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World War II

By: History.com Editors

Updated: March 13, 2024 | Original: October 29, 2009

Into the Jaws of Death

World War II, the largest and deadliest conflict in human history, involved more than 50 nations and was fought on land, sea and air in nearly every part of the world. Also known as the Second World War, it was caused in part by the economic crisis of the Great Depression and by political tensions left unresolved following the end of World War I.

The war began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and raged across the globe until 1945, when Japan surrendered to the United States after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the end of World War II, an estimated 60 to 80 million people had died, including up to 55 million civilians, and numerous cities in Europe and Asia were reduced to rubble.

Among the people killed were 6 million Jews murdered in Nazi concentration camps as part of Hitler’s diabolical “Final Solution,” now known as the Holocaust. The legacy of the war included the creation of the United Nations as a peacekeeping force and geopolitical rivalries that resulted in the Cold War.

Leading up to World War II

The devastation of the Great War (as World War I was known at the time) had greatly destabilized Europe, and in many respects World War II grew out of issues left unresolved by that earlier conflict. In particular, political and economic instability in Germany, and lingering resentment over the harsh terms imposed by the Versailles Treaty, fueled the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialist German Workers’ Party, abbreviated as NSDAP in German and the Nazi Party in English..

Did you know? As early as 1923, in his memoir and propaganda tract "Mein Kampf" (My Struggle), Adolf Hitler had predicted a general European war that would result in "the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany."

After becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hitler swiftly consolidated power, anointing himself Führer (supreme leader) in 1934. Obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” Hitler believed that war was the only way to gain the necessary “Lebensraum,” or living space, for the German race to expand. In the mid-1930s, he secretly began the rearmament of Germany, a violation of the Versailles Treaty. After signing alliances with Italy and Japan against the Soviet Union , Hitler sent troops to occupy Austria in 1938 and the following year annexed Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s open aggression went unchecked, as the United States and Soviet Union were concentrated on internal politics at the time, and neither France nor Britain (the two other nations most devastated by the Great War) were eager for confrontation.

Outbreak of World War II (1939)

In late August 1939, Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact , which incited a frenzy of worry in London and Paris. Hitler had long planned an invasion of Poland, a nation to which Great Britain and France had guaranteed military support if it were attacked by Germany. The pact with Stalin meant that Hitler would not face a war on two fronts once he invaded Poland, and would have Soviet assistance in conquering and dividing the nation itself. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland from the west; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany, beginning World War II.

On September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. Under attack from both sides, Poland fell quickly, and by early 1940 Germany and the Soviet Union had divided control over the nation, according to a secret protocol appended to the Nonaggression Pact. Stalin’s forces then moved to occupy the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and defeated a resistant Finland in the Russo-Finnish War. During the six months following the invasion of Poland, the lack of action on the part of Germany and the Allies in the west led to talk in the news media of a “phony war.” At sea, however, the British and German navies faced off in heated battle, and lethal German U-boat submarines struck at merchant shipping bound for Britain, sinking more than 100 vessels in the first four months of World War II.

World War II in the West (1940-41)

On April 9, 1940, Germany simultaneously invaded Norway and occupied Denmark, and the war began in earnest. On May 10, German forces swept through Belgium and the Netherlands in what became known as “blitzkrieg,” or lightning war. Three days later, Hitler’s troops crossed the Meuse River and struck French forces at Sedan, located at the northern end of the Maginot Line , an elaborate chain of fortifications constructed after World War I and considered an impenetrable defensive barrier. In fact, the Germans broke through the line with their tanks and planes and continued to the rear, rendering it useless. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was evacuated by sea from Dunkirk in late May, while in the south French forces mounted a doomed resistance. With France on the verge of collapse, Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini formed an alliance with Hitler, the Pact of Steel, and Italy declared war against France and Britain on June 10.

On June 14, German forces entered Paris; a new government formed by Marshal Philippe Petain (France’s hero of World War I) requested an armistice two nights later. France was subsequently divided into two zones, one under German military occupation and the other under Petain’s government, installed at Vichy France. Hitler now turned his attention to Britain, which had the defensive advantage of being separated from the Continent by the English Channel.

To pave the way for an amphibious invasion (dubbed Operation Sea Lion), German planes bombed Britain extensively beginning in September 1940 until May 1941, known as the Blitz , including night raids on London and other industrial centers that caused heavy civilian casualties and damage. The Royal Air Force (RAF) eventually defeated the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in the Battle of Britain , and Hitler postponed his plans to invade. With Britain’s defensive resources pushed to the limit, Prime Minister Winston Churchill began receiving crucial aid from the U.S. under the Lend-Lease Act , passed by Congress in early 1941.

Hitler vs. Stalin: Operation Barbarossa (1941-42)

By early 1941, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria had joined the Axis, and German troops overran Yugoslavia and Greece that April. Hitler’s conquest of the Balkans was a precursor for his real objective: an invasion of the Soviet Union, whose vast territory would give the German master race the “Lebensraum” it needed. The other half of Hitler’s strategy was the extermination of the Jews from throughout German-occupied Europe. Plans for the “Final Solution” were introduced around the time of the Soviet offensive, and over the next three years more than 4 million Jews would perish in the death camps established in occupied Poland.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa . Though Soviet tanks and aircraft greatly outnumbered the Germans’, Russian aviation technology was largely obsolete, and the impact of the surprise invasion helped Germans get within 200 miles of Moscow by mid-July. Arguments between Hitler and his commanders delayed the next German advance until October, when it was stalled by a Soviet counteroffensive and the onset of harsh winter weather.

