The Second World War

The cost and ending of the war

With the capitulation of Germany on 7 May 1945, followed by Japan on 2 September, the Second World War finally came to an end.

This room assesses the human and material impact of a worldwide total war which turned the world upside down. It places special emphasis on the unprecedented moral shock created by this war.

April 1944: the last Japanese attack on China

As a counter-attack to bombings on Japan from American bases in China, the Japanese army launched Operation Ichi-Go in April 1944...

It was the greatest offensive launched on China since 1937-38, with the aim of opening a safe land route between Korea and Hanoi. The operation would enable Japan to receive supplies and strategic equipment without using the sea route that was under American control. Some 150,000 Japanese soldiers left Henan and quickly moved south along the Peking-Hankow railway line. Nationalist forces had an extra enemy they weren’t expecting in the guise of famished Chinese peasants taking revenge for the years of mistreatment and deprivation they had suffered.

At the end of May, 350,000 Japanese soldiers continued the march. In August, they took Guangxi and by November all American air bases had been destroyed. In Chongqing, the provisional capital of “Free China” and the refuge of Chiang Kai-shek, panic abounded. But luck would have it that in December 1944 the offensive was suddenly brought to a halt. Japan had to face successive American victories at the battle of Leyte in October 1944, when the Americans sunk what was left of Japanese fleets. Furthermore, Japan lost the Burma Campaign, which opened up a supply route to Chongqing.

This nine-month campaign was disastrous for Chiang Kai-shek and his army, which was left humiliated and weakened by the loss of 500,000 men – twenty times as many as the Japanese. A debacle that benefited the communists, whose prestige was heightened by stabilisation of zones under their control in northern and central China, in the face of invasion attempts by both the Japanese and by troops of the puppet government.

Mao stood to challenge the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and aimed to seize power of the whole country. The Americans made no mistake in opening negotiations with Mao in the summer of 1944. But this American mediation attempt between the two Chinese rivals failed in December 1944. At most, Mao attained modest international recognition for sending a representative of communist China to the San Francisco Conference in June 1945.


Reconquest of the Pacific

American forces advanced in the Pacific and the Far East. Atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In January 1945, the allied armies launched an all-out war of attrition against Japanese forces in the Pacific and the Far East. The Philippines, New Guinea and Burma were retaken and continuing their advance on Japan, American troops took Iwo Jima and Okinawa – two victories that put the Japanese archipelago within reach of allied fire.

For political and military reasons and despite negotiations with the Japanese government, President Truman decided to use the atomic bomb. On 6 and 9 August, two A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, Moscow declared war on Tokyo and attacked Manchuria.

On 15 August, Emperor Hirohito of Japan asked his people to “accept the unacceptable”; the act of capitulation was signed on 2 September aboard the American battleship Missouri.

Hiroshima – Nagasaki, the atomic horror:

On 6 August 1945, the B-29 bomber “Enola Gay” dropped an atom bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The nuclear blast killed over 100,000 people. Some 30,000 more would die as a result of radiation. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.


The defeat of Germany

After Hitler's suicide, the instrument of surrender was signed and ended the Second World War.

In March 1945, Germany was invaded from the East and from the West. The Wehrmacht mustered its remaining forces, trying to halt the Soviet armies that had reached the Oder, while to the west, British and American troops crossed the Rhine. To Churchill’s considerable distress, Eisenhower allowed the Soviets to seize Berlin.

Holed up in his Chancellery bunker, Hitler committed suicide on 30 April. General Jodl signed the act of capitulation in Reims on 7 May. The following day, at Stalin’s request, a second solemn surrender took place in Berlin, putting an end to the war in Europe.


An unprecedented moral shock

During the world war, mass violence reached its climax.

The strategy of terror, the continual discovery of new mass graves, the distress felt at the extent of the suffering, the incomprehension of the horror of the concentration camps and the sense of hovering evil that came with a growing awareness of the genocide that had been committed all helped explain the intensity, depth and lasting effects of the moral shock caused by the war. The industry of death and genuine fears of a nuclear apocalypse waylaid hopes of continued scientific progress.

The war years taught people to live in a daily atmosphere of blind violence, inhuman treatment, racial hatred, aggression, rule-bending and lawless behaviour that had lost all power to surprise. The trivialisation of all that is worst in us is part of the Second World War’s tragic heritage.

Total war on a global level had turned the world on its head. The most murderous act of carnage known to history provoked such trauma that the Allies brought Axis leaders before international military courts. The determination to build a new world order, one that would set the conditions for sustainable peace, was expressed by the creation of the United Nations (UN) in June 1945.


The human toll of the Second World War

Between 1937 and 1945, between 60 and 70 million people lost their lives, including between 44 and 50 million civilians.

The sheer enormity of the means of destruction employed over several continents, the massacres never brought to light and the mixture of civilians and military victims of sometimes ill-defined status, are just a few of the reasons why it is impossible to make a truly accurate estimate of how many people lost their lives.


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