A Brief History of WWII

By Mary Dellasega

In 1938, Adolf Hitler, who had ruled Germany since 1933, decided to act on his goal to make a German empire by attacking and conquering other countries.  In March, he invaded a neighboring country, Austria, and declared it part of his domain; in September, he took Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, and the following March he took the rest of that country.  The Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police, eliminated everyone who opposed him.  In 1933 the first concentration camps were constructed in Dachau; soon others were built and people Hitler saw as “undesirables” were sent to these places to be murdered.  “Undesirables” included Jewish People, Gypsies, communists, the disabled, and other societal outcasts.

Some people outside Germany thought that if they let Hitler take a little territory, he would be satisfied and would leave them alone.  Others formed alliances with Hitler and signed treaties: Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy, signed a pact with Hitler, as did the leaders of Japan and Russia.  In these treaties, they promised not to attack each other.  Now that Russia could not threaten him, Hitler invaded Poland, the country between Russia and Germany, in September of 1939.  Great Britain and France threatened to declare war if Hitler did not withdraw from Poland.  When he refused, both countries followed up on their threats, and World War II began.

Most Americans wanted to stay out of the war.  They had already fought Germany in World War I (1914-1918) and that was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” America was also recovering from the Great Depression, and millions of people were still without jobs, food, or shelter. 

Hitler kept invading other countries: Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, France – all became part of his German empire.  His airplanes kept bombing Britain and his submarines sank many ships.  Italy and Japan invaded countries as well.  And on June 22, 1941, Germany broke the promise it made in its pact with the Russian government and invaded the Soviet Union.

On December 7, 1941, 360 Japanese dive-bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.  The surprise attack devastated the United States fleet: 2,403 people died, 5 battleships were sunk, many other ships were damaged, and 200 planes were destroyed. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy” and asked Congress to declare war on Japan.  Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, so the United States in turn declared war on them.

The United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and other countries on their side of the conflict became known as the Allies; Germany, Japan, and Italy were known as the Axis.

Because of the Great Depression, the United States still had a 20 percent unemployment rate.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, all of that changed; suddenly there was a desperate need for new workers.  Since 1940, American shipyards, aircraft plants, and munitions factories had been helping the Europeans in the war against Hitler, but it was only after Pearl Harbor that the United States started a full-scale, massive effort in producing war materials.  The United States was to become the supplier of munitions for the rest of the free world – as well as the producer for the ships, planes, and weapons the U.S. itself would need to win the war.  However, since the men were being sent overseas to fight the war on the front lines, the factories and munitions industries began to wonder: where would they get the workers they needed?