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World War II (1939–1945)

History SparkNotes

Key People & Terms

Summary of Events

The Start of the War

People

Neville Chamberlain

The prime minister of Britain from 1937 to 1940, who advocated a policy of appeasement toward the territorial demands of Nazi Germany. This appeasement policy essentially turned a blind eye to Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland.

Winston Churchill

The prime minister of Britain during most of World War II. Churchill was among the most active leaders in resisting German aggression and played a major role in assembling the Allied Powers, including the United States and the USSR.

James Doolittle

A U.S. Army general best known for leading the famous “Doolittle Raid” in 1942, in which B-25 bombers were launched from an aircraft carrier to bomb Japan and then crash-landed in China.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

A U.S. Army general who held the position of supreme Allied commander in Europe, among many others. Eisenhower was perhaps best known for his work in planning Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe. After the war, he was a very popular figure in the United States and was elected to two terms as U.S. president, taking office in 1953.

Hirohito

Emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. Despite the power of Japan’s military leaders, many scholars believe that Hirohito took an active role in leading the country and shaping its combat strategy during World War II. After Japan’s defeat, he was allowed to continue to hold his position as emperor—largely as a figurehead—despite the fact that Japan was under U.S. occupation. Although many countries favored it, Hirohito was never tried for war crimes.

Adolf Hitler

Chancellor and self-proclaimed Führer, or “leader,” of Germany from 1933 until his suicide in 1945. After a rapid political ascent as the leader of the far-right Nazi Party in the 1920s, Hitler achieved absolute power and maintained it throughout his time as chancellor. During his rule, he took a very active role in the government of Germany, making military decisions and implementing edicts regarding the treatment of Jews and other minorities, such as the notorious “final solution” that condemned Jews to death at concentration camps in German-controlled parts of Europe. Just before Germany surrendered in 1945, Hitler committed suicide together with his wife, Eva Braun, in his bunker in Berlin.

Yamamoto Isoroku

The Japanese navy admiral who planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the attack on Midway in 1942.

Curtis LeMay

The commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 21st Bomber Command in the Pacific theater during World War II. LeMay is best known for developing the U.S. strategy of using massive incendiary bomb attacks on Japanese cities in order to break the Japanese will near the end of the war.

Benito Mussolini

Fascist prime minister who came to power in 1922 and ruled Italy as an absolute dictator. In many ways, Mussolini served as an inspiration to Adolf Hitler, with whom he chose to ally himself during World War II. In 1943, Mussolini was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by some of his subordinates, and in 1945 he was executed by Italian partisans just prior to the end of the war in Europe.

Friedrich Paulus

A field marshal in command of the German Sixth Army at the Battle of Stalingrad. Paulus surrendered what was left of the German forces in February 1943, despite Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s express orders not to do so. While a prisoner of war in the USSR, Paulus publicly condemned Hitler’s regime.

Erwin Rommel

A field marshal in the German army’s Afrika Korps who specialized in tank warfare. Rommel came to be known by both friends and enemies as the “Desert Fox” for his brilliant strategies and surprise attacks in Germany’s North Africa campaign.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The 32nd U.S. president, who led the country through the bulk of World War II until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945, just a few months before the war ended. Together with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, Roosevelt played a decisive role in holding together the Allied coalition that ultimately defeated Nazi Germany.

Joseph Stalin

General secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953. In some ways, Stalin was responsible for the USSR’s severe losses at the beginning of World War II, as he failed to head the warnings of his advisors and did not allow the Russian military to prepare a proper defense. At the same time, he did succeed in holding the country together and inspiring among his people an awesome resistance against Germany, which ultimately forced a German retreat. Stalin’s own regime in the USSR was just as brutal as the Nazi regime in many ways, and the alliance between Stalin and the Western Allies always remained rather tenuous because of mutual distrust.

Harry S Truman

The 33rd U.S. president, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt upon Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. Truman, who led the country through the last few months of World War II, is best known for making the controversial decision to use two atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945. After the war, Truman was crucial in the implementation of the Marshall Plan, which greatly accelerated Western Europe’s economic recovery.

Terms

Allied Powers

An alliance during World War II made up of the countries that opposed the aggression of Nazi Germany. Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union were the most prominent members, although many other countries also joined.

Anschluss

Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s doctrine of German political union with Austria, which effectively enabled Germany to annex that nation in March 1938.

Appeasement

The British and French policy of conceding to Adolf Hitler’s territorial demands prior to the outbreak of World War II. Associated primarily with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, the appeasement policy enabled Hitler to systematically take over the territories of several neighboring countries.

Axis Powers

The collective term for Germany, Italy, and Japan’s military alliance in opposition to the Allied Powers. Several smaller countries in Eastern Europe also became members of the Axis Powers temporarily.

Battle of Britain

An extended campaign from July 1940 to the spring of 1941 in which British air forces fought off wave after wave of German bombers and denied Germany in its quest to attain air superiority over Britain. Although major cities in England sustained heavy damage, the British resistance forced Germany to abandon its plans to invade across the English Channel.

