World War Two (1939 – 1945) involved more than fifty countries fighting across four continents. Over 40 million people were killed in the war and millions more were injured. The war caused immense destruction. It was the largest and most deadly conflict in human history. The Second World War also saw many horrific atrocities, including the Nazi Holocaust that took the lives of over six million people. But why was World War Two so violent and deadly? What made it more brutal than conflicts that had come before, or since?
1. The Conflict Was Enormous In Scale
A first reason why World War Two was so brutal was because the conflict was enormous.
The Second World War is the largest conflict in human history. Almost a quarter of all countries were involved in the war. More than 100 million people fought in World War Two. In addition, hundreds of millions of civilians around the world were caught up in the fighting. The huge scale of World War Two is a major reason why the conflict was so deadly.
World War Two was fought across most of the world. From Western Europe to Russia, from Italy to North Africa, and from tiny islands in the Pacific to China and Japan. The massive extent of the fighting, and the range of theatres across the globe, is one reason why the Second World War is the most violent in human history.
Very few people living at the time were unaffected by the Second World War. Even countries that did not see direct fighting were often part of colonial empires and were expected to send soldiers to fight on the battlefields of Europe or the Far East. World War Two was an enormous conflict and this is a major reason why so many people were killed.
2. Civilians Were Deliberately Targeted
A second reason why World War Two was so violent was because civilians were deliberately targeted.
Most wars prior to the mid-20th Century had been fought by standing armies. This meant that battles happened often away from civilian populations. Armies before this time also moved more slowly, so non-combatants were able to move away before the fighting reached them.
World War Two was one of the first major conflicts with enormous civilian casualties. The indiscriminate bombing of cities, deliberate attacks on civilian targets and forced displacements of populations all characterised the war. Over 75 million civilians were killed in World War Two. The extent of civilian deaths during the war is a major reason why it was so brutal.
Another factor during World War Two that contributes to the conflicts extreme violence was the mass atrocities committed against civilians. The Nazi Holocaust in Europe killed over six million people. In the Far East, Japan undertook mass campaigns of killings, including in China, the Philippines and Malaysia. These crimes against humanity further added to the brutality of the war.
3. Many Nations Involved Were Governed By Extreme Ideologies
A third reason why the Second World War was so violent was because several of the nations involved were governed by extreme ideologies.
The Nazi’s came to power in Germany in 1933. They formed a totalitarian Fascist state that dominated almost all aspects of German lives. By the time World War Two broke out, most Germans were indoctrinated into the Nazi’s extreme ideology. This fed the ferocity in which the Germans fought and contributed heavily to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis.
Fascist Japan led a campaign of conquest across Asia beginning in North-Eastern China in 1931. In 1937, they attacked America at Pearl Harbour and expanded their empire across much of East Asia. This began the Pacific theatre of World War Two. The Japanese Empire was governed by an extremist Fascist ideology that also contributed to the extreme violence seen in the Pacific during World War Two.
The Soviet Union, although fighting on the side of the Allies, was also ruled by an extremist government. Soviet Communism was responsible for millions of deaths through persecution and famine in the 1930s. During World War Two, the clash of ideologies between Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany is a major factor for the brutality of the Eastern front.
Three of the major nations fighting in World War Two were ruled by governments abiding by extreme ideologies. This is a key reason why World War Two was so deadly.
4. War Had Become Fully Mechanised
Another reason why World War Two was so violent was because it was the first fully modern conflict.
War prior to the mid-19th century had used rudimentary technology on a small scale. Following the industrial revolution, machines began to be used as weapons that were able to kill and destroy on a much larger scale. Mechanisation changed war. By World War Two, all countries in the conflict were deploying fully mechanised armies and this is a key reason why the war was so deadly.
Although there had been partially mechanised wars prior to World War Two, such as the First World War (1914 – 18), Spanish Civil War (1936 – 39) and the American Civil War (1861 – 65), there had never been a conflict in human history where machinery played such as huge role. The Second World War was a truly modern conflict fought on a huge scale. The deployment of mechanised weapons, as well as advancements in factories, logistics and communications, combined to make World War Two one of the most brutal conflicts in history.
As machinery became a vital part of a nation’s ability to fight, attacks on civilian factories were a key aspect of World War Two. Destroying a country’s ability to replenish their army with weapons and supplies justified huge bombing raids on major cities. This is another aspect that added to the violence of the Second World War.
5. New Weapons Were Deployed
A further reason why the Second World War was so violent was because new weapons were used.
The industrial revolution changed war. Advances in technology such as the rifle, machine gun, tank, aeroplane, battleship, and aircraft carrier were all invented in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Technologies such as these made war massively more deadly.
As well as the advancements in technology prior to the war, throughout World War Two there were massive strides in weapons, armaments, munitions, and vehicles. This meant that as the war progressed, the ability for armies to inflict massive death and destruction only increased.
The Second World War ended when the America dropped the first two nuclear bombs on Japan, killing over 200,000 people. This is just one example of how new technology added to the brutality of the conflict. Other new technologies developed during the war include the radar, the computer, and the assault rifle. All also added to making World War Two the deadliest war in human history.
6. The War Was Fought Until The Axis Were Completely Defeated
A final reason why the Second World War was do deadly is because it was fought until the complete defeat of the Axis powers.
Wars generally end when one side surrenders. Many wars in history have ended when it is clear one side will lose. They then surrender, often before the complete invasion and destruction of their homeland. World War Two didn’t end like this. Both in Europe and in the Far East, Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan were fought until the near total destruction of their countries.
The Allies agreed at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 that they would only accept the complete and unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. The legacy of the First World War in Europe, where there was little fighting on German soil and many of the country’s institutions remained intact, was seen as a key driver of the Second World War. To avoid this, the Allies accepted having to fight until the total defeat of the Axis and this is one reason why the war was so brutal.
As we’ve discussed, the Axis powers were governed by extremist parties with hard-line ideologies. This meant they continued fighting long after it was clear they would be completely defeated. Their fanaticism extended the conflict and is another reason why the Second World War was so deadly.
Want To Know More?
If you want to know more about World War Two, and why the conflict was so brutal, we highly recommend Antony Beevor’s book The Second World War. We think it’s the best guide to the conflict and explains fully what made the war the deadliest in human history. We’ve linked to it on Amazon.com.
For those wanting a shorter history of the war, check out the Dorling Kindersley A Short History of World War II. It provides a great overview of the conflict and goes into depth as to why it was significantly more violent than the wars that came before it. Follow the link to the book’s page on Amazon.com.
If you want to learn more about probably the most brutal battle of all of World War Two, pick-up a copy of Stalingrad: The Battle that Shattered Hitler’s Dream of World Domination by Rupert Matthews. It’s a detailed account of the hard-fought battle between the Russian Red Army and German Wehrmacht for the city of Stalingrad in 1942-43 – considered to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The link is to Amazin.com.