The Course of World War II

The decisions of a few impact the world

It would not be an exaggeration to indicate that the course of World War II was based solely on the series of choices made by a handful of military and political leaders. Clearly choice is followed by action and hindsight often reveals that personal agenda or flawed assumptions lead to disaster. By the summer of 1940, a still early though critical junction in the war, the choices made by a handful of decision makers would turn the trajectory of the war from a seemingly inevitable total victory by Germany into a truly total global conflict that would continue for several years.

While the start of World War I resulted from the decisions of many, World War II was clearly Hitler’s choice and as such he would continually steer its direction. Beginning with Poland Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg tactics through Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium; France, on the horizon, would fall victim to the seemingly unstoppable Nazi machine within weeks. Defeated on the battlefield and crushed emotionally France saw “a deal with the winning Hitler looked more promising than union with a losing Britain”.[1] This turn of events would require action by every other country already embroiled in the war.

Germany’s decisions, which were in fact Hitler’s, never really departed from his underlying plan to create a world populated by his superior Aryan race. His first call of action would be to acquire the needed living space his German speaking people would require and by the time he entered Paris it was clear he was well on his way to achieving this goal. While Britain labored over its next steps Germany was already planning its course of action to the east.[2]     

As an island nation Britain became increasingly vulnerable to U-Boat attack and invasion. Weighing all their options, including the possibility of some type of arrangement with Hitler, the British realized the prospect of fighting the German’s alone would require American intervention; Britain looked across the Atlantic to its former colony.  When it was realized Britain could in fact defend its “home islands” a new resolve swept the citizens who now fully supported continuing the fight against Hitler.[3] Moving their monetary assets to Canada for protection, Britain was fully prepared to finance its war efforts and commenced developing new strategies. Immediate attention was placed on the water as Britain fully understood their situation would turn dire once Germany gained control of the French navy. Britain’s choice to turn on its former ally was unfortunate but Churchill was not going to let Germany defeat her with French ships; Britain attacked the French in North Africa.[4] By the time Germany began its massive blitz on London it was apparent the British were fully committed and were in fact far stronger than anticipated. Still substantially too small to defeat Germany on its own, Churchill planned to “set Europe ablaze” with a series of instigated revolts, blockades, and bombing campaigns that he envisioned would strengthen all of Europe against the German’s.[5]

Britain looked to sway Russian loyalties away from Germany to no avail. The Soviets were ready to make some choices of their own. Sending ice breakers into the Arctic the Soviets were opening a path for the German’s to defeat the British in the Pacific. They then set out to work out accommodations with both Japan and Italy to successfully set up any future confrontation it would have with Britain and the United States. Above all Russian knew it had to maintain excellent relations with Germany.[6] While all seemed to be well aligned, Italy, Japan, Germany, and Russia seeing each other’s benefit and strength to the alliance of sorts, the underlying German desire for living space seemed to have fallen out of view; that is for all but Hitler. Simply put he wanted “the greatest possible Germany” and that would require land and raw materials.[7] Britain acted under the assumption they would be invaded by Germany and Russian acted believing they would not; hindsight would reveal the flaw in their thinking.

Still embroiled in a war with China, Japan saw Germany’s victory in the west as a opportunity to break its stalemate in the east and still achieve its goal for expansion. The defeat of Holland opened a new opportunity for Japan in way of the Dutch-East Indies and the French Indo-China in the Southeast. Anticipating their move south, the Japanese reached out to Russia for protection at its “back door”.[8] Admiral Isoroku believed an attack on American in Pearl Harbor would kick start their drive south. Japan, now aligned with Germany and the Soviet’s was ready to act and set out to align its own government. Germany, though initially apprehensive soon realized that Japanese expansion plans would marry well with Germany’s. From here Pearl Harbor was inevitable.

Italy still struggled knowing on the one hand their military capabilities were limited and on the other the jockeying for position around them would almost assure them no territorial gains. Sadly Italy was seen as unreliable, incompetent, and often a hindrance; a perception they believed they could change with a German alliance. It is important to note however, Mussolini, though admired by Hitler, had his own “war-making capabilities” and he was determined they should not be overlooked.[9]

     [1] Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms; A Global History of World War II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 140

     [2] Ibid, 138

     [3] Ibid, 143

     [4] Ibid, 146

     [5] Ibid, 151

     [6] Ibid, 165

     [7] Niall Ferguson. The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. (New York: Penguin Press, 2006) 316

     [8] Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms. 167

     [9] Ibid, 172