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World War II Remembered: The Generals and the Admirals: More on the War

Germany - World War II

By the spring of 1939, Britain and France had already allowed Germany to become the dominant power in Europe. Hitler's greatest mistake was that he cast this enormous accomplishment away by leading Germany into war. After 1938 he had no further diplomatic victories. From 1939 to 1941 he led Germany to dazzling successes, but all were of a military nature. With relative ease his newly created army (Wehrmacht) overran part of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The most miraculous victory was the victory over France. Most German generals shuddered at the thought of attacking France, remembering the failure of the 1914 advance and the four-year war of attrition that had sapped Germany's strength and will. But Hitler had great faith in the tank warfare tactics developed by General Heinz Guderian and in the brilliant strategic plan devised by General Friedrich Erich von Manstein. He also recognized the most important factor: France was unwilling to fight a sustained war. In six weeks, Germany had rolled into France via a flank attack around its famed Maginot Line of supposedly impregnable fortresses.

By the summer of 1940, Germany controlled Europe from the Arctic Circle to the Pyrenees and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Soviet Union. If Hitler had made a generous peace offer to France, he might have destroyed Britain's and other countries' will to resist, but Hitler never thought of such a possibility. He could not grant a magnanimous peace because, as he himself later wrote, the victory of the stronger always involved “the destruction of the weaker or his unconditional subservience.” He had a knack for seeing the weakness in his enemies, but he was unable to build anything lasting. Also, because he considered himself to be infallible and irreplaceable, he insisted on doing everything quickly; he could not plant anything that required time to grow. Based on his writings and actions, one can say with reasonable certainty that Hitler sought to establish German hegemony in Europe and direct domination over the Soviet Union, which along with the older European powers' overseas colonies, would occupy the bottom of Hitler's power pyramid. Above them would be the rest of the European countries, divided into Germanic lands bordering on Germany, servant peoples, such as the Poles, and satellites and quasi-independent states. On top would be an all-powerful Germany. This German-dominated order would place Hitler in a good position later to struggle against America and Japan for world domination. That he did not accomplish this ambitious goal was due in large measure to serious mistakes that he himself made after such stunning successes.

In 1940, he launched an aerial attack against Britain which left rubble piles throughout the country, but which also inspired heroic action in what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called Britain's “finest hour.” While still involved in this furious struggle, violating the treaty whereby Germany and Russia had split up Poland between them, Hitler unleashed his armies against the Soviet Union in mid-1941. This was against the advice of his generals and created another two-front war, the first of which had been such a nightmare for Germany during World War I. The attack was launched too late, so in a repeat of Napoleon's humiliation, “General Winter” saved the weaker Russians. Cold weather and snow closed in on the German troops, many of whom had not been issued proper winter equipment. After initial victories against an enemy that Hitler had grossly underestimated, the German advance ground to a stop. Hitler saw his dreams of grandeur buried under Russian snow and ice.

In the midst of this truly desperate situation, Hitler compounded his difficulties even further. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the United States responded by declaring war on Japan, but not on Germany. Germany had no treaty obligation with Japan, but inexplicably and without conferring with anyone, Hitler declared war against the United States. Germany had no military means for conducting military operations against the Americans, but this step decisively tipped the scales in favor of his opponents and ultimately sealed Germany's defeat. Thereafter, he had no idea how to extricate Germany from ruin. For example, he could not follow up on General Erwin Rommel's victories in North Africa in the summer of 1942, and, of course, he excluded the very idea of a political settlement. His only order was “Hold at all costs!” In 1942, Germany began losing territory in the east, especially after a disastrous defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943.

By the fall of 1944, enemy armies were advancing on Germany from the east and west. More and more Germans saw the hopelessness of the situation and began to regard conquest by the Western Allies as liberation. But Hitler did not share this secret war aim of many ordinary people. He personally assumed command of the German forces. Then he unleashed a torrent of powerful rockets on London and its suburbs using technology only recently developed. These attacks by what he called his “wonder weapons” merely served to harden even more the determination of the British and their American ally. Disregarding warnings from military advisers that the Red Army was poised for a massive strike from the east, Hitler ordered his last military offensive against the Western Allies in the Belgian Ardennes Forest in late 1944. The element of surprise and extremely bad weather which kept Allied aircraft grounded for a few days helped the Germans gain initial success and stop the Western powers' advance on Germany. However, once American and British air power could be brought into action, the German offensive was halted, and by the first week of January the German forces were being decimated or rolled back. As some of Hitler's generals had warned, the Red Army crashed through the German line in the East, and in one violent movement pushed from the Vistula to the Oder Rivers. Because Hitler had squandered his last reserves in the Ardennes offensive, he had nothing left to stop the Russian advance.

