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Europe at War:


The Second World War can only be described in superlatives; it was the most destructive war in history causing more deaths, and involving more countries, than any previous conflict. Six years of war had left Europe in a state of utter devastation. Europe experienced ‘total war’ on a terrifying scale, destroying lives not just where formal military conflict occurred but throughout civilian populations suffering bombing, occupation, persecution, exploitation and extermination. Hopeful ideas of human progress and the superiority of “European Civilisation” had already been battered by the horrors of World War One, the economic disasters of the 1930s, and the political extremism that followed. The liberation of the Nazi concentration camps exposed a further, barely comprehendible depth of industrialised cruelty. The process of rebuilding a broken continent would take place in the shadow of these events.

“All historical work on the events of this period will have to be pursued or considered in relation to the events of Auschwitz....Here, all historicization reaches its limits.” Saul Friedlander

(above) Jacob Bronowski considers the industrial cruelty of Auschwitz    

This era of ‘European Civil War 1914-91’, can be said to have concluded with the revolutions in Eastern Europe (1989), the reunification of Germany (1990) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). However, the social, political and economic structures that emerged and have endured from the post-war situation have done so in response to that defining conflict. In particular, the European Union has its origins in a shared desire to avoid any return to mass unemployment, political extremism, German militarism, war and revolution. 

For the Western Allies, despite the alliance with Stalin, it was also a ‘just war’, an unusually clear cut case of conflict between Good and Evil and as such has served as an enduring historical example, used by later politicians to rally their nations, or to invoke when faced by new threats. The enormity of the crimes committed in Germany’s name inevitably cast a shadow over the remainder of the century.  Spain’s limited involvement in the War allowed Franco’s dictatorship to survive in isolation from mainstream European developments. Globally, the War marked a shift in power from the shattered nations of Western Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union. The discredited, ruinous rivalry of European states was replaced by a bipolar struggle between the two new superpowers with an added ideological dimension. Western European states would have to accept their diminished roles, abandon their global empires and seek security under America’s protection.  

Few countries in Western Europe were able to avoid the traumas of war in the years before 1945 and the two countries covered in this section, Germany and Spain, represent the experiences of defeat and neutrality. For others, (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and Greece) invasion by Nazi Germany and here allies was followed by occupation, exploitation, and eventually, liberation. The United Kingdom, though undefeated, endured the threat of invasion and the bombing of its cities. For Italy, war brought defeat, invasion and civil war as Axis and Allied forces fought across Italian territory. Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal and Ireland maintained varying degrees of precarious neutrality as war raged around them. It is not to belittle the scale of these events to acknowledge that the War in Western Europe was less destructive than in the East. Nazi racial ideology could accommodate a degree of respect for the peoples of Western Europe that was absent in the East where the conflict was a ‘war of annihilation’, carried out with the aim of destroying entire categories of people.


Total Deaths

% of Pre-War Population

Military Deaths

Civilian Deaths






United Kingdom




















Soviet Union















Source: BBC  Statistics for World War Two casualties are difficult to verify and vary from source to source. These figures are taken from a BBC website and the author acknowledges that they can only be approximate. Discussion Point: • Why is difficult for historians to agree on accurate statistics of World War Two casualties? • What do the statistics tell you about War as experienced in Eastern and Western Europe?

What were the war aims?

Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 following the German invasion of Poland. The Western Allies’ attempts at appeasement; using diplomacy, compromise, and conceding to Hitler’s demands in order to maintain peace in Europe had ended in failure and revealed how seriously they had misunderstood Hitler, a leader whose reasoning was of a radically different nature.  Hitler’s aims, as he had made clear, were to undo the Treaty of Versailles, to establish Germany’s domination of Europe, to destroy communism, to carry out a race-war against non-Aryans and to create Lebensraum for the German people guaranteed by the power of the “Thousand Year Reich”. Spain stood apart from Europe in 1939. After three years of devastating civil war, Spain had been economically ruined and socially ripped apart. The success of the Nationalists left General Francisco Franco as dictator of Spain, a position he was to consolidate with characteristic brutality throughout the duration of the Second World War. As the Second World War broke out Franco had a natural inclination to side with the fascist dictatorships whose aid had been so important to his success in the Civil War but he proceeded with caution. Franco may have had imperialist ambitions for British Gibraltar and French North Africa for ‘he cherished hopes of empire on the cheap, on the coat-tails of Hitler’ (Preston, Franco: 326) but his overarching concern was always to strengthen his own domestic position.

