Results of World War Two

Past Questions:
  • Analyse the results of either the First World War or the Second World War. (May 2007)
  • Compare and contrast the results of the First World War and the Second World War. (May 2006)
  • Analyse the results of either the First World War or the Second World War. (May 2005)
  • Analyse the results of two wars, each chosen from a different region.(May 2004)


Context: Defeat of Nazi Germany, 1945

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  • By the end of April 1945, war on two fronts against Stalin and the Allies had proved too much for Germany and Hitler famously committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. As with WWI, Germany and her allies were defeated, leaving the Western Allies victorious along with Stalin’s USSR, and thus ending WW2 in Europe.
  • The American decision to drop the world's first atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 forced the Japanese to move towards surrender, and after the USSR joined the US effort to defeat Japan Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender on August 15th. Nuclear weapons were therefore decisive in finally bringing the World War to a close.
  • To try and bring the leading Nazi figures to justice for their involvement in the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust (extermination of over 5 million Jews), a war tribunal was set up between 1945 and 1946. The Nuremburg Tribunal, a trial unique in history, saw twenty-one Nazi leaders charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Similarly, 28 of Japan's war leaders were tried for war crimes, and a total of 1,000 Japanese war criminals were executed between 1945 and 1951.

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Destruction and physical cost: economic impact of the war

  • Impact of the war led to huge physical and economic destruction, much greater than that which resulted from WW1. No war has ever caused so many deaths: estimate of c. 40 - 50 million killed.
  • Human losses in USSR, 1941-5, were equal to the total casualty loss of WW1 (13.5 million soldiers killed, 7 million civilians), and German losses were double those of the earlier conflict (3.5 million soldiers killed.) And after the war the suffering continued, as c. 20 million people found themselves displaced and without homes, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • The nature of the war meant that it was much more damaging economically than the First World War. Not confined to the Western front, aerial bombing across the whole of Europe caused severe destruction. Cities were damaged, millions were left homeless, transport, communications and industry were severely disrupted. 'Total war' meant the victors were in as bad a position as the losers: food production was half of pre-war levels. Britain was bankrupt, and the Western part of the USSR was devastated, with 25 million people homeless.

Key political results of the war

On Europe

  • Unlike WWI, the Second World War did not lead to a radical re-drawing of the political map of Europe, at least not in terms of territorial boundaries. Unlike WWI the Second World War did not end with a major treaty and no major peace settlement was negotiated like Versailles. This was largely a result of the suspicion that had developed between the West and Stalin.

the 'big three' at Yalta, February 1945,
the 'big three' at Yalta, February 1945,

  • However, the war did still have a revolutionary effect on the political balance of Europe. Though they struggled to agree, the meetings between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 dealt with the key issues of (i) new borders for Polans (ii) the position of Germany, (iii) the fate of Eastern European states, and (iv) how to keep future stability. This led to the following effects:

1) Germany vanished as a nation, being split into four military occupation zones (UK, France, USA, USSR) and then by 1949 became two separate states: East and West Germany, with each state symbolising the new Cold War that had started to divide the world into the Capitalist (and US-backed) West, and the Communist (and USSR-controlled) East.

Germany carved up, 1945 - 49
Germany carved up, 1945 - 49

2) Eastern European bloc of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania became dominated by Communist Russia, as the USSR extended its military and economic superiority over these socialist states (a dominance that would last for 40 years). Though Stalin had pledged at Yalta to allow free elections in these states liberated by the Red Army, by 1948 single-party regimes subservient to Moscow were in place across these 'satellite states'.

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3) Fascism and Nazism, claimed by Mussolini and Hitler to be the dominant ideologies of the future, also disappeared completely in the post-war world as a result of their catastrophic defeat.

Death of Mussolini
Death of Mussolini

New peace organisation established after Yalta

  • As part of the peace settlement that ended WW1 was the creation of the League of Nations to promote peace via collective security, so WWII led to the creation of an organisation designed to secure world peace: the United Nations, set up in 1945 and based on the recognition that humanity simply could not afford a Third World War. Like the League of Nations, the UN aimed to maintain peace, promote dialogue between nations and encourage international co-operation on key social, economic and humanitarian problems. The idea of the organisation, like Wilon's League, came from the USA, but unlike the League which was formulated behind closed doors after WW1 the UN was conceived during the war as a union of 'allied countries' against fascism, and 50 nations were involved in formulating the UN charter at the San Francisco conference in April 1945.
  • That the base of the new UN was New York reflects the shift in the balance of world politics towards the USA, confirming that Europe was no longer the centre of world politics. The UN was supposed to be more effective than the League of Nations, but the fact that both the USA and the USSR had a veto vote meant that the institution was marginalised in the superpower politics of post-1945. It played some role as a negotiating mediator between the two superpowers during the Cold War, and has achieved a far amount of success in its relative endeavours over the years, though it remains an open question today about just what role the UN has to play in global politics.

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Change in the balance of power of international relations

  • Unlike WWI, which left the ‘major powers club’ largely unchanged (apart from Austria-Hungary), WWII had a huge impact on the balance of global power. The great European powers of Britain, France, Italy and Germany were severely weakened by the war. The massive economic cost of the war meant that such countries could no longer maintain their overseas empires. The war therefore saw the end of Europe’s domination of the rest of the world, as the USA and the USSR emerged as the world’s two superpowers. As Dean Ascherson wrote of the post-war situation, "the whole world structure and order that we inherited from the nineteenth-century was gone". Old powers of Britain and France were replaced by USA and the USSR.

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Origins of a new war: The Cold War

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  • Like the end of the First World War, the ending of WWII also led to the seeds of a new conflict. As the dominance of a few great European powers on world politics subsided, the world became divided according to two competing ideologies and conceptions of human freedom represented by the world’s two great economic and military powers: the USA and the USSR.

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  • The end of the war saw the collapse of the wartime alliance between the USA, Britain and the USSR, over disagreement and tension between the two superpowers over the design of the post-war world. Europe became a clear battleground for this battle, as both sides sought to extend control through offering economic and political aid. The 1948 Marshall Plan was the US's urgent attempt to prevent economic weakness translating to the election of Communist parties in France and Italy, and was thus firmly driven by the ideological fear of the spread of Communism. The USSR, under Stalin, saw this plan as a clear attempt by the US to exert "dollar diplomacy" - i.e. using economic power to buy political and ideological influence and support - and responded in kind with the Comecon for the Eastern states, a ruthless policy to economically exploit the resources of these country to re-build the USSR.
  • By 1949 Europe was divided economically, politically and ideologically: Western Europe was tied to the USA by the economic aid of the Marshall Plan and the military support of NATO, while Eastern Europe was united under the ‘Soviet bloc’ of USSR’s communist rule. Thus the Cold War started that would divide the world between 1945 and 1989 on a political, military, economic and ideological basis.

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Morris and Murphy, pp. 384 - 386.
Morris and Murphy, pp. 384 - 386.

Rogers and Thomas, pp. 68-70, 85 - 86.
Rogers and Thomas, pp. 68-70, 85 - 86.

Rogers and Thomas, pp. 175 - 180.