Hitler's decisions that led to a slowdown of the Western Allied advance and favored a rapid Russian advance into the heart of Germany had unfortunate consequences for postwar Germany. In the first half of February 1945, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and General Secretary Stalin met in Yalta in the Crimea to discuss the postwar control of Germany and to divide Germany into zones of occupation. The lines they drew were heavily influenced by the calculations of where exactly the Allied armies would be in Germany at the end of the war. At the time, it appeared that Russian troops would be somewhat farther within Germany than was actually the case when hostilities ceased. However, based on the decisions made at Yalta, U.S. troops had later to be pulled back from Saxony and Thuringia, which were within the designated Soviet zone. Also, the collapse of cooperation among the four Allies after the war left the temporary line drawn between the Soviet zone of occupation and the zones of the Western Allies as the line of division between East and West Germany until 1990.

Seeing enemy armies advancing within his own country's territory and with no hope of stopping them, any rational and responsible leader with a concern for his own citizens would have done anything to salvage whatever would be necessary for their survival. Hitler was not such a leader. In late 1941, he had made a chilling statement to the Danish and Croatian foreign ministers: “If ever the German people is no longer sufficiently strong and willing to sacrifice its own blood for its existence, then it should fade away and be destroyed by another, stronger power. …In that situation, I will lose no tears for the German people.” On March 18 and 19, 1945, he gave two orders which demonstrated that he had not changed his mind and that he now thought it was time to carry through with the end of Germany. He ordered all Germans in areas threatened by the invasion forces in the west to leave their homes and set out on what could only have been a death march eastward. The following day he gave the so-called “Nero order”: “to destroy all military, transport, communications, industrial and supply facilities as well as anything of value within the Reich which could be used by the enemy for continuing his struggle either immediately or in the foreseeable time.” When Albert Speer, his trusted confidant and munitions minister, objected to this policy, which would have completely eliminated the Germans' ability to survive after defeat, Hitler answered “ice-coldly”: “If the war is lost, then the people will be lost also. … In that case the people will have shown itself as the weaker, and the future would belong solely to the strengthened Eastern people. Whoever survives this struggle would be the inferior ones anyway since the superior ones have already fallen.”

Hitler himself chose not to be among the survivors. On April 30, 1945, a few hours before his underground bunker in Berlin was captured by Soviet troops, he stuck a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Speer and others did their best to prevent Hitler's orders from being carried out. But their effect was that most Germans, at least in the western part of Germany, did view the enemy occupation of Germany as a liberation. While the occupation forces expected to find a nation of fanatic Nazis on their hands, they found instead a shell-shocked, seriously disillusioned people who had been far more thoroughly “de-Nazified” by Hitler's treatment of Germany in the closing months of the war than the carefully planned De-Nazification and reeducation program would otherwise ever have been able to accomplish. The occupation powers interpreted the Germans' passivity and willingness to cooperate as typical German servility, but it was rather a reflection of the extent to which Germans felt themselves to have been deceived and betrayed by Hitler.

WORLD WAR II. (2000). In Encyclopedia of Nationalism: Leaders, Movements, and Concepts. Retrieved from

France - World War II

Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysées to view Allied tanks and half-tracks passing through the Arc du Triomphe after Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. (Library of Congress)

As a name for the 1939-1945 conflict, “World War II” assumes that the war of 1914-1918 was really the first world war. However, there were earlier global conflicts, such as the 1756-1763 French and Indian War, which France fought in Europe, Asia, and North America. Sometimes seen as a second “German” war, the 1939-1945 conflict has been depicted as the continuation of a German quest for world power begun in 1914. What is commonly called the Second World War began officially with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. After a rapid victory over Poland, which they divided with the Soviet Union, the Germans in the spring of 1940 took Denmark and Norway, then attacked in the West, conquering the Low Countries and France. Britain then stood alone against a Continent dominated by the Germans and their ally Italy. Unable to mount an invasion of Britain, the Germans launched air raids in the summer of 1940, but the British held out while battling the Italians in North Africa. In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and in December the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the war. By 1945, the combined force of the Allies (Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) prevailed, but not before the war had been carried to almost all parts of the world, millions of civilians had been killed, notably in the Holocaust, and atomic weapons had been used against Japan. The Allied victory was followed by the cold war, in which Europe and much of the rest of the world was divided into two blocs, dominated by the United States and Soviet Russia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the cold war, whereas Germany and Italy, once defeated, were reborn to become major players, with France, in a reorganized European Union, and Japan developed one of the largest economies in the world. In keeping with the theme of this encyclopedia, however, this article focuses on the French Atlantic, which played a critical role in the evolution of World War II because Hitler missed several critical opportunities there in the summer of 1940.

