How Did World War II End?

How Did World War II End?

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World War II ended six years and one day after Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, sparked the 20th century’s second global conflict. By the time it concluded on the deck of an American warship on September 2, 1945, World War II had claimed the lives of an estimated 60-80 million people, approximately 3 percent of the world’s population. The vast majority of those who died in history’s deadliest war were civilians, including 6 million Jews killed in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Germany employed its “blitzkrieg” (“lightning war”) strategy to sweep across the Netherlands, Belgium and France in the war’s opening months and force more than 300,000 British and other Allied troops to evacuate continental Europe from Dunkirk. In June 1941, German dictator Adolf Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and launched Operation Barbarossa, which brought Nazi troops to the gates of Moscow.

By the time the United States entered World War II following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, German forces occupied much of Europe from the Black Sea to the English Channel. The Allies, however, turned the tide of the conflict, and the following major events brought World War II to an end.

WATCH: 'Hiroshima: 75 Years Later' on HISTORY Vault

1. Germany Repelled on Two Fronts

WATCH: The Lasting Impact of War

After storming across Europe in the first three years of the war, overextended Axis forces were put on the defensive after the Soviet Red Army rebuffed them in the brutal Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943. The fierce battle for the city named after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin resulted in nearly two million casualties, including the deaths of tens of thousands of Stalingrad residents.

As Soviet troops began to advance on the Eastern Front, the Western Allies invaded Sicily and southern Italy, causing the fall of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s government in July 1943. The Allies then opened a Western Front with the amphibious D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. After gaining a foothold in northern France, Allied troops liberated Paris on August 25 followed by Brussels less than two weeks later.

READ MORE: 8 Things You Should Know About WWII's Eastern Front

2. Battle of the Bulge

Germany found itself squeezed on both sides as Soviet troops advanced into Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania while the Western Allies continued to push eastward. Forced to fight a two-front war with dwindling resources, an increasingly desperate Hitler authorized a last-ditch offensive on the Western Front in hopes of splitting the Allied lines. The Nazis launched a surprise attack along an 80-mile, densely wooded stretch of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and Luxembourg on December 16, 1944.

The German onslaught caused the Allied line to bulge, but it would not break during six weeks of fighting in subzero conditions that left soldiers suffering from hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot. American forces withstood the full might of what was left of Germany’s power but lost approximately 20,000 men in what was their deadliest single battle in World War II. What became known as the Battle of the Bulge would turn out to be Germany’s last gasp as the Soviet Red Army launched a winter offensive on the Eastern Front that would have them at the Oder River, less than 50 miles from the German capital of Berlin, by the spring.

READ MORE: How American Grit Defeated Hitler's Last-Ditch Strike

3. Germany Surrenders

After the firebombing of Dresden and other German cities that killed tens of thousands of civilians, the Western Allies crossed the Rhine River and moved eastward toward Berlin. As they closed in on the capital, Allied troops discovered the horror of the Holocaust as they liberated concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. With both fronts collapsing and defeat inevitable, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker deep below the Reich Chancellery on April 30, 1945.

Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, started peace negotiations and on May 7 authorized General Alfred Jodl to sign an unconditional surrender of all German forces to take effect the following day. Stalin, however, refused to accept the surrender agreement inked at the headquarters of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Reims, France, and forced the Germans to sign another one the following day in Soviet-occupied Berlin.

READ MORE: The Shocking Liberation of Auschwitz: Soviets 'Knew Nothing' as They Approached

4. Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Even after the Allied victory in Europe, World War II continued to rage in the Pacific Theater. American forces had made a slow, but steady push toward Japan after turning the course of the war with victory at the June 1942 Battle of the Midway. The Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the winter and spring of 1945 were among the bloodiest of the war, and the American military projected that as many as 1 million casualties would accompany any invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Weeks after the first successful test of the atomic bomb occurred in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, President Harry Truman, who had ascended to the presidency less than four months earlier after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized its use against Japan in the hopes of bringing a swift end to the war. On August 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the manufacturing city of Hiroshima, immediately killing an estimated 80,000 people. Tens of thousands later died of radiation exposure. When Japan failed to immediately surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima, the United States detonated an even more powerful atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later that killed 35,000 instantly and another 50,000 in its aftermath.

