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The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




The Second World War



Allied forces propaganda poster, 1943


With its attack on Poland in September 1939, the German Nazi regime under Hitler initiated the most devastating military conflict in world history to date. Before the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945, World War II claimed the lives of some 62 million people. The heavily ideological aspect of the war led to incomprehensible crimes against humanity. World War II fundamentally altered the international political situation. The victorious United States and the Soviet Union became the leading world powers.


Blitzkrieg: German Victories up to 1940

A heavily armed Germany controlled almost the entire European mainland in 1940. It failed to conquer only Great Britain.


Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, ignited the Second World War. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, although they did not actively intervene in the Eastern European conflict.

Poland's army, which in part still operated with cavalry units, was 4 no match for the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe.

Poland capitulated after the bombing of Warsaw on October 6.

In accordance with the secret agreement with Germany, 5 Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east on September 17 and immediately integrated the eastern parts of the country into the Soviet Union.

Germany annexed areas in northern and southern Poland and from the remainder formed the 2 "General Government of Poland," which would become an area in which Nazi racial fanaticism would play out.

4 Polish war prisoners, September 1940

5 German and Russian soldiers allied in Poland, 1939

2 Stamp of the General Government,

In order to cut Germany off from raw material sources in Scandinavia at the beginning of the war, the British 6 Royal Navy blockaded the German merchant marine traffic in the Baltic Sea.

A German-British "race to Scandinavia" began in April 1940. Germany occupied Denmark without resistance. Norway was conquered by June, despite heavy British and Norwegian resistance and serious losses on the part of the German navy. Sweden was forced into cooperation with Germany.

Starting on May 10,1940, German troops rapidly invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Even France could not put up sufficient resistance to the German blitzkrieg tactics; it surrendered on June 22.

Three-fifths of France was occupied by Germany; in the southern part of the country, the 3 pro-German Vichy government  was created.

In order to free up resources for his Lebensraum ("living space") policies against the Soviet Union, Hitler hoped for a peace settlement with Great Britain.

When Britain refused to surrender, German 7 air attacks began in August 1940 to prepare the island for invasion.

After heavy losses against the Royal Air Force, they were terminated in October.

6 British submarine returning from Norwegian waters, 1940

3 Youth organization established under Petain, similar to the Hitler Youth, 1941

7 German fighters approaching England, 1940




The swift, initial successes of the German army are known as the blitzkrieg ("lightning war").

Sudden, unexpected, coordinated assaults by the combined German armed forces did not give the enemy time to organize a stable defense and thus won them many victories.

Victory parade of German troops through Paris, 1940




The Balkan Campaign and the War in North Africa (1941-43)

The failed attempts at conquest by its alliance partner Italy forced Germany into costly campaigns in the Balkans and Africa.


Germany, Italy, and Japan joined together in the Tripartite Pact on September 27,1940, to form the Axis. However, Japan (p. 498) and Italy pursued their war aims in "parallel wars."

Romania and 8 Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1940 and Bulgaria in 1941.

Italy under Mussolini aspired to domination of the complete Mediterranean region, which Mussolini resolved Italy should control rather than Great Britain, as well as conquests in Africa, but it failed in its offensives. This repeatedly obliged its alliance partner Germany to supply military support.

Deployment on these additional fronts weakened the 10 German army and with it the entire military position of the Axis powers.

9 Training German Luftwaffe troops in Romania, 1940

8 Hungarian artillery, 1941

10 Romanian refinery goes up in flames
following British bombardment, 1943

In October 1940, Italy attacked Greece, which was supported by Great Britain, from its province Albania, but British troops forced the Italians back into Albania.

In order to restore the reputation of the Axis powers, secure access to Romanian oil wells, and shield the planned German attack on the Soviet Union from a threat from the flank, Hitler decided in April 1941 on a 11 Balkan campaign, resulting in the rapid surrender of the armed forces of Yugoslavia and Greece.

Yugoslavia was crushed, and British troops withdrew from Greek territories.

Another failed Italian offensive against British-dominated Egypt in 1940, which resulted in the annihilation of the Italian units in Libya, forced Germany to intervene militarily in North Africa. The highly efficient German Africa Corps under General Erwin Rommel forced the British out of Libya and back to the Egyptian border between February and April 1941.

In January 1942, German tanks began to move into the 12 Egyptian desert in an advance which, had it been successful, would have brought the Germans to the oil fields of Iraq, but they were halted at the Battle of El Alamein.

By February 1943, a 13 British counteroffensive had pushed the Germans back all the way to Tunisia. The fighting in Africa ended on May 13,1943, with the capitulation of the German-Italian armies.

11 Landing of German paratroopers on the Greek island Crete, 1940

12 Motorcycle soldiers during the war in the North African desert, 1942

13 General Bernard Law Montgomery,
commander-in-chief of the British troops
in North Africa, 1942



Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox," was respected even by his foes for his strategic military skills.

After he had ordered the retreat out of El Alamein against Hitler's orders, he was transferred to the French front.

Although he was not actively involved in the putsch attempt against Hitler, he sympathized with the military resistance movement and, as a long-time confidant of Hitler, urged him to initiate peace negotiations in 1944.

Following the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, he was branded a traitor and forced to commit suicide.