For France, the wartime period began meaningfully with the 1938 Munich agreement, which transferred the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and reestablished the German supremacy in central Europe, which had been interrupted by the defeat of 1918. Once again, Germany became a threat to France. On August 23, 1939, Germany signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, freeing the German eastern flank for an attack on Poland, which came a week later (September 1). The German conquest of Poland was followed by relative inaction on the Western Front as the French sat behind their defensive fortifications on the Maginot Line and the Germans waited for an opportune moment to attack. Known in France as the drôle de guerre (phony war), the inaction in the west ended with a German offensive on May 10, 1940. Within six weeks, the Germans had overrun the Low Countries and much of northern France by skirting the Maginot Line and using coordinated air and tank attacks to pierce the French lines. The Germans took 1.5 million French soldiers prisoner. Marshal Philippe Pétain, France’s World War I Battle of Verdun hero (1916), formed a government and asked for an armistice, which was signed on June 22, 1940, at Hitler’s order in the same railway car at Rethondes, in northern France, that had been the scene of the signing of the November 1918 armistice. Two days later, a Franco-Italian armistice was also signed.

France was divided into a German occupied zone in the North and West and an unoccupied or “free” zone of about two-fifths of France in the South. The French were allowed to maintain control of their fleet, still undefeated and second in strength only to the British in Europe, and of the empire, provided these were not used against the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan). Alsace and Lorraine, lost by Germany to France in 1918, were reannexed in 1940 by Germany. The Italians were given an occupation zone in the Southeast. In November 1942, the Allies landed in French North Africa and the Germans responded by occupying the “free zone”; at the same time, the French scuttled their navy to avoid losing control of it. The Italian occupation zone in the Southeast was extended.

With Paris in the occupied zone in June 1940, the French government moved to Vichy, and the Third Republic government voted full power to Pétain to create a new state; this came to be known as the Etat Français (French State) or, simply, “Vichy.” The Vichy government proclaimed a “National Revolution” to create a more authoritarian France, more suited to a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, though as much inspired by the Spain of General Francisco Franco and domestic right-wing political thought as by the Axis powers. France was to be purged of what the new leaders saw as the republic’s amoral materialism and political undesirables, namely Communists, Freemasons, and Jews. In October, Vichy enacted the first of several anti-Jewish laws; these led ultimately to French collaboration in the Holocaust.

General Charles de Gaulle refused to accept the 1940 defeat, and while in London exile he created Free France, an umbrella organization for resistance against the Axis throughout France and the empire. On June 28, the British recognized him as head of Free France, and in September the Free French attempted, unsuccessfully, to capture Dakar, in West Africa, from the Vichy authorities. On September 26, Japanese forces entered Indochina, a colony that neither of the French factions was able to protect. By November, the French enclaves in India, Tahiti, and all of French Equatorial Africa had joined Free France. A combined British and Free French force ousted the Vichy authorities from Lebanon and Syria in July 1941. In December, a surprise raid by the Free French took control from the Vichy authorities of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, off the coast of Canada. With the November 1942 Allied landings, the North African territories also went over to the Free French, renamed “Fighting France” the previous July.

Late 1942 through early 1943 marked a turning point in the war as the British stopped a German advance at El Alamein in Egypt, the Americans thwarted a Japanese raid and destroyed much of the Imperial air force at Midway, and the Soviets stopped the Germans at Stalingrad. In July 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily, leading to an invasion on the Italian peninsula and the overthrow of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The Italian occupation zone in southeastern France was taken over by the Germans in August, and Corsica, occupied by the Italians in November 1942, was liberated in October 1943. On June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Normandy constituted the largest amphibious operation yet seen in the history of warfare and was followed by the liberation of Paris on August 25 and the expulsion of the Germans from almost all France by the beginning of September. Charles de Gaulle took over as the head of a provisional government in Paris and brought France actively into the final campaign against Axis forces in Europe, which ended with the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Despite U.S. ambivalence, the French were given back all their colonies and later a role in the postwar occupation and reconstruction of Germany. Within weeks of Japan’s surrender (August 15), Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent, setting the stage for a colonial war that ended only with the defeat of France in 1954. De Gaulle, disillusioned with the reemergence of the Third Republic’s politics as usual, resigned in January 1946.

The German rout of the French in 1940 proved to be a costly victory, in large part because of the shortsightedness of Hitler and his entourage. Despite—or perhaps because of—the speed of their victory, and in their rush to conclude an armistice and humiliate the French at Rethondes, the Germans had not fully considered the various options presented by their success. Hitler’s policy had been simply to neutralize France and force Britain out of the war, freeing him for an attack against Soviet Russia. The German leaders seem to have contemplated a repeat of their 1914 strategy, which was to knock the French out of the war, then move against Russia. With the German victory in 1940, however, Admiral Erich Raeder argued for a Mediterranean strategy of going through Spain into Gibraltar and North Africa, cutting Britain off from most of its empire. Had the Germans moved immediately, General Franco of Spain might have had to reach an accord with them. There is evidence to show that Franco was ready to enter the war on Germany’s side in June, but Hitler did not pursue this option. With Spain on the Axis side, the Germans could have used the Spanish islands in the Atlantic against Britain. By stopping their offensive when it was in high gear and accepting an armistice with the French, the Germans missed a chance to settle things decisively in the West.