 What were the consequences of Germany’s early successes?

German forces defeated Poland within weeks. The Blitzkrieg tactics overwhelmed the Polish Army. The Soviet Union subsequently invaded the Eastern half of Poland as agreed in a secret deal with Germany. Poland’s geographical isolation from Britain and France meant that there was no practical assistance to be offered. Having secured his Eastern flank, Hitler’s attention turned to Western Europe.

 In May 1940, German troops attacked the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The British Army was forced to abandon the Continent. As the German advance briefly paused, over 300,000 British and French troops were rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk and taken to Britain to fight another day. As German troops closed in on Paris, the British and French governments discussed the idea of uniting their nations in a Franco-British Union to sustain ‘France’ even through military defeat. This embryonic proposal of European union came to nothing and the French Government collapsed soon after. General de Gaulle escaped to London and assumed leadership of the ‘Free French’; those who had escaped and those who were determined to continue the struggle from France’s overseas territories. Marshal Petain stayed in France as head of a Nazi controlled puppet state which was to be economically exploited for the German war effort and from which the Jewish population would be transported to concentration camps.

Suspicions remained between Germany’s enemies. De Gaulle felt that the RAF could have provided more planes for the defence of France, but Churchill would not risk losing these aircraft that would be vital to the defence of Britain. By acting cautiously in case France should be defeated did Churchill actually guarantee that it did? Further ill feeling arose from Royal Navy attacks on the French Mediterranean Fleet, the loyalties of which were uncertain. To the British this was a military necessity to prevent the ships falling into enemy hands but the incident exposed the strain put on the Allies by their failures against Germany.  Fruitless Anglo-French attempts at unity, French ingratitude, suspected British lack of commitment to continental allies, mutual incomprehension; these themes were to resurface in the post-War era as a new Western Europe took shape.    In July 1940, Hitler paused. Tentative offers of peace were discussed. Records of British Cabinet meetings show that there was some support for the idea that Hitler could be appeased once more. It fell to Churchill to clarify the situation.

Discussion Point

“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duties to consider entering into negotiations with That Man. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out...The Germans would demand our fleet...and much else. We would become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up....And I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate ... surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

Churchill, speaking to the British Cabinet, 28th May 1940

What kind of demands do you think Hitler could have made in return for peace?


(above) The BBC's Andrew Marr on the significance of May 1940 in Britain- More

Hitler made preparations for Operation Sealion; the German plan to invade Britain. To succeed, Germany would first have to achieve air superiority by destroying the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force. The Battle of Britain was a decisive defeat for Hitler, the first of the War. Throughout August and September, 1940, the two air forces fought each other over Southern England until German losses became unsustainable and the invasion of Britain was postponed. This victory was, in Churchill’s phrase, Britain’s “finest hour”, achieved by pilots from Britain, the British Empire, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France and other Allied nations. The strategic implications of victory were crucial as Britain’s survival provided the Allies with an impregnable base beyond the reach of Germany’s superior land forces. From this base the Allies could develop their air power to eventually achieve air supremacy in Western Europe. The victory also provided hope for the people of occupied Europe and bought time to develop the Alliance that would defeat Hitler.

The two air forces continued to bomb each other’s cities; German attacks on civilian targets were held up as examples of Nazi barbarism, though the British were also bombing civilian targets in Germany. By the final year of the War, Germany was suffering raids on a devastating scale. Hundreds of thousands of innocents were killed in the destruction of Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden and other cities.  Of the approximately 60,000 British civilian victims of German bombing raids, 9,000 were killed in the final year of the War by missiles launched from Germany.  These unmanned weapons were totally indiscriminate – they were simply aimed at London. Whether or not the bombing of cities could destroy an enemy’s morale and his will to continue the War is uncertain; British propagandists made much of London’s ability to “take it”, disregarding the possibility that German cities might be able to “take it” too.  The destruction of factories could temporarily disrupt production but required greater accuracy than was achievable.