World War II in the Pacific (1941-43)

With Britain facing Germany in Europe, the United States was the only nation capable of combating Japanese aggression, which by late 1941 included an expansion of its ongoing war with China and the seizure of European colonial holdings in the Far East. On December 7, 1941, 360 Japanese aircraft attacked the major U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii , taking the Americans completely by surprise and claiming the lives of more than 2,300 troops. The attack on Pearl Harbor served to unify American public opinion in favor of entering World War II, and on December 8 Congress declared war on Japan with only one dissenting vote. Germany and the other Axis Powers promptly declared war on the United States.

After a long string of Japanese victories, the U.S. Pacific Fleet won the Battle of Midway in June 1942, which proved to be a turning point in the war. On Guadalcanal, one of the southern Solomon Islands, the Allies also had success against Japanese forces in a series of battles from August 1942 to February 1943, helping turn the tide further in the Pacific. In mid-1943, Allied naval forces began an aggressive counterattack against Japan, involving a series of amphibious assaults on key Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. This “island-hopping” strategy proved successful, and Allied forces moved closer to their ultimate goal of invading the mainland Japan.

Toward Allied Victory in World War II (1943-45)

In North Africa , British and American forces had defeated the Italians and Germans by 1943. An Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy followed, and Mussolini’s government fell in July 1943, though Allied fighting against the Germans in Italy would continue until 1945.

On the Eastern Front, a Soviet counteroffensive launched in November 1942 ended the bloody Battle of Stalingrad , which had seen some of the fiercest combat of World War II. The approach of winter, along with dwindling food and medical supplies, spelled the end for German troops there, and the last of them surrendered on January 31, 1943.

On June 6, 1944–celebrated as “D-Day” –the Allies began a massive invasion of Europe, landing 156,000 British, Canadian and American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, France. In response, Hitler poured all the remaining strength of his army into Western Europe, ensuring Germany’s defeat in the east. Soviet troops soon advanced into Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, while Hitler gathered his forces to drive the Americans and British back from Germany in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945), the last major German offensive of the war.

An intensive aerial bombardment in February 1945 preceded the Allied land invasion of Germany, and by the time Germany formally surrendered on May 8, Soviet forces had occupied much of the country. Hitler was already dead, having died by suicide on April 30 in his Berlin bunker.

World War II Ends (1945)

At the Potsdam Conference of July-August 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman (who had taken office after Roosevelt’s death in April), Churchill and Stalin discussed the ongoing war with Japan as well as the peace settlement with Germany. Post-war Germany would be divided into four occupation zones, to be controlled by the Soviet Union, Britain, the United States and France. On the divisive matter of Eastern Europe’s future, Churchill and Truman acquiesced to Stalin, as they needed Soviet cooperation in the war against Japan.

Heavy casualties sustained in the campaigns at Iwo Jima (February 1945) and Okinawa (April-June 1945), and fears of the even costlier land invasion of Japan led Truman to authorize the use of a new and devastating weapon. Developed during a top secret operation code-named The Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb was unleashed on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. On August 15, the Japanese government issued a statement declaring they would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, and on September 2, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

African American Servicemen Fight Two Wars

A tank and crew from the 761st Tank Battalion in front of the Prince Albert Memorial in Coburg, Germany, 1945. (Credit: The National Archives)

World War II exposed a glaring paradox within the United States Armed Forces. Although more than 1 million African Americans served in the war to defeat Nazism and fascism, they did so in segregated units. The same discriminatory Jim Crow policies that were rampant in American society were reinforced by the U.S. military. Black servicemen rarely saw combat and were largely relegated to labor and supply units that were commanded by white officers.

There were several African American units that proved essential in helping to win World War II, with the Tuskegee Airmen being among the most celebrated. But the Red Ball Express, the truck convoy of mostly Black drivers were responsible for delivering essential goods to General George S. Patton ’s troops on the front lines in France. The all-Black 761st Tank Battalion fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and the 92 Infantry Division, fought in fierce ground battles in Italy. Yet, despite their role in defeating fascism, the fight for equality continued for African American soldiers after the World War II ended. They remained in segregated units and lower-ranking positions, well into the Korean War , a few years after President Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the U.S. military in 1948.

World War II Casualties and Legacy

World War II proved to be the deadliest international conflict in history, taking the lives of 60 to 80 million people, including 6 million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust . Civilians made up an estimated 50-55 million deaths from the war, while military comprised 21 to 25 million of those lost during the war. Millions more were injured, and still more lost their homes and property. 

The legacy of the war would include the spread of communism from the Soviet Union into eastern Europe as well as its eventual triumph in China, and the global shift in power from Europe to two rival superpowers–the United States and the Soviet Union–that would soon face off against each other in the Cold War .

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World War Two: Notes for UPSC World History

World War Two, also known as World War II, was a devastating global conflict that began in 1939 and ended in 1945. It involved 100 million people from over 30 countries. 

World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities. Tens of millions of people died due to genocides (including the Holocaust), premeditated death from starvation, massacres, and disease. To this date, it remains the deadliest conflict in human history.

World War II is an important topic covered in the world history segment of the Civil Services Examination.

Origin of World War II

The causes of World War II are many and varied but in the end, it all boils down to the aggressive and expansionist policies of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Plus, the harsh Treaty of Versailles years before only laid the foundation of future conflicts.