Had the French continued to fight from North Africa, which General de Gaulle favored in 1940, rather than so quickly requesting an armistice, the Germans might have been forced to adopt a more concerted and ultimately successful Mediterranean plan. Conversely, the shortsighted spite of the German leaders, so eager to avenge what they considered the humiliation of 1918, prevented them from making a generous peace with the French, which might have left France a contented continental partner cut off from Britain. Either a more generous arrangement with the French or a more thoroughgoing takeover, on the Polish model, might have cut the British Empire and freed the Germans for their planned offensive in the East. By permitting the existence of a semi-autonomous and truncated France in 1940, the Germans cast away the potentialities of their own victory by failing to make it permanent.

German mistakes in 1940 do not mean that Pétain and his Vichy supporters foresaw eventual Axis defeat and were acting from a shrewd vision to spare France for the present so that it could later victoriously resume hostilities, the “shield-sword” argument (Pétain the shield, de Gaulle the sword) made by Pétain at his 1945 trial and subsequent Vichy apologists. Available evidence indicates that Pétain and his supporters fully anticipated a German victory in 1940. The armistice conditions were harsh, but Vichy retained some autonomy as it controlled the unoccupied zone, the fleet, and the overseas empire. France was given neither a real peace nor eliminated as a factor in international affairs. Because of their agreement with France, which also meant supporting Pétain’s government, the Germans were unable to make an agreement with Spain that would have enabled them to take Gibraltar and close the western Mediterranean to the British, in large measure because Hitler was unwilling to give French territory in Africa to Spain. Nor was Hitler willing to make the concessions that might have induced the French into joining the Axis. In the summer of 1940, the French foreign minister, Paul Baudouin, warned the Spanish about German expansionist plans in North Africa, and later that year Pétain warned Franco about Hitler’s designs on Gibraltar.

Unwilling to cede French territory in Africa to Spain, Hitler, paradoxically, proved willing to allow Japan to march into French Indochina. This encouraged the Japanese to turn their expansion plans south rather than north, and they attacked the United States instead of the Soviet Union. Had Japan invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, drawing Soviet troops away from the defense of Moscow and Leningrad, the war could have ended differently. Had French military forces, including those held in German captivity, been sent to Indochina following Germany’s victory in 1940, the Japanese might have been pushed into a northern strategy against Russia, leading to a different result for World War II. Precluded from Indochina, the Japanese could not have adopted a southern strategy, which might have kept them from attacking the United States.

In the sequence of German errors, the French role turns out to be more pivotal than they realized. Rethondes lured the Japanese into attacking the wrong place and prevented the Spanish from coming to Germany’s aid—this was the real significance of Vichy. It is unlikely that the magnitude of the German errors at Rethondes and its consequences were understood by Pétain and the other Vichy leaders, who must be evaluated on the basis of their intentions and what they did, given the circumstances of their time. With the loss of the unoccupied zone, the fleet, and the overseas empire in November 1942, Vichy was deprived of the leverage it had. The Allied conquest of the French empire in North Africa brought home to many in metropolitan France the realization that Germany might indeed lose the war. It highlighted the failure of the Germans to develop an effective Mediterranean strategy while fighting in Soviet Russia and provided a base on French territory for General de Gaulle’s Free France, which was able to move to Algiers from London. By early 1944, the Vichy government had become virtually a fascist state with its paramilitary organizations waging open warfare in collaboration with the Germans against the increasingly well-organized resistance. Vichy forces fought the resistance and hunted Jews, Communists, and Freemasons in a Franco-French civil war, while resistance activists assassinated those accused of collaboration with Vichy and the Germans. The liberation of France in the summer of 1944 brought a purge of Vichyites, the severity of which is still debated in France more than half a century after the events.

Despite the unquestioned harshness of the 1940 armistice terms and the heavy exactions from occupied France for the German war effort, there has been no full accounting of the real cost of Germany’s occupation of France in terms of resources diverted and missed opportunities. After World War II, France lost great power status in a cold war dominated by the United States and Russia. The French also lost most of their empire, culminating with the independence of Algeria in 1962. However, the birthrate rose, women received the vote, France linked up with the emerging Common Market (now European Union) in the late 1950s, and the country enjoyed unprecedented prosperity built during what is now called les trente glorieuses (the thirty glorious) years of economic expansion, from the liberation through the oil crisis of 1973-1974.