Were the bombing raids on German cities justified? 

Why was 1941 a turning point?

In June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Over 3 million German soldiers participated in what was the largest military assault in history. They were assisted by smaller contingents from Romania, Hungary and Italy. Despite Spain’s declared neutrality, General Franco agreed to the deployment of 20,000 Spanish troops, the Falange shirted ‘Blue Division’ on the condition that they were used only against the Soviet Union and not in Western Europe. Within months this invasion force had advanced hundreds of kilometres, vastly extending the territory of German controlled Europe. Approximately 5.5 million Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans during the War and of these 3.3 million died, or were murdered, in captivity.

However, Germany was unable to achieve victory; the Soviets were able to concede territory in order to buy time. Factories were moved east beyond the range of German planes and production steadily increased. In an ever more destructive war of attrition the Soviets could replace troop losses at a rate the Germans could not match. During the first winter of the campaign the Soviets halted the German advance and over the following year fought bitterly to turn back the invaders. Following the devastating German defeat at Stalingrad in January 1943, the Red Army began to drive the Germans back in a series of emphatic victories. 75% of Germany’s total war casualties occurred on the Eastern Front where all restraints were abandoned in what had become a war of annihilation.

Meanwhile, the United States had entered the War, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December, 1941. Germany had declared war on the US soon after. The defeat of German and Italian forces in North Africa was followed by the Allied invasion of Italy beginning in July, 1943.  A vast invasion force of Allied troops from the USA, Britain, Canada and other allied nations gathered in southern England. On June 6th, 1944, (D-Day) these troops landed in France opening another front against Germany. Hitler’s Empire was now being squeezed on three sides.

Discussion Point: Turning Points?

“So, we have won after all.”  

Churchill’s diary entry, December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour drew the USA into the War.

Churchill’s comment identifies the entry of America into the war as a crucial event. Was it the most significant turning point? What other events of the War could be described as key turning points?

Why was Germany defeated?

Hitler’s campaigns against Britain and the Soviet Union and his declaration of war against USA (see above) exposed Germany to an overwhelming coalition of enemies against whom the traditional Blitzkrieg tactics could not be applied. Island Britain, having defeated the Luftwaffe was safe from German tanks. The Soviets could concede territory, gather strength and expose the over-extended German supply lines. The USA could direct its industrial power to war production, supply its allies with equipment and eventually open a second front in Western Europe.

This economic mismatch was compounded by Germany’s comparatively slow economic mobilisation, failing to match Britain’s production of war material in the first years of the War. This inefficiency was masked by the outstanding performance of the German military in the Blitzkrieg attacks on Poland and France and by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering’s inflated reports of economic progress. Evidence suggests that Hitler was surprised by Britain and France’s willingness to go to war over Poland and had not anticipated total war – the logical outcome of Nazism – until the mid 1940s, by which time Germany would have consolidated the core of a new Empire at the expense of its Eastern neighbours and opened up a greater military lead. Hitler’s gambler’s logic and impatience with economic realities led Germany prematurely into global conflict. Albert Speer, Reich Minister for Armaments and Production (1942-45) brought greater organisation and productivity after 1942 but by then Germany was facing an alliance of Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union. Speer’s improvements could not compensate for this strategic disadvantage as Germany was subjected to bombing by superior air forces from East and West while Russian and American factories lay beyond its reach.