Battle of the Coral Sea

A battle from May 4–8, 1942, in which U.S. naval forces successfully protected the Allied base at Port Moresby, New Guinea, the last Allied outpost standing between the Japanese onslaught and Australia. The battle, which caused heavy losses on both sides, was the first naval battle in history fought exclusively in the air, by carrier-based planes.

Battle of El-Alamein

An October and November 1942 battle that was the climax of the North African campaign. A resounding victory by the British over the Germans, the battle paved the way for the Allied takeover of North Africa and the retreat of German forces back across the Mediterranean.

Battle of Guadalcanal

A campaign from August 1942 to February 1943 in which U.S. Marines fought brutal battles to expel Japanese forces from the Solomon Islands, a strategically important island chain in the South Pacific near Australia.

Battle of Iwo Jima

A battle in February and March 1945 in which U.S. forces took Iwo Jima, a small but strategically important island off the Japanese coast. During the battle, an Associated Press photographer took a world-famous photograph of U.S. Marines raising the American flag on the summit of Mt. Suribachi.

Battle of Midway

A battle from June 3–6, 1942, in which U.S. naval forces severely disabled the Japanese fleet at Midway Island in the Pacific. Coming close on the heels of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway forced Japan into defensive mode and turned the tide of the war in the Pacific theater.

Battle of Okinawa

The last large-scale battle in the Pacific theater, in which U.S. forces invaded the Japanese home island of Okinawa. The battle was very bloody, killing at least 100,000 Japanese soldiers and 80,000 to 100,000 Japanese civilians.

Battle of Stalingrad

A brutal, five-month battle between German and Soviet forces for the important industrial city of Stalingrad that resulted in the deaths of almost 2 million people. The battle involved very destructive air raids by the German Luftwaffe and bloody urban street fighting. In February 1943, despite direct orders from Hitler forbidding it, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered the German forces to the Red Army.

Blitzkrieg

Literally “lightning war,” the term for Hitler’s invasion strategy of attacking a nation suddenly and with overwhelming force. Hitler applied the blitzkrieg strategy, with varying degrees of success, to the German invasions of Poland, France, and the Soviet Union.

D-Day

June 6, 1944, the day on which the Allied invasion of France via the Normandy coast began.

Fascism

A system of government dominated by far-right-wing forces and generally commanded by a single dictator. Several Fascist governments were established in Europe in the early twentieth century, most notably those led by dictators Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Francisco Franco of Spain.

“Final Solution”

The Nazi’s euphemistic term for their plan to exterminate the Jews of Germany and other German-controlled territories during World War II. The term was used at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, in which Nazi leaders planned the Holocaust but made no specific mention of the extermination camps that ultimately killed millions.

Gestapo

The brutal Nazi secret police force, headed by the infamous Hermann Göring. The Gestapo was responsible for the relocation of many European Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the war.

Lebensraum

Literally “living space,” Adolf Hitler’s justification for Germany’s aggressive territorial conquests in the late 1930s. Based on the work of a previous German ethnographer, Hitler used the idea of lebensraum to claim that the German people’s “natural” territory extended beyond the current borders of Germany and that Germany therefore needed to acquire additional territory in Europe.

Luftwaffe

The German air force, which was used heavily in campaigns such as the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Manhattan Project

The code name for the U.S. government’s secret program to develop an atomic bomb. Begun in 1942, the Manhattan Project utilized the expertise of world-famous physicists, including Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, to develop the weapon. It finally succeeded in conducting the first successful atomic bomb test in July 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. After a difficult decision by President Harry S Truman, U.S. forces dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, prompting Japan’s surrender.

Munich Agreement

A September 30, 1938, agreement among Germany, Britain, Italy, and France that allowed Germany to annex the region of western Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. The Munich Agreement was the most famous example of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement prior to World War II.

Operation Barbarossa

The code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which Hitler predicted would take only six months but ended up miring the German armies for more than two years.

Operation Overlord

The code name for the Allied invasion of France in 1944, which commenced on the beaches of Normandy and ultimately was successful in liberating France and pushing German forces back east to their own territory.

S.S.

In German, Schutzstaffel (“protection detachment”), the elite German paramilitary unit. Originally formed as a unit to serve as Hitler’s personal bodyguards, the S.S. grew and took on the duties of an elite military formation. During World War II, the Nazi regime used the S.S. to handle the extermination of Jews and other racial minorities, among other duties. The S.S. had its own army, independent of the regular German army (the Wehrmacht), to carry out its operations behind enemy lines.

V-E Day

May 8, 1945, the day on which the Allied forces declared victory in Europe.

V-J Day

August 15, 1945, the day on which the Allied forces declared victory over Japan.

Wannsee Conference

A January 1942 conference during which Nazi officials decided to implement the “final solution” to the “Jewish question”—a euphemism for the extermination of European Jews and other minorities at concentration camps in eastern Europe.

Wehrmacht

The term used for regular German army.

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