WORLD WAR II. (2005). In France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. Retrieved from

Africa, the Americas - World War II

General Erwin Rommel with his troops in the desert at El Alamein, Egypt. The Allied forces under Bernard Montgomery won the battle of El Alamein in 1942. (Library of Congress)

Lasting from 1939 to 1945, World War II (WWII) transformed diplomatic relations, economies, and social structures throughout the globe. Latin America and Africa were affected both indirectly and directly. Indirectly, regional politics and economies were shaped by their contributions to the war machines of the Allied and Axis powers and by their strategic locations. Latin America saw increased regional stability, at the price of the crushing of political dissent in certain cases, as a consequence of the war. Africa was put on the road to decolonization and independence. Africa alternately enriched its infrastructure and lost much capital, resources, and labor to distant powers. Directly, Africa saw considerable combat over strategic resources and geographic advantages. African soldiers were conscripted or recruited to both Axis and Allied forces. While the epicenters of WWII were in Europe, the Pacific, and East Asia, Latin America and Africa were influential in determining the war’s outcome.

Latin America offered logistical support and a primary deployment point. Latin America’s internal matters during WWII were far more complicated than its general external relations. After World War I, the United States dominated trade and intergovernmental political relations. Formal recognition from the United States became important; without it countries could suffer from lack of aid, the inability to negotiate trade, and the absence of international representation. At the 1936 Inter-U.S. Peace Conference on War and Peace in Buenos Aires, Latin American nations felt that the war was too remote to be a concern and asked for the United States to abide by its nonintervention pledge. However, the strategic importance of the Panama Canal drew considerable attention and Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 led to Latin American leaders supporting Allied forces.

The United States initiated two sets of measures to protect its Panamanian investment and shipping artery. It created high value land-lease agreements to provide naval yards, to defend against German submarines (U-boats), and to create long-range aerial operations for both Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Second, the United States provided an infusion of capital. U.S. military forces in Latin American nations modernized their hosts’ armies. Many formally unrecognized dictators showered U.S. troops with support, hoping that the show of solidarity would result in U.S. approval for their regimes.

The foreign military presence in Latin America, coupled with prior unresolved diplomatic issues and the desire to reduce political conflict, led many Latin American leaders to portray dissidents as “communists.” Often, the United States was not concerned enough to notice the difference between political dissent and communist insurgency. As a result, the United States often gave approval to the eradication of such dissidents or provided the means of removal. The fear of market disruption combined with the search for stability during WWII promoted the modernization of local military forces and reinforced the power structures that existed in Latin America for some time. Attempts to change social and political structures and to improve the livelihoods of people through redistributions of wealth or power were viewed as threats. These trends continued throughout the war and afterward, during the Cold War.

In Africa, combat took place over the control of supply routes and the control of war resources and commodities produced in Africa. Military strategies for African campaigns were tied to the production of war material, strategic points of transshipment, and the recruitment of officers. Many forces were drawn into Africa. The most well-known conflict occurred on the southern shores of the Mediterranean between British and German forces, the latter led by Irwin Rommel. North African battles were intense. Italian forces stationed in Libya raided Egypt in order to obtain oil, suffered great losses, and were reinforced by the Deutsches Afrikakorps (Germany), the corps-level command group for the operation of Panzer and light infantry divisions. British forces also sustained great losses repelling them. A costly and exhausting back-and-forth desert conflict took place between Allied and Axis forces, coming to a conclusion when U.S. military forces eventually landed in Tunisia to cut Italian supply lines to German forces. British Commonwealth forces and the arriving American troops proceeded to work in tandem on both sides, resulting in the surrender of the German forces in the region. Rommel led a remarkable defense. Early on, Rommel had come within a hairbreadth of capturing Alexandria, which would have brought Egypt under Axis control and provided fuel for Hitler’s armies in Europe. Had Rommel succeeded, Hitler would have had less motivation to attack Russia for her petroleum and the course of the war would have been quite different.

The war in West Africa included armed conflicts in Gabon and the Battle of Dakar. Allied forces also attempted to gain control of Gabon, French Equatorial Africa, and French West Africa, initially freeing all but the last. Blurring the lines between West and North African campaigns, attacks were launched from Free French Chad against Italian-controlled Libya, which was the principal supply route for the Deutsches Afrikakorps.

In Italian East Africa, a large military force of about 250,000 African recruits was present. This army threatened the supply routes through the Suez Canal and outlying areas. British Commonwealth forces based in Egypt, Sudan, and British Somaliland were too few to combat this threat. By recognizing the authority of Haile Selassie, the local leader and representative of the indigenous Ethiopian forces, the Allied Forces harnessed enough manpower to advance against the Axis. Italian forces saw an initial success in capturing British Somaliland. However, their naval forces became irrelevant because of fuel shortages. After a failed attempt to attack an Allied convoy, Italian naval forces in the region were all but neutralized.