Other events such as the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China only served to highlight the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations that had been created following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Both the conflicts saw the involvement of these future Axis powers and it showed that they could carry out their imperialistic whims with no consequences to be faced from other nations. As a result, the conflict became inevitable. 

To know more in detail about other causes of World War II , visit the linked article.

Beginning of World War II

World War II began on September 3, 1939, two days after Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. Poland’s sovereignty was guaranteed by Britain and France. When the protests by the two fell on Hitler’s deaf years, they declared war. The war would be fought between the Axis Powers consisting of Germany, Italy and Japan and the Allies – Britain, France, the Commonwealth countries, the United States and the Soviet Union.

To know more about the differences between Axis and Central Powers , visit the linked article

Initially, Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union launched an invasion of Poland from the east. It also took over Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and launched campaigns against Finland. Nazi Germany followed up its invasion of Poland with the conquest of Denmark, Norway, and Belgium in the Spring of 1940. The invasion of France later lasted from 10 May 1940 – 25 June 1940. It was the pinnacle of the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ campaign. Only Britain stood against the full might of Germany. Italy joined the war in June 1940. 

To invade Britain, it was necessary to achieve total air superiority. Thus the German air force, the Luftwaffe, attacked southeast England and London in daylight raids. In August and September, the battle of Britain was fought over its skies in which the numerically inferior British Royal air force defeated the German air force. It shelved any future plans of the Germans to invade Britain, but it did not stop bombing campaigns that saw the devastation of many British cities and towns in the following months.

Expansion of the Conflict

A new battlefront opened in September 1940 when Italian troops invaded Egypt. They clashed with the British troops stationed there. By February 1941, the British managed to defeat the Italian army and even managed to push into Italian held-Libya. By February 1941, the Italians had been defeated, but German troops, commanded by Field-Marshal Rommel, then arrived and managed to push back British troops back to the Egyptian border.

Buoyed by his success in Europe, Hitler declared war on his former ally, the Soviet Union in June 1941 invading the country with the help of Finland, Hungary and Romania. By the end of 1941, however, Allied fortunes were about to change as the United States joined the war, following the unprovoked attack on its navy at Pearl harbour in Hawaii, by the Japanese air force.

The attack on the Pearl harbour marked the start of the war in the Pacific and by May 1942, Japan had taken control of Southeast Asia including Burma, Singapore, the Philippines and New Guinea, from where they threatened the coast of Australia. The Japanese also took control of many islands in the Pacific, but by August 1942, the US Navy had defeated the Japanese at the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway Island and Guadalcanal and stopped them from invading any more territory. More victory followed in which several pacific islands held by the Japanese fell. This gave them bases from which they could bomb Japan.

The Tide turns against the Axis

In Africa, British troops led by Field-Marshal Montogomery won a decisive battle at El Alamein in October and November 1942. Montgomery quickly advanced across Libya to meet allied forces in Morocco and Algeria. The Axis armies trapped between the Allies were forced to surrender in May 1943.

German troops fighting in Russia fared no better. Although they had been within sight of  Moscow by November 1941, the Russians had begun to fight back and they had defeated the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad. It took until August 1944 to expel the last German troops from the Soviet Union, by which time they were needed in the west to defend Germany itself from an Allied invasion.

The Allied invasion of Europe started on June 6, 1944, and by July 2 one million troops had landed in Normandy, France and started to advance towards Germany via Belgium and via the Netherlands. Reinforced by troops coming from the Soviet Union, launched a last-ditch counter-attack to reverse their fortunes in December 1944. But by January 1945, the offensive had failed. In March 1945 Allied troops had crossed the Rhine and reached the Ruhr valley, the heartland of Germany’s manufacturing production. At the same time, the Soviet army pushed in from the East

Realizing that the war was lost, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. On May 2nd Soviet Troops captured Berlin. On May 7th, 1945 World War 2 came to an end with the surrender of Nazi Germany at Reims in France. This became official when the surrender documents were signed on May 9th in Berlin.

World War II UPSC Notes – Download PDF Here

End of World War II and aftermath

Although the war ended in Europe the fighting in Asia still raged on. In September 1944, US troops began to recapture the Philippines and the British troops had begun a push into Burman following the battle of Imphal and Kohima. An Allied invasion of Japan was planned for late 1945, but dogged Japanese resistance led to Allied commanders looking for alternatives. The alternative came in the form of an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 . It was followed by the bombing of August 9th, 1945 on Nagasaki. The casualties that resulted from these two events prompted the Japanese government to surrender on August 14. The war was over.

The wide-scale destruction had caused massive military and civilian casualties on both sides, but none suffered more than the Jewish population of Europe. Out of the 9 million Jews that lived in Europe in 1939, 6 million would perish in concentration camps set up by the NAzis through Germany and occupied Poland.

After the war, Allied troops occupied the Western half of Europe while the Soviets occupied eastern Germany. The fragile alliance between the two would evolve into the Cold war .

Find out the details regarding the IAS Syllabus by visiting the linked article. For more UPSC-related preparation materials refer to the links given in the table below:

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World War II: A Very Short Introduction

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(page 123) p. 123 Conclusion

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The ‘Conclusion’ shows how the world was changed forever by World War II, during which around sixty million people had been killed, the majority of them civilians. There were huge losses in the Soviet Union and China, but the country most damaged was Poland. Massive destruction and economic dislocation characterized much of Europe, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and portions of North Africa. The war and its ending also brought about enormous population movements. Countries faced massive reconstruction, the defeated had reparations to pay, and war criminals had to be dealt with. The war also provided new developments in technology and medicine, which transformed post-war life.

