Some 60 million people died in World War II.
On average, 27,000 people perished on each day between the invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939) and the formal surrender of Japan (September 2, 1945) — bombed, shot, stabbed, blown apart, incinerated, gassed, starved, or infected. The Axis losers killed or starved to death about 80 percent of all those who died during the war. The Allied victors largely killed Axis soldiers; the defeated Axis, mostly civilians. More German and Russian soldiers were killed in tanks at Kursk (well over 2,000 tanks lost) than at any other battle of armor in history. The greatest loss of life in history of both civilians and soldiers on a single ship (9,400 fatalities) occurred when a Soviet submarine sank the German troop transport Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The costliest land battle in history took place at Stalingrad; Leningrad was civilization’s most lethal siege. The death machinery of the Holocaust made past mass murdering from Attila to Tamerlane to the Aztecs seem like child’s play. The deadliest single day in military history occurred in World War II during the March 10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo, when 100,000 people, perhaps many more, lost their lives. The only atomic bombs ever dropped in war immediately killed more than 100,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki together, most of them civilians, while tens of thousands more ultimately died or were maimed from radiation exposure. World War II exhausted superlatives. Its carnage seemed to reinvent ideas of war altogether.
Yet how, why, and where the war broke out were due to familiar factors. The sophisticated technology and totalitarian ideologies of World War II should not blind us to the fact that the conflict was fought on familiar ground in predictable climates and weather by humans whose natures were unchanged since antiquity and who thus went to war, fought, and forged a peace according to time-honored precepts.
World War II was conceived and fought as a characteristic Western war in which classical traditions of free markets, private property, unfettered natural inquiry, personal freedom, and a secular tradition had for centuries often translated to greater military dynamism in Europe than elsewhere. If the conflict’s unique savagery and destructiveness can be appreciated only through the lenses of 20th-century ideology, technology, and industry, its origins and end still followed larger contours of conflict as they developed over 2,500 years of civilized history. The Western military’s essence had remained unchanged, but it was now delivered at an unprecedented volume and velocity and posed a specter of death on a massive scale. The internecine war was fought largely with weaponry and technology that were birthed in the West although also used by Westernized powers in Asia. The atomic bombs, napalm, guided missiles, and multi-engine bombers of World War II confirmed a general truth that, for over two millennia, the war-making of Europe and its appendages had proven brutal against the non-West but that, when its savage protocols and technology were turned upon itself, the corpses mounted in an unfathomable fashion.
Starting wars is far easier than ending them. Since the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.) between Athens and Sparta and their allies, winning — and finishing — a war has been predicated on finding ways to end an enemy’s ability to fight, whether materially or psychologically. The Axis and the Allies had radically different ideas of how the wars of World War II would eventually conclude — with the Allies sharing a far better historical appreciation of the formulas that always put a final end to conflicts. When World War II broke out in 1939, Germany did not have a serious plan for defeating any of the enemies, present or future, that were positioned well beyond its own borders. Unlike its more distant adversaries, the Third Reich had neither an adequate blue-water navy nor a strategic-bombing fleet anchored by escort fighters and heavy bombers of four engines whose extended ranges and payloads might make vulnerable the homelands of any new enemies on the horizon. Hitler did not seem to grasp that the four most populous countries or territories in the world — China, India, the Soviet Union, and the United States — were either fighting against the Axis or opposed to its agendas. Never before had all these peoples (well over 1 billion total) fought at once and on the same side. Not even Napoleon had declared war in succession on so many great powers without any idea of how to destroy their ability to make war or, worse yet, in delusion that tactical victories would depress stronger enemies into submission.
The pulse of the war also reflected another classical dictum: The winning side is the one that most rapidly learns from its mistakes and makes the necessary corrections and most swiftly responds to new challenges — in the manner that land power Sparta finally built a far better navy than the Athenian fleet while the maritime Athenians never fielded an army clearly superior to those of their enemies, or the land power Rome’s galleys finally became more effective than were the armies of the sea power Carthage. The Anglo-Americans, for example, more quickly rectified flaws in their strategic-bombing campaign — by employing longer-range fighter escorts, recalibrating targeting, integrating radar into air-defense networks, developing novel tactics, and producing more and better planes and crews — than did Germany in its bombing against Britain. America would add bombers and crews at a rate unimaginable for Germany. The result was that during six months of the Blitz (September 1940 to February 1941), the Luftwaffe, perhaps the best strategic-bombing force in the world in late 1939 through mid 1940, dropped only 30,000 tons of bombs on Britain. In contrast, in the half year between June and November 1944, Allied bombers dropped 20 times that tonnage on Germany.
The same asymmetry held at sea, especially in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allied leadership made operational changes and technological improvements of surface ships and planes far more rapidly than could the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine. America adapted to repair and produce aircraft carriers and train new crews at a pace inconceivable in Japan. The Allies — including the Soviet Union on most occasions — usually avoided starting theater wars that ended in multiyear infantry quagmires. In contrast, Japan, Germany, and Italy got bogged down respectively in China, the Soviet Union, and North Africa and the Balkans.