With the threat of shipping interference resolved, conventional ground warfare resumed by British Commonwealth forces, including troops from Australia, India, South Africa, Nigeria, and Gold Coast territories. Indian and Australian forces attacked from northern fortifications and supply lines in Egypt. South African, Nigerian, and Gold Coast forces rolled in from the south. Finally, Indo-Free French forces made amphibious assaults on Italian East Africa. These battles eliminated Italy’s threat to the surrounding areas.

In an important political change, the Allied victory also established Ethiopian sovereignty. Though not claimed by colonial powers in the Berlin Conference, many European powers had previously refused to accept Ethiopia as a self-ruling African state. The success of the Allied alliance with Haile Selassie helped recognize Ethiopia as an independently sovereign nation. Ethiopia offers a case of WWII furthering the process of African political independence.

Africa’s location was of strategic importance also to the war of Allied forces against Japan. Japanese influence dominated much of Asia and the Pacific theater, and the fall of south Asian nations to imperial rule would have granted the Japanese greater access to the Indian Ocean. This led to the fortification of Madagascar by Vichy French forces, in an attempt to create a forward base of operations so that Japanese long-range submarines could travel into Atlantic waters.

During and after the war, colonial economies in Africa experienced a variety of changes. African economies saw development and diversification, the recognition of their global role as exporters of exotic, conventional, and strategic mineral resources, and further class stratification.

Portuguese Africa (Cape Verde, Angola, and Mozambique) offers an important case of such changes. During the war from 1939 through 1943, German U-boats intercepted shipments from North America to the United Kingdom. The battle between U-boats and shipping is often called the “Second Battle of the Atlantic.” British trade with the United States, Africa, Spain, and Portugal was severely affected. Prior to the war, Portugal had restricted industrial growth in its colonies to maintain their dependence on Portugal. Now, a lack of British transports meant that Portugal could not transport raw materials from its African colonies. Manufacturing was consequently encouraged inside its colonies, with rubber and steel as the main products. Roads, training, and processing plants were built to support the new industries. Management skills were developed and created a new type of labor force. Laborers prospered, including native peoples despite the biases they faced. This industrial prosperity in the Portuguese colonies set the stage for independence and economic growth following the war.

The resulting growth in smelting operations, steel manufacturing, rubber production and processing, and other industrial fields expanded resources and markets and allowed for infrastructure development. The latter included the construction of shipment conduits, ports, and the creation of a clerical infrastructure for quality control, customs, and the enforcement of quotas. A skilled workforce was created to operate advanced industries. Increases in capital and commodity reserves resulted in an infrastructure that could operate after wartime.

In general, colonial powers across Africa could not remotely manage such operations and regional authority was deemed crucial during the war. Consequently, colonial territories experienced a greater, if still limited, degree of self-rule. Labor shortages brought better terms for potential workers, including local peoples. While Africans remained subjected to classist and racist colonial policies, opportunities arose for a few to make substantial personal advances.

Overall, WWII increased the stability of many regimes in Latin America through U.S. support of dictatorships that opposed political dissidence. This would set the stage for anticommunist politics in the Western Hemisphere during the Cold War. For Africa, more steps toward political independence were created; however, the disparity between rich and poor continued. The battles in Africa set the stage for subsequent battles for independence and between conflicting African groups in the postcolonial era. While Latin America’s remoteness from the war reinforced its stability, Africa’s proximity created an increasingly unstable political environment that would unravel in the decades of decolonization after the war.

Spain, Portugal, Latin America - World War II

From June 1940 to October 1943, Spain was a nonbelligerent party in World War II. It maintained its official neutrality only until the fall of France in 1940 and resumed neutrality later after the Axis defeat seemed probable.

Franco had won the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) because of the massive direct intervention of both Rome and Berlin and their supplies of men, weapons, diplomacy, and finances. Franco was fascinated by the effectiveness and determination of his Fascist allies, whom he contrasted with the moral and material decadent plutocratic democracies, especially those of France and the United Kingdom. He was also obsessed with fulfilling his dream of acquiring a large colonial empire in North Africa. However, Franco’s New Spain was economically and militarily too weak in 1940 to declare war on Britain, which could easily retaliate by attacking the more than 4,000 kilometers of Spain’s coastline or capturing, for example, the Canary Islands. Franco wanted to carve territory from France’s Morocco and Algeria, but he feared England. Precisely because he was weaker and more cautious than Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Franco waited for the appropriate time, which he considered the surrender of Britain.