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World War II Propaganda and Its Effects Essay

Propaganda has always been one of the most important tools of the government. Having a group of people think alike and believe a particular agenda is very useful, as it eliminates doubts and perturbations and focuses its members on the completion of certain tasks. However, in the 20th century, propaganda has become a euphemism for lies, slander, and corruption aiming to brainwash the people into passivity in the face of evil or into committing atrocities in the name of obscure and unjust goals.[1]

While always present and utilized to push various agendas both within countries and across their borders, the first half of the 20th century could be considered the Golden Age of propaganda as a tool of control. The emergence of two ideologically inclined superpowers, such as Nazi Germany and the USSR, also meant the emergence of two powerful propaganda machines. The fierce military conflict between these nations, the bloodiest and fiercest theater of the Second World War, took the lives of more than 34 million people.[2]

At the same time, it showcased the power and usefulness of propaganda to unify the people under one goal, motivate them to sacrifice their lives for the cause, and commit atrocities and acts of heroism in the name of their leaders, their people, and their country. The purpose of this paper is to examine the confrontation between the German and the Soviet propaganda machines during the period of the Second Patriotic War (1941-1945), outline the goals and purposes of each, and identify the changes that both of them had on the psyches of both German and Soviet people.

What is Propaganda?

Before proceeding with the historical dissemination of the available facts regarding propaganda during the Second World War, it is important to understand the meaning of the word. Propaganda is a word of Latin origin, derived from the word “propagate,” or “to propagate.” For the first time, the word propaganda was utilized in 1622, as a name for a particular department within the Catholic faith responsible for external missions to non-Christian countries with the intention to spread the faith.[3]

Although initially the word was utilized with a religious connotation, its meaning in the 21st century is different. Modern dictionaries define propaganda as means of providing information that is not objective with the purpose of influencing the audience and altering their perception of facts by providing false or selective information in order to further a political agenda. Propaganda utilizes any means of conveying its message, be it the press, the radio, the news channels, demonstrations, word-of-mouth, etcetera.

The first historical evidence of propaganda being used as a political tool goes way back to the 6th century BC and the rise of Darius I of the Persian Empire.[4] The ultimate goal of propaganda, thus, is to influence the minds of the people in a particular way, and rulers have acknowledged the need for public support since the dawn of time.

Tools of Propaganda

Scholars of propaganda have identified over 60 effective techniques used in order to sway individual and public opinions in the direction required by those initiating a propaganda effort. While these tools are many, this chapter is going to cover seven staple propaganda techniques actively used by both sides of the conflict in order to either bolster their own civilians or troops or sow discord within enemy ranks. Some of these techniques are as follows:[5]

  • The demonization of the enemy. Perhaps, one of the oldest propaganda techniques. It involves dehumanizing the enemy by portraying them as something subhuman, evil, making it easier to justify any atrocities committed against them and any measures aimed against them.
  • Ad nauseam. This technique involves constant repetition of an idea or a slogan in order for the people to start believing it is true. Frequently used in various demonstrations or through other means of communication, such as radio, TV, and the press.
  • Appeals to fear. This technique is used in order to instill fear and dread of something within the general populace in order to advocate measures and decisions that are supposed to be aimed against such a development.
  • Demoralization. A set of propaganda techniques aimed at eroding the spirit of the enemy in order to cause discord, desertion, and instability within their ranks. Usually comes in the form of messages that depict the futility of struggle or directly offending the leadership of the opposing side.
  • Loaded language. This tool helps influence the listeners by using words that have either strongly positive or negative connotations in order to achieve a particular goal.
  • Media control. This technique usually goes in tow with Ad nauseam, as it involves the media presenting facts piece-meal or blatantly lying, but repeating the message enough for it to stay in the minds of the populace. Very similar to techniques used in classical conditioning, but on a much wider scale.
  • Exaggeration. Intentionally maximizing personal successes and victories, as well as the flaws and failures of the enemy while minimizing own failures and shortcomings. Frequently used by both sides of the conflict.

While during the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the USSR, both sides have utilized a much wider variety of methods and tools in order to win, these methods were the most visible and easy to spot. The propaganda war between these nations was multi-layered and had lasting effects on the psyche of both nations, some of which persist even up to this day.

Nazi Propaganda between 1941-1945: Goals, Tools, and Effects

Reich Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels is considered the architect of Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine and the father of modern propaganda in general.[6] He was among the first to recognize the potential behind media control and its ability to influence the minds of his nation. The effects of his propaganda were profound and immense, as up to the last days of the war, a good portion of Germans believed in close victory and continued to fight for an already lost cause.

The goals of Goebbels’ propaganda were changing as the war went on and were highly connected to the Nazi Party’s overall agenda as well as the situation on the frontlines. The overall purposes of his propaganda were four:

  • To bolster the morale of the troops.
  • To instill discipline as well as inspire loyalty, selflessness, and dedication to the cause at home.
  • To introduce the doctrine of Total War.
  • To breed hatred towards the Reich’s enemies based race and political views.[7]

Although German propaganda avidly used all informational outlets in order to convey its message to the masses; its primary tools were the cinema and the radio. At the beginning of the war, Germany was already a highly industrialized and wealthy nation, as riches from conquered countries were poured into Germany. The country’s military complex also produced numerous household appliances. Almost every German home had a radio, which exposed it to Goebbels’s propaganda on a regular basis.