The importance of the classical geography of war is also unchanging. Ostensibly the Mediterranean should not have mattered in a 20th-century war that broke out in Eastern Europe. The nexus of European power and influence had long ago shifted far northward, following the expansion of hostile Ottoman power into the western Mediterranean, the discovery of the New World, the Reformation, the British and French Enlightenments, and the Industrial Revolution. But the Mediterranean world connected three continents and had remained even more crucial after the completion of the Suez Canal for European transit to Asia and the Pacific. The Axis “spine” was predicated on a north–south corridor of Fascist-controlled rail lines connecting ports on the Baltic with those on the Mediterranean. Without the Mediterranean, the British Empire could not easily coordinate its global commerce and communications. It was no wonder, then, that North Africa, Italy, and Greece became early battlegrounds, as did the age-old strategic stepping stones across the Mediterranean at Crete, Malta, and Sicily, which suffered either constant bombing or invasions.
British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans. Gibraltar remained unconquerable: Without a viable plan to attack it on land and from its Iberian rear, the Axis gave up taking the fortress, as had every aggressor that had coveted it since the British annexation of 1713. That Germany and Italy would try to wage war on the Mediterranean and in North Africa without serious attempts to invade Gibraltar and Malta is a testament to their ignorance of history.
Still other classical precedents were forgotten. Western military history, apparently again dismissed by Axis planners, showed that it was often difficult to start a campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian Peninsula. What usually started in Sicily petered out in mid peninsula, given the ease of defense in the narrow mountainous terrain of the Apennines with seas on both flanks. Hannibal and Napoleon alone seemed to have believed that Italy was best conquered from the north rather than the south. Nor had Europeans ever had much success trying to attack Russia from the west. Despite the grand efforts of Swedes, French, and Germans, the expanses were always too wide, the barriers too numerous, the window of good weather too brief — and the Russians were too many and too warlike on their own soil. Planes and tanks did not change those realities. Germany’s problem in particular was that its two most potent enemies, Britain and Russia, were also the hardest to reach. While Germany’s central European location was convenient for bullying the French and Eastern Europeans, its British and Russian existential enemies enjoyed both land and sea buffers from the vaunted German army.
Invading a united Britain historically had also usually proved a bad idea. Not since the Romans and William the Conqueror had any military seriously tried an amphibious landing on the British coasts. Far more easily, the British and their allies — from the Hundred Years’ War to World War I — landed troops on the Western European Atlantic coastline, which, being longer, was harder to defend and not often politically united. Motor vehicles and bombers did not reinvent the military geography of Europe during World War II.
After the age of Napoleon, no southern European power on the Mediterranean was able on its own to match northern European nations. World War II was again no exception. Italy was the first of the Axis to capitulate. The Iberians wisely stayed out of the war. Greece was easily defeated by the Germans. North Africans were largely spectators to lethal European warfare taking place in their midst. Turkey remained neutral for most of the war. If World War II was fought across the globe, its ultimate course was still largely determined by northern European states and their former colonies in a way that had been true of all European wars since the late 18th century.
Over 2,400 years ago, the historian Thucydides emphasized the military advantages of sea powers, particularly their ability to control commerce and move troops. Not much had changed since antiquity, as the oceans likewise mattered a great deal to the six major belligerents in World War II. Three great powers were invaded during the war: Germany, Italy, and Russia. Three were not: America, Britain, and Japan. All the former were on the European landmass, and the latter were either islands or distant and bounded by two vast oceans. Amphibious operations originating on the high seas were a far more difficult matter than crossing borders or, in the case of Italy, crossing from Sicily onto the mainland.
The protection afforded Great Britain and the United States by surrounding seas meant that containing the German threat was never the existential challenge for them that it always was for the Western Europeans. The generals of the French may have always appeared cranky to the Anglo-Americans, but then neither Britain nor America had a border with Germany. The only way for Germany to strike Britain was to invade and occupy the French and Belgian coasts, as reflected both in the German Septemberprogramm of 1914 and in Hitler’s obsession with the Atlantic ports between 1940 and 1945. Since the 15th century, European countries that faced the Atlantic had had natural advantages over those whose chief home ports were confined to the North, Baltic, and Mediterranean Seas. Even if weaker than Germany, the islands of Japan nevertheless made an Allied invasion a far more difficult proposition than crossing the Rhine or Oder into Germany. In fact, no modern power had ever completed a successful invasion of the Japanese homeland, a fact well known to Allied planners who wished to, and did, avoid the prospect through dominant air power.
Weather was also never superseded by 20th-century technology: It often shaped the battlefield, as it had in the storms that sank much of King Xerxes’s fleet at Artemisium during the Persian invasion of Greece (480 b.c.), the scorching heat that sapped the Crusaders at Hattin and cost them a catastrophic defeat against Saladin and the Muslims (1187), and the rain-soaked ground that hampered Napoleon’s artillery and cavalry movements in his defeat at Waterloo (1815).
