destroying a second Russian fleet.
Japan’s victory in the war gave it a free hand to increase its influence and economic power in Manchuria. It also changed the way other countries in the world looked at Japan, and at the way the Japanese looked at themselves. For the first time in modern history, an Asian country had defeated a European power in a war. From then on, Japan was considered one of the military and naval powers. It even joined France, Britain, and the United States in World War I and took over several German-controlled islands in the Pacific Ocean.
In the following decades, Japanese power and influence continued to grow. Japanese companies owned railroads and coal mines in Manchuria and controlled the area’s economic policies. Japanese troops were stationed there to protect these interests. Officially, however, Manchuria was still part of China. In 1931, the Japanese army in Manchuria— without the permission of the Japanese government—seized Manchuria in a short war with China. Japanese troops burned villages, shot Chinese civilians, and raped Chinese women. The Japanese army then set up a new country, and named it Manchukuo. Although it was supposed to be an independent country, with a Chinese emperor and its own government, the government was really under Japan’s control. The commander of the Japanese troops stationed in Manchukuo made all the key decisions.
Militarism in the Government
The attack on Manchuria, which began without the permission or even the knowledge of the Japanese government, was evidence of another great change taking place in Japan. The leaders of the army and navy were becoming more and more important in running the country. Younger military officers also played a significant part in Japanese politics. They helped organize secret patriotic societies, some of them with tens of thousands of members. These organizations wanted Japan to increase its military and naval forces, they wanted Japan to seize a larger empire, and they were against a democratic political system. Sometimes they assassinated civilian politicians who did not agree with them.
By the 1930s, Japan was in many ways coming to resemble the fascist governments of Italy and Nazi Germany. Fascism is a political movement marked by extreme nationalism, celebration of military strength, strong anticommunism, and a belief in a single all-powerful leader. (The fascist governments of Europe are discussed on pages 10-13.) In Japan, the whole country was under the influence of the army and its traditions. The old warrior tradition of Japan was glorified; the ancestors of many Japanese military officers were samurai, the Japanese warriors of the middle ages (from about 500 to 1500A. D.). Worship of the emperor as a descendant of the gods became more prominent in Japanese religion. Schoolchildren were taught that dying for the emperor was the greatest honor for a Japanese person, and that obedience to the emperor’s wishes was both a religious and patriotic duty.
In fact, it was not the emperor’s orders that the people were following, but the orders of the military men and their allies, who were really making the decisions. Limits were placed on what could be printed in newspapers and magazines; the labor unions lost all their power; and college students were forced to memorize information fed to them by their professors instead of being encouraged to think for themselves. Women were discouraged from playing any part in society outside their traditional roles of wives and mothers.
The whole country was being organized to support the ideas and goals of the militarists, extremists in the military and their supporters who wanted Japan to be controlled by the army, and wanted all of Japanese society organized on military principles. Any disagreement with the government’s policies was considered unpatriotic, even a crime. The secret police became a powerful body, with spies everywhere. Politicians who did not support the army strongly enough, and even some generals who were considered too moderate by younger army officers, were in constant fear of being murdered by the secret societies. In February 1936, hundreds of armed junior military officers took over the center of Tokyo. They found and killed several leading antimilitarist politicians. After this, the militarists’ influence in the government increased even more.
The militarists openly expressed their dislike of foreigners and a belief that the Japanese were a superior race of people. Influences from Europe and the United States, things like western-style ballroom dancing and English-language street signs, were attacked. At the same time, Japanese militarists began talking about driving out the western powers from Asia. They advanced the idea that the people of these countries should run their own affairs and used the slogan “Asia for the Asians.” But Japanese treatment of Manchukuo and Korea made it clear that the Japanese militarists did not really want to make Asian nations independent: they wanted Japan to take control of the Asian countries. Even so, the idea of getting rid of the western imperial powers, with Japan’s help, attracted many Asian people, at least at first.
Conflict and Alliance with the West
The creation of Manchukuo created conflicts with other countries, especially the United States. The American government refused to recognize Manchukuo, demanding that it be returned to China. The United States arranged for bank loans to the Chinese government to make it stronger, and began selling planes to the Chinese air force. The tensions between the United States and Japan over China would continue to grow, and would eventually lead to war.
In November 1936, Japan signed a treaty with Nazi Germany, with the two countries pledging to oppose the spread of the world communist movement. (Communism is a political and economic system where most property is owned in common by the community as a whole.) Partly this treaty reflected the changes in Japan and the militarists’ admiration of Nazi Germany. The Nazis also opposed democracy, glorified military might, and wanted to take over new territory. But the treaty was also directed at Russia, Japan’s old rival in Manchuria, which was now the Communist-ruled Soviet Union. The Soviet leaders now had to worry that Germany and Japan might attack Russia from two sides, thousands of miles apart.
War Against China
But Japan did not attack the Soviet Union. Instead, it turned south from Manchuria. In July 1937, Japan invaded China itself. Japanese troops attacked and conquered large areas of the country, including the great cities of Peking (now Beijing), Shanghai, and Canton. As they had in 1931, the Japanese soldiers were allowed—perhaps even encouraged—to burn villages, loot (steal) property, and to rape and murder Chinese civilians. The most terrible example was what the victorious Japanese army did in the city of Nanking. After conquering the city on December 13, the Japanese troops went on a rampage. They dragged thousands of people out of their homes and shot or bayonetted them. Others were burned alive. Women were repeatedly sexually attacked. The slaughter became known as the “rape of Nanking.” At least 40,000 Chinese were killed.
Although the Chinese armies sometimes fought hard, they could not stop the Japanese from conquering large areas of China, including all the important seaports. Japan controlled most of the railroads and much of the most important farming and industrial areas of China. But the Japanese troops were not able to advance inland into the great spaces of China. China was simply too big, and the Japanese did not have enough soldiers. Sometimes protected by mountains, the Chinese armies continued to exist. Sometimes they launched guerrilla raids on the Japanese.
By the end of 1938, after a year and a half of heavy fighting, the war between Japan and China settled into a kind of holding pattern. The Japanese did not try to launch major operations to attack the remaining Chinese armies. The Chinese were not able to counterattack and win back the territories that Japan had conquered. Although many soldiers and civilians continued to die, and the Chinese people in the Japanese controlled areas suffered tremendous hardships, there were no more large-scale battles for many years.
This was the situation in eastern Asia at the moment that Europe went to war in September 1939. The Japanese war against China was still a separate war from the one that began in Europe. The two conflicts would become a single world war in late 1941.