Cinema was also very important in his propaganda efforts, as it allowed to convey a verbal message in addition to striking and patriotic visuals. Every movie showed at German theaters began with an obligatory 15-30 minute propaganda picture of Die Deutsche Wochenschau. Overall, out of 1300 German movies produced between 1941-1945, almost 200 were made with the sole purpose of propaganda.[8]

At the beginning of the war, German propaganda was largely motivated by the Nazi doctrine titled “Lebensraum,” which translates into “Living space,” which suggested a military push eastward in order to free those lands for the Germans. Freeing those lands, subsequently, meant the extermination of over 70% of the Slavic population occupying it and enslavement of the rest in concentration camps.[9]

To accomplish these inhuman goals, Goebbels needed to mold and prepared the German psyche into accepting the war as inevitable and being willing to commit atrocities in the name of the Reich. This preparation started at least a decade before the war. The Soviets were depicted as a threat to Germany and the Western way of life as a whole. The soldiers were being taught not to view the enemy soldiers and civilians as people, with crimes and atrocities against the civilian populace and prisoners of war being permitted by the official orders and documents of German high command. The soldiers were being convinced of a quick and easy victory, drawing parallels with France.

However, as the war went on, and it became apparent that the USSR would not be defeated quickly and easily, the tone of German propaganda began to change. Fact obfuscation and exaggeration techniques were used to great effect in order to convince the Germans that the war was still going as planned. At the same time, patriotism and selflessness for the cause were widely propagated as a means of increasing recruitment rates and bolstering the production by involving women and children.

Near the end of the war, when the situation was desperate, Goebbels’ propaganda started aiming at children as a makeshift replacement for soldiers lost in the Eastern front. Hitler Youths and Volksturm were widely utilized in a vain attempt to contain the Soviet offensive. Due to how effective and all-encompassing Goebbels’ propaganda machine was, many Germans lived in ignorance of the war until it came to their doorstep.[10]

However, Goebbels’ propaganda was not aimed at Germans and its allies alone. Working with the populations of occupied territories was paramount to the German war effort as well. Germans used loudspeakers and dropped leaflets on Soviet positions in order to convince the soldiers of the opposing side to switch sides or surrender. While these techniques were effective at the beginning of the war, as the crimes committed against POWs and civilians behind enemy lines were discovered, the effectiveness of German propaganda efforts against the Red Army dropped significantly.[11]

Due to the unpopularity of the Soviet government in some occupied areas such as Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus, attempts were made to separate and disintegrate the communities by creating myriads of factions that were supposed to be hostile to one another.[12] Other than that, Goebbels fueled nationalistic tendencies in those territories, which resulted in the formation of various collaborationist paramilitary forces such as the Russian Liberation Army, Polish SS legion, etc. Efforts were made to make the population support the occupation troops and refuse to engage in guerrilla warfare that was undermining the German lines. In occupied territories, leaflets, pictures, and loudspeakers were the main tools of propaganda, as peasant households did not have radios.

Soviet Propaganda between 1941-1945: Goals, Tools, and Effects

The Soviet propaganda machine started off, arguably, in the worst position when compared to its German counterparts. The beginning of the war was disastrous for the Soviets, with many divisions located near the Soviet-German border being surrounded and captured by the Germans. Mass surrenders, coupled with a lack of will to fight, promised to lose the war within months. Thus, the first and main goal of the Soviet propaganda machine was to bolster the country’s spirit and ignite the will to fight the foreign invaders.

The main propaganda instruments utilized by the Soviets were the press, word-of-mouth, and loudspeakers. Unlike Germany, the USSR was only rebuilding its means of production. The majority of the households did not possess any radios, which was a significant limitation. Fortunately, the results of the War on Illiteracy, which was conducted by the Bolsheviks in 1920-1930, managed to increase literacy rates among the Soviet people from 20-30% according to the data collected in 1916 to nearly 90% by the end of 1939, which enabled the use of the press and informative leaflets as primary propaganda outlets.[13] Word-of-mouth was also widespread.

In the Red Army, propaganda efforts were conducted by political commissars, who were re-introduced in 1941 in order to ensure loyalty among the commanders and troops. Their primary role involved reading informative leaflets to the troops and use personal knowledge and charisma in order to make propaganda more personified and efficient.

The three core motives found in almost all Soviet propaganda of that period revolves around hatred, heroism, and sacrifice. The atrocities committed by the Germans towards civilian populations of the occupied territories served as powerful propaganda fuel for Soviet soldiers. Pictures of executed civilians, villages and cities burned to the ground, murdered women and children were vastly more powerful than any rhetoric that German propaganda was able to provide.

The Soviets engaged in psychological warfare in an effort to demoralize German troops. One of the famous techniques used by the Soviets is the “Metronome.” Using loudspeakers, they broadcasted pleasant music over to the German positions, which was suddenly interrupted by a loud ticking of the metronome. During it, a somber voice informed the Germans that every 7 seconds, a German soldier dies. This technique was utilized to a great effect in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Motives of revenge were a powerful weapon of Soviet war propaganda. Soviet poets and writers managed to produce many hate-field poems with great utilization of loaded language to convey the atrocities committed by the Germans on Soviet soil. Examples of poetry and music used for propaganda purposes include Ilya Ehrenburg’s poem titled “Kill the German,” as well as “The Sacred War,” written by Alexander Alexandrov and Vasily Lebedev-Kumasi. Both pieces are extremely powerful in their own right, capable of instilling righteous anger and inspire soldiers and civilians alike to fight and toil in defense of their country.[14]