PHOTOS: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Before and After

5. Soviets Declare War, Japan Surrenders

In addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan came under increasing pressure when the Soviet Union formally declared war on August 8 and invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria in northeastern China. With his Imperial Council deadlocked, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito broke the tie and decided that his country must surrender. At noon on August 15 (Japanese time), the emperor announced Japan’s surrender in his first-ever radio broadcast.

On September 2, World War II ended when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay along with a flotilla of more than 250 Allied warships.

At the signing of the agreement that brought an end to 2,194 days of global war, MacArthur told the world in a radio broadcast, “Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won.”

SEE MORE: World War II Ends: 22 Photos of Giddy Celebration After Allied Victory

The Allied Push to Berlin

The war in Europe concluded with an invasion of Germany by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, culminating in the capture of Berlin by Soviet and Polish troops and the subsequent German unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the last weeks of the war and the final days of the Nazi Regime

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • By the time the Allied forces launched an invasion of Germany from the Western and Eastern front, Allied victory in Europe was inevitable.
  • Having gambled his future ability to defend Germany on the Ardennes offensive and lost, Hitler had no strength left to stop the powerful Allied armies.
  • In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across western Germany, while Soviet and Polish forces stormed Berlin in late April.
  • On April 30, 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signalling the military defeat of Nazi Germany.
  • On that same day, Hitler committed suicide and was succeeded by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz.
  • As the Allies advanced on Germany, they began to discover the extent of the Holocaust and liberated many concentration camps along their route.

Key Terms

  • Battle of Berlin: The final major offensive of the European theatre of World War II when the Soviet Red Army invaded Berlin, Germany.
  • Eva Braun: The longtime companion of Adolf Hitler and for less than 40 hours, his wife.
  • Joseph Goebbels: A German politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 one of Adolf Hitler’s close associates and most devoted followers, he was known for his skills in public speaking and his deep and virulent antisemitism, which led to his support of the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust.


On December 16, 1944, Germany made a last attempt on the Western Front by using most of its remaining reserves to launch a massive counter-offensive in the Ardennes to split the Western Allies, encircle large portions of Western Allied troops, and capture their primary supply port at Antwerp to prompt a political settlement. By January, the offensive was repulsed with no strategic objectives fulfilled. In Italy, the Western Allies remained stalemated at the German defensive line. In mid-January 1945, the Soviets and Poles attacked in Poland, pushing from the Vistula to the Oder river in Germany, and overran East Prussia. On February 4, U.S., British, and Soviet leaders met for the Yalta Conference. They agreed on the occupation of post-war Germany and when the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan.

In February, the Soviets entered Silesia and Pomerania, while Western Allies entered western Germany and closed to the Rhine river. By March, the Western Allies crossed the Rhine north and south of the Ruhr, encircling the German Army Group B, while the Soviets advanced to Vienna. In early April, the Western Allies finally pushed forward in Italy and swept across western Germany, while Soviet and Polish forces stormed Berlin in late April. American and Soviet forces joined on Elbe river on April 25. On April 30, 1945, the Reichstag was captured, signalling the military defeat of Nazi Germany.

Several changes in leadership occurred during this period. On April 12, President Roosevelt died and was succeeded by Harry Truman. Benito Mussolini was killed by Italian partisans on April 28. Two days later, as the Battle of Berlin raged above him, realizing that all was lost and not wishing to suffer Mussolini’s fate, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Führerbunker along with Eva Braun, his long-term partner whom he married less than 40 hours before their joint suicide. In his will, Hitler dismissed Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, his second-in-command, and Interior minister Heinrich Himmler after each of them separately tried to seize control of the crumbling Third Reich. Hitler appointed his successors as follows Großadmiral Karl Dönitz as the new Reichspräsident (“President of Germany”) and Joseph Goebbels as the new Reichskanzler (Chancellor of Germany). However, Goebbels committed suicide the following day, leaving Dönitz as the sole leader of Germany.

German forces surrendered in Italy on April 29. Total and unconditional surrender was signed on May 7 to be effective by the end of May 8. German Army Group Centre resisted in Prague until May 11.

At the end of the war, millions of people were homeless, the European economy had collapsed, and much of the European industrial infrastructure had been destroyed.