Few leaders within the Spanish dictatorship doubted during the summer and fall of 1940 that the days of the despised Perfidious Albion (as England was traditionally called in the Spanish nationalist circles) were limited. In Madrid, invitations for the Victory Cocktail (the celebration of Germany’s supposed victory over Britain), soon to be held in London, were sought at the German embassy. It was in the context of colonial ambition, fear of England, and contempt for democracy that El Caudillo Francisco Franco met with the Führer Adolf Hitler in October 1940 in the railway station of the French city of Hendaye, not far from the Spanish border. Both Hitler and Franco wanted Spain to join the war, but Hitler sought an unconditional ally, whereas Franco came with a long wish list, which included colonies as well as massive military and economic assistance. For Hitler, the limited assistance that Spanish forces would contribute to the war came with too high a price tag. Furthermore, Hitler was certain that England was about to sue for peace, and so he preferred to maintain good relations with France. As the war continued, Franco’s ambitions did not diminish nor did his fear of Britain. In the meantime, the Spanish economy suffered. While caution forced Franco not to commit the fatal mistake of going to war, his government’s actions and its propaganda machine kept assisting the Axis and alienating, when not insulting, the British.

Isolated and unfit to fight a land war, England depended in the years 1940 and 1941 on keeping the skies and the sea lanes under its control. Preserving the strategic base of Gibraltar was essential, and this required that Spain not allow the Germans to cross the Iberian Peninsula and assault the Rock. The United Kingdom also needed friends to trade with and to obtain vital resources both to maintain its war effort and to prevent the Axis from acquiring them. A neutral country would have traded with both sides and prevented either from using its territory for military activities or espionage. The United Kingdom tried to preserve Spanish neutrality by offering the starving nation the possibility of acquiring food, including Canadian wheat, and petrol. Franco did not take advantage of those offers for the same reason that he had not accepted American offers to install car and truck plants in Spain. For him, a Nazi-dominated Europe was both a certain and preferable future, and, accordingly, Spanish trade was reoriented from its traditional commercial channels, in which England had played a crucial role since the previous century, to the Axis area of economic influence. The Francoist New State’s adoption of an ambitious if ill-conceived policy of autarchic industrial development only reinforced Spain’s estrangement from its traditional partner. These policies greatly explain why Spain, unlike other neutral countries such as Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and even Turkey, did not profit economically from the war, but instead suffered a serious economic decline.

The Spanish dictatorship not only severely restricted trade with the United Kingdom, but it also actively helped the Nazis to undermine Britain’s war effort. German and Italian spies were given official assistance, allowing them to monitor British sea traffic around Gibraltar, which greatly affected the military operations in both the Mediterranean and Near East. Moreover, German submarines and other ships were permitted to be resupplied in secret, thus contributing to the Nazis’ attempt to defeat Britain’s fleet during the battle of the Atlantic. Spain also provided the Axis with strategic minerals such as wolfram, which was essential for the production of aircraft. Last but not least, the heavily censored official media maintained a relentless campaign of propaganda in favor of the Axis.

The course of the war affected the relations between Spain and the different contenders. As the United Kingdom proved resilient to German attacks, in early 1941 Hitler attempted to convince Franco to allow free passage across the country to take Gibraltar (Operation Felix). Franco, although he harbored no doubts about the Axis’s ultimate victory, was cautious, especially after having witnessed the successive Italian defeats inflicted by the British. Fortunately for Franco, Hitler switched his attention from the west to the east as the plan to invade the Soviet Union became a priority.

The launching of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 gave the war an anti-Communist dimension. It also brought a serious political mistake that could have embroiled Spain in the conflict in a moment when its dimensions and outcome were more unpredictable than ever. In the midst of wide euphoria among the leaders and supporters of the dictatorship, Franco sponsored the creation of a unit—supposedly composed of volunteers, but in reality organized and commanded by Army officers—to fight with the Axis on the Eastern Front. In total about 47,000 Spaniards fought in the so-called Division Azul (Blue Division). It was only Stalin’s failure to declare war on Spain for this action that ultimately saved Franco’s dictatorship.

Spain’s mistaken decision to intervene in Russia was highlighted by the entry of the United States in the war in December 1941, which was compounded by the Spanish press’s sympathic report of Japanese successes in early 1942. The price for these policies would ultimately be paid by the dictatorship, which eventually survived, and by ordinary Spaniards. Although the United States, like Britain, had no interest in having Spain openly joining the Axis, their control of the Atlantic sea lanes gave them a powerful tool against Franco. Shipping was crucial for Spain to acquire the food and petrol it so desperately needed. The Allies, by limiting the number of navy-certs, or traffic permits for merchant ships, regulated the number of Spanish vessels that crossed the Atlantic. The result was that the Spanish economy was practically in the hands of the Anglo-Americans, who used the navy-certs as an instrument to keep Spain out of the war. Basically, what they did was to allow Spain to import enough to prevent the economy from collapsing and the population from starving en masse, but not too much as to put the country in a position of strength or to permit it to help the Axis more actively. This policy worked well in achieving its strategic designs, but it caused both economic stagnation and, more importantly, the starvation of tens of thousands of poor Spaniards.

