The effects of World War II on civilian populations were both long-run and devastating. New military tactics, extended mobility, and the shifting balance of firepower fueled by ideologies that were deemed to be in combat with one another led to the killing on an unprecedented scale. Unlike World War I, World War II was associated with mass murders of civilians—the Nazi regime systematically targeted Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, and other ‘undesirable elements’ (Cole et al. 623). Also, many regions were torched and leveled. The aim of this paper is to explore the suffering of civilians in the pursuit of victory in World War II.
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War and Occupation
The war became global after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (Cole et al. 631). The allies were able to quickly reorganize, thereby halting the brutal warfare. However, in Europe, many countries were occupied with some such as Norway and the Netherlands being divided by occupation (Cole et al. 634). Collaboration and resistance took extreme forms. In Denmark, citizens smuggled Jewish population out of occupied territories.
In France, on the other hand, the Vichy regime actively helped the Nazis in criminalizing Jews. Also, the Nazi army regularly supplied Germany with products and manpower. According to Cole et al., in the period between 1942 and 1943, more than two million people were imprisoned in forced labor camps (634). The brunt of the civilian deaths was borne by the Soviet Union in which thousands of capable officers were murdered during the purges of the 1930s (Cole et al. 635). The Nazi troops captured and imprisoned citizens of the Baltic States, Byelorussia, and Ukraine.
Ethnic Cleansing and the Holocaust
World War II was thought of by the Nazis as a fight against the Untermensch or ‘inferior people.’ Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies were deemed inferior to Aryans; therefore, Hitler used the Nazi propaganda to justify the redrawing of the racial map of the world. After Poland had been conquered, a program of massive population transfers started (Cole et al. 635). Following a brutal campaign against Poles and Jews, hundreds of thousands of Germans were settled in Western Prussia (Cole et al. 635).
The inmates of mental asylums were not spared in the war. The Nazis transported Poles by the thousands to forced labor camps. Death squads raided synagogues and other places of mass gathering of Jews. In 1940 alone, one hundred thousand Jews were killed in Poland (Cole et al. 635).
These atrocities continued when the Nazis entered the Soviet Union in 1941 (Cole et al. 635). The Nazi forces stormed through Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian villages and massacred the men. The women and children were deported to labor camps where they were worked to death in terrible conditions. Those who were unable to work were killed. By 1942, SS troops exterminated 500, 000 Jews (Cole et al. 635). During the course of World War II numerous gas chambers and concentration camps were set up across the territories controlled by the Nazis. According to Cole et al., more than two million Jews were killed by the death squads by 1943 (635).
The Nazi scientists conducted inhumane experiments on POWs of all ethnic heritages. The period between 1942 and 1944 saw one of the most horrific waves of mass murders in the history (Cole et al. 636). Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest death camp in which more than one million civilians were killed between 1942 and 1944 (Cole et al. 636).
The early twentieth century was associated with a new kind of racial prejudices and racial thinking that was caused by the emergence of social sciences (Cole et al. 636). According to Cole at al., “at the core of Nazi ideology lay a particularly virulent racism” (613). Seething racism is evident in a national socialist campaign pamphlet that protests against “the master plan of world Jewry” (Cole et al. 613). Prejudiced speech of Joseph Goebbels shows the anti-Semitic sentiment of the Nazis. The propagandist even goes as far as to say “the Jews is the cause and the beneficiary of our misery” (Cole et al. 612) which shows that the values of Hitler’s Reich bordered with state-sponsored hatred campaign.
The Atom Bomb
The first atom bomb deployed in a war was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 by the United States (Cole et al. 643). The bomb destroyed 60 percent of the city and claimed the lives of thousands of civilians (Cole et al. 643). The suffering of civilians in the war was extended even further when Harry Truman gave an order to bomb another Japanese city—Nagasaki. The effects of cancerous radiation and nuclear fallout increased the number of post-attack casualties.
World War II is associated with countless civilian deaths and civilian victimization on an unprecedented scale. Violent tactics toward ethnic minorities and civilian populations were facilitated by the employment of new technologies and were aimed at the promotion of collaboration and the spread of terror. Migration, dispossession, persecution, and hunger during and after the war extended the suffering of civilian populations.
Cole, Joshua, et al. Western Civilizations. Vol. 2, 3rd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.