Notable Effects and Changing Impact of German and Soviet War Propaganda

One of the more notable effects of German and Soviet propaganda alike is that they both helped escalate violence against each other. German propaganda was more efficient in that regard. If we take a look at Soviet losses suffered during the war, out of 27 million dead, more than 10 million are civilian casualties. Although certain apologists argue that the majority of atrocities were committed by the SS, the sheer magnitude and number of civilian casualties, as well as overwhelming evidence obtained from various sources, suggests that regular Wehrmacht was also actively taking part in the subjugation and extermination of the civilian populace.[15]

The demonization and dehumanization of the enemy, propagated by German media, made this a reality. Soviet propaganda, who also used hatred as a weapon, is to blame for the atrocities committed by Soviet troops on German soil. The most famous and notable act of violence against the civilian population was in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin, where thousands of German women were either raped or killed.[16]

Aftereffects of German and Soviet war propaganda are visible even in the 21st century. In Russia and many post-soviet republics, the word “fascist” is considered one of the worst insults, as it is used with a malicious connotation. The dismounting of Goebbels’ propaganda in Germany after the Second World War caused a nation-wide cognitive dissonance, followed by nation-wide feelings of guilt and effective dissemination of national identity.

The effectiveness of propaganda for either side largely depended on how it correlated with the reality of the situation at the frontlines. Soviet propaganda was on the back foot for the first year of the conflict, as it tried to inspire the troops by using unpopular political slogans and demanding loyalty to the Communist Party. However, once German war atrocities were exposed and the message changed from loyalty to communism towards loyalty to the Motherland, the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda was increased tenfold.[17]

German propaganda, on the other hand, was at its peak at the beginning of the war, when the promises of easy victory correlated with successes of the German Wehrmacht. However, after the Soviets managed to stop the Germans in the Battle of Moscow, and the perspectives of ending the war within a year became more and more unlikely, the effectiveness of propaganda among the troops began to drop.

The Eastern front turned out to be a nightmare when compared to relatively easy victories the Germans had in France, Poland, and the majority of Europe. Goebbels’ propaganda machine managed to deceive the German population at home, up until the point when Soviet artillery began shelling the city. Ultimately, no amount of brainwashing and propaganda was able to hide the truth of Germany’s imminent defeat.[18]


Although the word “propaganda” used to have a neutral connotation to itself, the application of it during World War 2 managed to demonstrate its terrifying power. Words alone were capable of moving armies, brainwashing entire countries, and having soldiers commit acts of terror that the world has never seen before. At the same time, tools of propaganda were used to mobilize the nations in times of great need, which changed the course of history.

Without propaganda, Nazi Germany would not have existed, and the nations of the USSR would not have survived the battle for survival. The legacy of these countries in the field of propaganda lives on; however, as many nations across the globe have adopted their tools in order to further their own political agendas. As long as there will be states and governments, propaganda will continue to exist. It is useful, to a degree, as a tool of the state. The challenge, however, is to prevent history from repeating itself.


Balfour, Michael. Propaganda in War. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.

Bartov, Omar. The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare. London: Palgrave, 2001.

Burds, Jeffrey. “Sexual Violence in Europe in World War II, 1939-1945.” Politics & Society 37, no. 1 (2009): 35-73.

Cull, Nicholas, David Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia 1500 to the Present. Oxford: ABC Clio, 2003.

Fateev, Andrew. Image of the Enemy in Soviet Propaganda. 1945-1954. Moscow: RAN, 1999.

Herz, Martin. “Some Psychological Lessons from Leaflet Propaganda in World War II.” Public Opinion Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1949): 471-486.

Kallis, Aristotle. Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War. London: Palgrave, 2005.

Pauley, Bruce. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century. New York: Wiley, 2014.

Reese, Willy Peter. A Stranger to Myself. The Inhumanity of War: Russia: 1941-1944. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2003.

Short, Kenneth. Film and Radio Propaganda in World War 2. London: Croom Helm, 1983.

Sobolev, Ivan. Results of the Second World War. Moscow: IIL, 1957.

Thurston, Robert, and Bernd Bonwetsch. The Peoples’ War: Responses to World War II in the Soviet Union. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Vincent, Arnold. The Illusion of Victory: Fascist Propaganda and the Second World War. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

  • Nicholas Cull et al., Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia 1500 to the Present (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2003), 23.
  • Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (London: Palgrave, 2001), 12.
  • Nicholas Cull et al., Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia 1500 to the Present (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2003), 7.
  • Balfour Michael, Propaganda in War (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), 9.
  • Aristotle Kallis, Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War (London: Palgrave, 2005), 54.
  • Bruce Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Wiley, 2014), 43.
  • Arnold Vincent, The Illusion of Victory: Fascist Propaganda and the Second World War (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 20.
  • Kenneth Short, Film and Radio Propaganda in World War 2 (London: Croom Helm, 1983), 83.
  • Ivan Sobolev, The Results of the Second World War (Moscow: IIL, 1957), 19.
  • Arnold Vincent, The Illusion of Victory: Fascist Propaganda and the Second World War (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 55.
  • Martin Herz, “Some Psychological Lessons from Leaflet Propaganda in World War II,” Public Opinion Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1949): 475.
  • Arnold Vincent, The Illusion of Victory: Fascist Propaganda and the Second World War (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 91.
  • Robert Thurston and Bernd Bonwetsch, The Peoples’ War: Responses to World War II in the Soviet Union (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 39.
  • Andrew Fateev, Image of the Enemy in Soviet Propaganda. 1945-1954 (Moscow: RAN, 1999), 69.
  • Jeffrey Burds, “Sexual Violence in Europe in World War II, 1939-1945,” Politics & Society 37, no. 1 (2009): 50.
  • Willy Peter Reese, A Stranger to Myself. The Inhumanity of War: Russia: 1941-1944 (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003). 140.
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The Second World War essay