To the end of the war, Germans argued that the early and unusually harsh winter of 1941 had robbed them of two critical weeks at Moscow — and when that window closed, so did any chance of victory. Inhuman cold stymied airlifts to German troops at Stalingrad and the attempts at evacuation of units that became surrounded there. Fog stalled airborne reinforcements to British forces at Arnhem in 1944, contributing to the German repulse of a major Allied initiative. Strong winds and clouds in part forced General Curtis LeMay to change tactics by taking his B-29s to lower elevations and dropping incendiary rather than general-purpose bombs, thereby setting Tokyo afire with napalm. Generals and admirals, like their ancient counterparts, often predictably blamed the weather for their failures, as if they assumed in their plans that nature would be predictably compliant rather than fickle and savage.
By 1939, Germany had entered its third European war within 70 years, following World War I (1914–18) and, before that, the Franco–Prussian War (1870–71). Conflicts throughout history become serial when an enemy is not utterly defeated and is not forced to submit to the political conditions of the victor. Such was the case with World War II, in which many of the major nations of the European world were again at war. Germany was once more the aggressor. That fact also helped spawn the familiar idea of “World War II” and its alternative designation, the “Second World War.” Yet this time around, both sides tacitly agreed that there would not be a World War III — either Germany would finally achieve its nearly century-long dream of European dominance or it would cease to exist as a National Socialist state and military power. Yet the Allies understood history far better: In any existential war, only the side that has the ability to destroy the homeland of the other wins.
Throughout history, conflict had always broken out between enemies when the appearance of deterrence — the material and spiritual likelihood of using greater military power successfully against an aggressive enemy — vanished. From Carthage to the Confederacy, weaker bellicose states could convince themselves of the impossible because their fantasies had not been checked earlier by cold reality. A stronger appearance of power, and of the willingness to employ it, might have stopped more conflicts before they began. Deterrence, in the famous formulation of the 17th-century British statesman George Savile, first marquess of Halifax, meant that “men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.” But once thieves were not hanged and more horses were indeed stolen, who was strong and who weak became confusing, and the proper recalibration that pruned rhetoric and posturing from knowledge of real strength returned only at the tremendous cost of a world war.
The pre-war reality was that Russian armor was superior to German. Inexplicably, the Soviets had not been able to communicate that fact and in consequence lost deterrence. Hitler later remarked that had he just been made aware of the nature of Russian tank production, and specifically of the T-34 tank, against which standard German anti-tank weapons were ineffective, he would never have invaded the Soviet Union. Maybe. But it took a theater war in the East that killed over 30 million people to reveal the Soviets’ real power. Leaders and their followers are forced to make the necessary readjustments, although often at a terrible price of correcting flawed pre-war impressions.
In the case of the timidity of the Western democracies in 1938–39, German general Walter Warlimont explained Hitler’s confidence about powers that easily could have deterred Germany: (1) He felt that the Allies’ “Far Eastern interests were more important than their European interests, and (2) they did not appear to be armed sufficiently.” What a terrible cost ensued to prove Hitler wrong.
Only after the disastrous battles of Leipzig (1813) and Waterloo (1815) did Napoleon finally concede that his armies had never been a match for the combined strength of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and England. Had all those states combined in a firm coalition a decade earlier, Napoleon might well have been deterred. Churchill without much exaggeration said of Hitler’s military agenda that, “up till 1934 at least, German rearmament could have been prevented without the loss of a single life. It was not time that was lacking.” By any fair measure, Germany in 1939 — in terms of the number or quality of planes, armor, manpower reserves, and industrial output — was not stronger than the combined French and British militaries, or at least not so strong as to be able to defeat and occupy both powers. The later German–Italian–Japanese axis was far less impressive than the alliance that would soon emerge of Great Britain, America, and Russia — having only a little over a third of the three Allies’ combined populations, not to speak of their productive capacity. After all, the United States by war’s end in 1945 would achieve a gross national product nearly greater than that of all the other Allied and Axis powers combined.
In sum, 60 million dead, 20th-century totalitarian ideologies, the singular evil of Adolf Hitler, the appearance of V-2 rockets, the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Holocaust, napalm, kamikazes, and the slaughter of millions in Russia and China seemed to redefine World War II as unlike any conflict of the past — even as predictable humans with unchanging characteristics, fighting amid age-old geography and weather patterns, continued to follow the ancient canons of war and replayed roles well known from the ages. Why the Western world — which was aware of the classical lessons and geography of war and was still suffering from the immediate trauma of the First World War — chose to tear itself apart in 1939 is a story not so much of accidents, miscalculations, and overreactions (although there were plenty of those, to be sure) as of the carefully considered decisions to ignore, appease, or collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany by nations that had the resources and knowledge, but not yet the willpower, to do otherwise.
– Mr. Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of the forthcoming book The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, from which this article is adapted.