The dictatorship’s delicate diplomatic and economic situation became more exposed at the end of 1942. The Axis defeat at Stalingrad and El Alamein marked the turn of the war. Moreover, the landing of the Allies in North Africa in November of the same year (Operation Torch) brought the fighting to the Spanish border in its colonial territory in Morocco. For a few weeks, the leaders of the dictatorship feared that the Allied army would invade Spain. Fortunately for the New State (albeit both Churchill and, to a greater extent, Roosevelt privately despised Franco), an overthrow of the dictatorship was not seriously contemplated, and the Iberian Peninsula was bypassed. For Franco, the time to backpedal had arrived, and on October 1, 1943, Spain again declared itself strictly neutral.

The opportunistic nature of this regained neutrality was exposed only a few days after being proclaimed when the Spanish government sent a telegram on October 18, 1943, congratulating Jose P. Laurel on his installation by the Japanese as puppet governor of the Philippines. The Americans were outraged at the Spanish congratulations of Laurel. The crisis was eventually solved, in part, thanks to the moderation and mild pro-Francoist tendencies of the American ambassador in Madrid, the eminent historian Carlton Hayes. However, beneath the dictatorship’s official new policy, which included the recall of the Blue Division in November, cooperation with the Germans continued, as did Spain’s open propagandistic support for the Nazis. This resulted in an increased Allied demand for effective concession by Franco, and in January 1944 the United States declared a complete oil embargo against Spain. Forced to concede, on May 1944 the dictatorship promised to expel all German agents in Spain, to stop any logistical support for the Axis forces, to gradually suppress the export of wolfram, and finally to hand over to the Allies all the Italian boats docked in Spanish ports.

As the end of the war neared, Franco’s propagandists started to rewrite the recent past, and the dictator’s forced pacifism officially became farsighted wisdom. By late 1944, the regime was busy reinterpreting the nature of the Spanish role in the war by explaining to a half-bemused world the ludicrous theory of the three wars. According to this theory, World War II was in reality three conflicts. The first one was between Germany and the United Kingdom, and Spain had been neutral. The second conflict was between the Christian, civilized Germany against the godless, barbaric Soviet Union, and Spain was on the German side. Finally, the third confrontation was between the Occidental, Christian United States and the Oriental, pagan Japanese, and Spain was definitely on the American side. Aware of growing American strength, the propaganda machine started to depict American victories in the Pacific as Spain’s own (while German defeats in both the west and the east were ignored or resented). In April 1945 Spain broke diplomatic relations with Japan, as the press suddenly discovered the Japanese atrocities committed against Spanish missionaries in the Philippines three years before. There were also hints that Spain was sending warships to the Pacific to assist in Japan’s defeat.

In spite of the rather clumsy attempt to reinterpret the past, the Francoist regime found itself diplomatically isolated at the end of the war. Morally, it was also on the side of the defeated dictatorships. Many tens of thousands of Republican Spaniards, who had fought with the Allies, especially in the French army or in the Resistance, or who had barely escaped death in the Nazi camps, hoped that the liberation of Paris, Rome, and Berlin would lead to the immediate liberation of Madrid. That was not to be. The Francoist regime maintained a low profile for the next two years of its condemnation in the United Nations; Franco’s Spain lived with the status of an international pariah, hoping, rightly as it turned out, that the growing Russian-American tensions that led to the cold war would rescue it from its past.

Portugal’s initial reaction to the outbreak of the war was to declare strict neutrality. However, as with World War I, Spain’s Iberian neighbors once again were forced to abandon that position. And once again, the Portuguese supported Britain and the Allied forces, a position that disappointed many among Portugal’s middle class who were sympathetic to Hitler. Nevertheless, in 1943 Portuguese dictator António Salazar opened military bases on the Azores Islands for Allied use. When hostilities ended, Salazar was able to remain in power (even though the dictator had flown Portuguese flags at half-mast when he heard the news of Hitler’s death).

In Latin America, the outbreak of World War II proved damaging to many nations still trying to recover from the effects of the Great Depression. In Brazil and Argentina, strong antipathy toward Britain and the United States initially translated into sympathy for Hitler and the Axis powers. Even Mexico’s left supported Hitler during the early stages of the war, encouraged by the 1939 Russo-German nonaggression pact. However, alliances began to shift by 1941. When Hitler broke his promises and invaded Russia during the summer of 1941, Mexico’s left threw their support to the Allies. That support was reinforced following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the day after the bombing, President Avila Camacho’s government severed diplomatic ties with the Axis powers and urged other Latin American nations to do the same. In 1942, Brazil decided to lend support to the United States; Argentina remained “neutral.” Mexico and Brazil were the only two Latin American countries that supplied combat troops to fight against the Axis.

World War II. (2005). In Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. Retrieved from