The Second World War brought upon earth some of the most tragic and horrific incidents which has left a scar forever. All parts of the world from the Far East to Far West were shattered to different extents. People from different countries and communities bore the brunt of this ill-fated war. The epicenter of this cyclone called the Second World War was Eastern Europe and Hitler and Stalin were the main characters in this tragic play. All the countries the Allied powers and Axis powers were devastated by this war, which many calls “the Worst War of History”.

The loss of life and loss of fortunes came hand in hand with the war and devastated communities, countries and armies. “Holocaust”, the term coined to describe the carnage on the Jewish community was the darkest side of this war. Millions of Jews lost their lives, families and dignity in the hand of Hitler and his German Army. All across of Europe people of Jewish community were either killed or taken to concentration camps where they were treated worse than animals. The Jews who were able to avoid the above two were trapped in several ghettos all around Europe.

The tortures, which the Jews had to face at the concentration camp, were beyond comparison. Many preferred death over life due to the inhuman behavior they faced day after day. “Anyone who has been tortures remains tortured…… Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished”. (Levi, P. 25) Like Jews in the Second World War, the other group, which faced atrocities of a different level, was the soldiers of the Red Army.

Stalin forced his men into the battlefield in front of the shells and tanks of the German Army. The secret Police of Russia often used this Red Army for suicidal attacks on Hitler’s army. “They were men and women of the Red Army, Stalin’s famous cannon fodder, a ragtag mass of recruits who confronted the most lethal professional fighting force on the continent and by 1945 had defeated it. ” (Merridale, P. 1) The most important thing about these horrific incidents, which took place after the war, is a sense of denial in people who were responsible for the crimes.

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The Second World War is a story of two big leaders Hitler and Stalin, both engaged in a war between them destroying humankind and attacking humanity from the same stage. Let us first take up the case of the Red Army, and see how it became a prey to the moral ambiguities during the Second World War. Unlike other nations going into a war, Stalin’s Russia thought that it would be a short-term affair where getting a victory over the enemy would be easy and instead of sadness a cheerful optimism had engulfed the nation.

Comforting stories and images, which were generated on purpose, circulated everywhere in Russia and also in Europe. Media played a major role in the circulation of this myth especially the medium of cinema. “The Soviet vision of future conflict was destined to inspire a generation of wartime volunteers…. ” (Merridale P. 23). Some cinemas were made on the real fight in the Russo –Nazi war. It showed millions of people volunteering to join the Red Army of all ages and even women participating in it.

One film called “The Tank Men” went even further to show the capture of Hitler by the Red Army from Germany. Stalin thought of attacking Hitler in their territory and win the battle. What was portrayed in the cinemas became a reality and “the fantasy had affected the real strategic thinking” (Merridale P. 27). The Red Army and the propagandists jointly propped “Decisive victory of low cost”. The ‘low cost’ which was a propaganda came at the cost of millions of lives. The unrealistic dream of destroying the enemies on their own land, as it was shown in the films now became the official agenda of Stalin.

The higher officials in Stalin’s army were unrealistic and building castles in the air. They underestimated Hitler’s force and in the process sacrificed a significant portion of their country’s population. The slogan was, “If the Bolsheviks could win the civil war ………. if they could dam the Dnepr, banish God and fly to the North Pole, then surely they could keep the Fascist invader at bay. ” (Merridale P. 28) the economic condition of Russia during the Second World War was not good they had not gained fiscally from the revolution and poverty was very much apparent.

Thus, these patriotic films, which glorified Russia and the invigorating slogans made the population, feel safe. However, very soon the bubble of illusion created by the cinemas like, “Alexander Nevsky” by Sergei Eisenstein, burst. By the end of 1941, it was clear the Russia was not in an easy war and it will not end very soon. This assumption was very true as the war demanded lives of eight million soldiers of the Red Army. The atrocities of the Second World War were not limited to the Red Army.

The Jews were the worst affected community and were the worst sufferers in the war. Millions of Jews were murdered inside the gas chamber and others committed suicide unable to bear the torture. Hitler’s men committed these felonies by his order. After the war, and also during the war, these men even defended the gas chambers by saying that those were meant for killing the lies and not taking lives. The two Nazi men Eichmann and Rudolph Hoss defended themselves almost in a synonymous speech about the heinous acts against humanity.

“We have been educated in absolute obedience, hierarchy, nationalism; we have been imbued with slogans, intoxicated with ceremonies and demonstrations; we have been taught that the only justice was that which was to the advantage of our people and that the only truth was the words of the Leader. ” (Levi P. 28) Primo Levi in the first chapter “The Memory of the Offense” of his book “ The Drowned and the Saved” describes how the memory is obliterated with time or by other means. Levi had used some of his own real life experiences while writing the book, as he was a holocaust survivor.