Tanks and Aircraft Production 1940-45



Soviet Union



















































Source: N. Davies, Europe at War, London, 2006, Pan Macmillan, p.33-35

Hitler held ultimate responsibility for military and political decisions during the War. The successes of 1939-41convinced him of his own infallibility and he became less willing to listen to the advice of his Generals. As the limitations of Blitzkrieg were exposed in Russia, Hitler stubbornly insisted on a policy of no retreats, carelessly sacrificing troops’ lives. As the long term outlook worsened Hitler chose to ignore strategy and instead interfered with decisions at a tactical level, denying local commanders of any initiative in battle. Those close to Hitler, describe a man whose physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly and yet who remained convinced of his historic destiny. “Hitler’s detachment from reality broke new bounds in the last war years. His self-imposed isolation in his remote headquarters...intensely magnified his tendency to exclude unpalatable reality in favour of an illusory world in which ‘will’ always triumphed   I. Kershaw, Hitler, Profiles in Power.

The Nazi project to establish a ‘New Order’ in Europe foundered on its own contradictions. Civilian life in those areas under German occupation was often brutal and the Nazis spurned opportunities to co-operate with anti-Soviet nationalists in Ukraine and the Baltic States. Any advantage that could have been gained from nurturing alliances within occupied areas, particularly in Eastern Europe, was at odds with Nazi racial ideology which, in contrast to Communism, held most of mankind to be beyond redemption. The extraordinary levels of cruelty forced people to resist, made great demands on resources and damaged the overall war effort. Ultimately, all the Nazis could offer was war without end and war as an end in itself. As these contradictions unraveled in the defeats of 1944-45, support for the War collapsed. As the Soviet Army entered German territory from the East, its soldiers sought revenge for the atrocities carried out in Russia by the German Army in the preceding years. Rape and pillage were widespread and tacitly condoned. Stalin himself asked if it was not possible to “...understand the soldier who has gone through blood and fire and death, if he has fun with a woman or takes a trifle?” The Nazis used the reports of mass rape and murder to urge citizens to fight to the end, though many thousands preferred to flee to the west where the British and Americans were seen as more benevolent invaders. Hitler himself chose suicide over the humiliation of capture. By May 1945, the Western Allies had advanced deep into Germany, Berlin was captured by the Red Army and victory was achieved. 

Was World War Two a ‘Total War’?

 “Are you the German people determined, if the Fuhrer orders it, to work ten, twelve and, if necessary fourteen and sixteen hours a day and to give your utmost for victory? ..... I ask you: Do you want total war? Do you want it, if necessary more total and more radical than we can imagine it even today? (Loud cries of ‘Yes!’ and applause)...Let the nation arise! Let the storm break!” Extract from Goebbels’ ‘Total War’ speech, February, 1943

World War Two is commonly regarded as an example of “Total War” in terms of extent, intensity, lack of restraints and far-reaching social change. Governments assumed powers of control over citizens and economies in the pursuit of military victory and advances in military technology gave combatants the power to attack the enemy’s citizens and economy. The killing of enemy civilians became not simply a by-product of war but an aim in itself. As historian, Ian Beckett has noted, “The inescapable logic of the attempt to create a war economy was the recognition that a society that sustained a war became as much a legitimate target for military action as an army that waged war on its behalf.” Quoted in Total War and Historical Change, A. Marwick et al, P.28


Complete the following table World War II and Total War


World War Two

Intensity (very intense battles, frequency of battles, high casualty figures, massive deployment of men and resources


Extent (number of participants, geographical extent, duration)


Restraints (moral, legal, military)


Aims (ideological, racial, unconditional surrender)


Targets (all, soldiers and civilians


Economic Mobilisation


Social Mobilisation



Deaths in individual battles and campaigns

Operation Barbarossa: battles of Byelorussia, Smolensk & Moscow 1941


Stalingrad 1942-3


Siege of Leningrad 1941-4


Kiev 1941


Operation Bagration (Soviet Offensive 1944)


Kursk 1943


Berlin 1945


French Campaign 1940


Operation Overlord (France) 1944


Budapest 1944-5


Polish Campaign 1939


Battle of the Bulge (Belgium) 1944


Warsaw Rising 1944 excluding civilians


Operation Market Garden (Netherlands) 1944


Battle of El Alamein (North Africa) 1942


Source: N. Davies, Europe at War, Pan Books, London, 2007, p.25

In what ways was War in Western Europe less ‘total’ than in the East?
What do the statistics reveal about the War in Eastern Europe compared with Western Europe?



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