Erwin Rommel




German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact

Molotov signs the German–Soviet non-aggression pact.
Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

Germany-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [1939]
also called Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, German-Soviet Treaty of Nonaggression, Hitler-Stalin Pact, Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
(August 23, 1939), nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that was concluded only a few days before the beginning of World War II and which divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.

The Soviet Union had been unable to reach a collective-security agreement with Britain and France against Nazi Germany, most notably at the time of the Munich Conference in September 1938. By early 1939 the Soviets faced the prospect of resisting German military expansion in eastern Europe virtually alone, and so they began searching about for a change of policy. On May 3, 1939, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin fired Foreign Minister Maksim Litvinov, who was Jewish and an advocate of collective security, and replaced him with Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich Molotov, who soon began negotiations with the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. The Soviets also kept negotiating with Britain and France, but in the end Stalin chose to reach an agreement with Germany. By doing so he hoped to keep the Soviet Union at peace with Germany and to gain time to build up the Soviet military establishment, which had been badly weakened by the purge of the Red Army officer corps in 1937. The Western democracies’ hesitance in opposing Adolf Hitler, along with Stalin’s own inexplicable personal preference for the Nazis, also played a part in Stalin’s final choice. For his part, Hitler wanted a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union so that his armies could invade Poland virtually unopposed by a major power, after which Germany could deal with the forces of France and Britain in the west without having to simultaneously fight the Soviet Union on a second front in the east. The end result of the German-Soviet negotiations was the Nonaggression Pact, which was dated August 23 and was signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov in the presence of Stalin, in Moscow.

The terms of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact were briefly as follows: the two countries agreed not to attack each other, either independently or in conjunction with other powers; not to support any third power that might attack the other party to the pact; to remain in consultation with each other upon questions touching their common interests; not to join any group of powers directly or indirectly threatening one of the two parties; to solve all differences between the two by negotiation or arbitration. The pact was to last for 10 years, with automatic extension for another 5 years unless either party gave notice to terminate it 1 year before its expiration.

To this public pact of nonaggression was appended a secret protocol, also reached on August 23, 1939, which divided the whole of eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Poland east of the line formed by the Narew, Vistula, and San rivers would fall under the Soviet sphere of influence. The protocol also assigned Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland to the Soviet sphere of influence and, further, broached the subject of the separation of Bessarabia from Romania. A secret supplementary protocol (signed September 28, 1939) clarified the Lithuanian borders. The Polish-German border was also determined, and Bessarabia was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence. In a third secret protocol (signed January 10, 1941, by Count Friedrich Werner von Schulenberg and Molotov), Germany renounced its claims to portions of Lithuania in return for Soviet payment of a sum agreed upon by the two countries.

The public German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact caused consternation in the capitals of Britain and France. After Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east on September 17, meeting the advancing Germans near Brest-Litovsk two days later. The partition of Poland was effected on September 29, at which time the dividing line between German and Soviet territory was changed in Germany’s favour, being moved eastward to the Bug River (i.e., the current Polish-Soviet frontier). The Soviets soon afterward sought to consolidate their sphere of influence as a defensive barrier to renewed German aggression in the east. Accordingly, the Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30 and forced it in March 1940 to yield the Isthmus of Karelia and make other concessions. The Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were annexed by the Soviet Union and were organized as Soviet republics in August 1940. The Nonaggression Pact became a dead letter on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany, after having invaded much of western and central Europe, attacked the Soviet Union without warning in Operation Barbarossa.

The Soviet Union’s borders with Poland and Romania that were established after World War II roughly follow those established by the Nonaggression Pact in 1939–41. Until 1989 the Soviet Union denied the existence of the secret protocols because they were considered evidence of its involuntary annexation of the Baltic states. Soviet leaders were initially unwilling to restore prewar boundaries, but the transformations occurring within the Soviet Union in the early 1990s made it virtually impossible for Soviet leaders to combat declarations of independence from the Baltic states in 1991.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact

The Government of the German Reich and The Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Desirous of strengthening the cause of peace between Germany and the U.S.S.R., and proceeding from the fundamental provisions of the Neutrality Agreement concluded in April, 1926 between Germany and the U.S.S.R., have reached the following Agreement:

Article I. Both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers.

Article II. Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third Power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third Power.

Article III. The Governments of the two High Contracting Parties shall in the future maintain continual contact with one another for the purpose of consultation in order to exchange information on problems affecting their common interests.

Article IV. Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties shall participate in any grouping of Powers whatsoever that is directly or indirectly aimed at the other party.

Article V. Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions.

Article VI. The present Treaty is concluded for a period of ten years, with the proviso that, in so far as one of the High Contracting Parties does not advance it one year prior to the expiration of this period, the validity of this Treaty shall automatically be extended for another five years.

Article VII. The present treaty shall be ratified within the shortest possible time. The ratifications shall be exchanged in Berlin. The Agreement shall enter into force as soon as it is signed.


[The next section was not published at the time the above was announced.]

Secret Additional Protocol.

Article I. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna area is recognized by each party.

Article II. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San.

The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish States and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political developments.

In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement.

Article III. With regard to Southeastern Europe attention is called by the Soviet side to its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares its complete political disinteredness in these areas.

Article IV. This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret.

Moscow, August 23, 1939.

For the Government of the German Reich v. Ribbentrop

Plenipotentiary of the Government of the U.S.S.R. V. Molotov


[From: Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941. Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office (Washington D.C., 1948) p. 78]



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