Levi is of the opinion that most of the time the memories of the ill fated days are made ambiguous unconsciously by the human mind. “ A person who has been wounded tends to block out the memory so as not to renew the pain; the person who has inflicted the wound pushes the memory deep down, to be rid of it, to alleviate the feeling of guilt. ” (Levi P. 24) It seems the oppressor and oppresses are both in a similar position and both in eager to forget the incident. When interrogated all of the Hitler’s men be it Speer, Eichmann, Hoss or Kaduk gave one identical statement that they did it as an order.

They defended themselves even by saying that things would have been worse if somebody else was there is their place. They were disillusioned about the severe ordeal they caused and everyone though they were lying when they gave excuses for their actions. However, Primo Levi is of the opinion that their memory tricks them and obliterates the truth to give comfort. Levi says, “It is true, those who lie consciously, coldly falsifying reality itself, but more numerous are those who weigh anchor, move off, momentarily or forever, from genuine memories, and fabricate for themselves a convenient reality”.

(Levi P. 27) The huge burden of the horrible past is changed by memory to give relief to an individual both the oppressor and the oppressed, thus changing the truth to an extent. The stories, which the opressors make up to save themselves, are not only for others but it also meant for their inner peace. After telling the same story, many times it becomes the truth, which he begins to believe and may be other too. “The silent transition from falsehood to self-deception is useful: anyone who lies in good faith is better off.

He recites his part better, is more easily believed by the judge, the historian, the reader, his wife and hic children. ” (Levi P. 27) Levi gives an evidence to establish his statement. He says that Louis Darduier de Pellepoix who had deported seventy thousand Jews while he was the commissioner of Jewish affairs did not take responsibility for his actions and denied the truth completely. Similarly, there was propaganda after the war that the gas chambers, which were there in Auschwitz, were to kill the lice not people.

In addition, according to Primo Levi, he is a “typical case of someone who, accustomed to lying in public, ends by lying in private, too, to himself, and building for himself a comforting truth which allows him to live in peace”. (Levi P. 28) The denials and lies in the Nazi Army did not reflect in the same in the case of Red Army. However, undoubtedly the Red Army also suffered from moral ambiguity, denial, lies and distortion of memory of like the Nazis. The false propaganda by the state was the common factor between the two super powers, which went on both during the war and after the war.

In Russia, the false propaganda was more before and during the war mainly with the help of cinema. The soldiers were idealized to a high degree and a notion of inevitable and easy win over the Nazis where everywhere in 1940. a illusion was created with the help of cinema all over Russia that the German army was weak enough to be defeated. However, the Red Army fought brutally with the Nazis and subjected Hitler’s Germany to traumatic experience. Rape and loot was the main aspect of the Red Army’s strategy, which might be due to the frustration of the soldiers or a pre-determined strategy.

Like the Nazi Army, there was also an effort to obliterate the ugly and horrible crimes committed during the war by the Red Army. The truth of the soldier’s unacceptable behavior was erased from memory and from the war records. Whether these acts of obliterating the facts were conscious or an unconscious effort is debatable. May be, here we can go back to Primo Levi’s theory that after the constant lying the person starts believing in the lie and also that for inner peace and comfort the perpetrators find it easy to forget the truth and in the process destroy it.

A great sense of denial also persisted with the generals of Red Army at the beginning of the war. According to Catherine Merridale “As Hitler and his generals were drilling the greatest professional army on the continent, Stalin’s advisers seemed lost in fantasy. ” (Merridale P. 28) Catherine Merridale is her book mainly focuses on the activities of the Red Army on the Eastern Front. But she has limited herself to the stories of military strategies of diplomatic ventures of the Russians but have also focused on the experiences of the ‘frontovniki’ which means soldiers fighting on the frontiers.

The soldiers were there not only to keep the enemy at bay but also to keep the frontier provinces from revolting against the government or doing any disloyal activities. The stories of the soldiers who died an timely and unrecognized death is also a major portion of Merridale’s book “Ivan’s War”. She tries to explain the reasons behind these brutal actions of Russian soldiers on the frontier and gives a social and political explanation to their actions. While doing this Merridale makes a conscious effort to explain how the truths were obliterated from, the memories of the soldiers and lies had become the new truths.

Both “The Drowned and the Saved” by Primo Levi and “Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945” by Catherine Merridale have discusses the moral ambiguities which persisted both in the Red Army of the Soviet and Nazi Army of Germany. Both parties tried to obliterate the true story both during the war. The measures taken were different though. During the war the Russian media, especially cinema did the work for the government in creating an unreal situation and falsely boosting the moral of its citizens.

The Nazis only relied on strong propaganda and nationalistic preaching. After the war, however the both the powers were interested in obliterating the truth further for different reasons. The circumstances changed but the stand did not change at all. Though the Russians emerged victorious the pain and the trauma faced by its people and the country was something unimaginable. The true stories of the Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front no longer exists may be because the soldiers themselves wanted to do away with it.

The where about of these Russian soldiers who fought relentlessly is not known now. Similarly, Primo Levi in his book the “The Drowned and Saved” talks about the Nazi part of the same story where both the oppressors and the oppressed misshaped the truth. Initially, it was a conscious effort to run from the horrible truth but later these lies became truth themselves. The Nazi officers in the process of defending themselves came up with their own stories and explanations, which after a time was a part of the true story.

It was not only done to save them from the trial but also to get inner peace. Therefore, what happened during the Second World War in the Eastern Front will remain ambiguous due to the distorted memories of both the oppressors and the oppressed. The true story will also not reach the historians anymore, as it no longer exists.


1. Merridale, Catherine, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, 2007, Macmillan Publisher 2. Levi, Primo, “The Drowned and the Saved” 1989, Vintage International


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