The Western Allied Invasion of Germany

The Western Allied invasion of Germany was coordinated by the Western Allies during the final months of hostilities in the European theater of World War II. The Allied invasion of Germany started with the Western Allies crossing the River Rhine in March 1945 before overrunning all of western Germany from the Baltic in the north to Austria in the south before the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945. This is known as the “Central Europe Campaign” in United States military histories and is often considered the end of the second World War in Europe.

By the beginning of the Central Europe Campaign, Allied victory in Europe was inevitable. Having gambled his future ability to defend Germany on the Ardennes offensive and lost, Hitler had no strength left to stop the powerful Allied armies. The Western Allies still had to fight, often bitterly, for victory. Even when the hopelessness of the German situation became obvious to his most loyal subordinates, Hitler refused to admit defeat. Only when Soviet artillery was falling around his Berlin headquarters bunker did he begin to perceive the final outcome.

The crossing of the Rhine, the encirclement and reduction of the Ruhr, and the sweep to the Elbe-Mulde line and the Alps all established the final campaign on the Western Front as a showcase for Allied superiority in maneuver warfare. Drawing on the experience gained during the campaign in Normandy and the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine, the Western Allies demonstrated in Central Europe their capability to absorb the lessons of the past. By attaching mechanized infantry units to armored divisions, they created a hybrid of strength and mobility that served them well in the pursuit warfare through Germany. Key to the effort was the logistical support that kept these forces fueled and the determination to maintain the forward momentum at all costs. These mobile forces made great thrusts to isolate pockets of German troops, which were mopped up by additional infantry following close behind. The Allies rapidly eroded any remaining ability to resist.

The Battle of Berlin

The Battle of Berlin, designated the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation by the Soviet Union, was the final major offensive of the European theater of World War II.

Following the Vistula–Oder Offensive of January–February 1945, the Red Army temporarily halted on a line 37 miles east of Berlin. When the offensive resumed on April 16, two Soviet army groups attacked Berlin from the east and south, while a third overran German forces positioned north of Berlin.

The first defensive preparations at the outskirts of Berlin were made on March 20 under the newly appointed commander of Army Group Vistula, General Gotthard Heinrici. Before the main battle in Berlin commenced, the Red Army encircled the city after successful battles of the Seelow Heights and Halbe. On April 20, 1945, the 1st Belorussian Front led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov started shelling Berlin’s city center, while Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front pushed from the south through the last formations of Army Group Centre. Defenses in Berlin’s city center were mainly led by General Helmuth Weidling. These units consisted of several depleted and disorganized Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions, along with poorly trained Volkssturm and Hitler Youth members. Within the next few days, the Red Army reached the city center, where close-quarters combat raged.

The city’s garrison surrendered to Soviet forces on May 2, but fighting continued to the northwest, west, and southwest of the city until the end of the war in Europe on May 8 as German units fought westward so that they could surrender to the Western Allies rather than to the Soviets.

Battle of Berlin: After the battle, Soviet soldiers hoist the Soviet flag on the balcony of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin

Liberation of Concentration Camps

As the Allies advanced on Germany, they began to discover the extent of the Holocaust. The first major camp to be encountered by Allied troops, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on July 23, 1944. Chełmno was liberated by the Soviets on January 20, 1945. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on January 27, 1945 Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11 Bergen-Belsen by the British on April 15 Dachau by the Americans on April 29 Ravensbrück by the Soviets on the same day Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5 and Theresienstadt by the Soviets on May 8. Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Colonel William W. Quinn of the US Seventh Army said of Dachau: “There our troops found sights, sounds, and stenches horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.”

In most of the camps discovered by the Soviets, almost all the prisoners had already been removed, leaving only a few thousand alive—7,600 inmates were found in Auschwitz, including 180 children who had been experimented on by doctors. Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division, 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks. The British forced the remaining SS guards to gather up the corpses and place them in mass graves.

The BBC’s Richard Dimbleby described the scenes that greeted him and the British Army at Belsen:

Liberation: Starving prisoners in Mauthausen camp liberated on May 5, 1945.

The difference between VE Day and Victory Day

In the Soviet Union, VE Day was instead known as Victory Day. It was first celebrated on May 9, when the second surrender in Berlin was announced. Because of the two-hour time difference between Berlin and Moscow, the surrender took place during the early hours of May 9, though it had commenced on May 8.

Because two separate surrender ceremonies took place, Britain, the U.S. and most of Western Europe continue to mark VE Day on May 8, while the Russian Federation and many nations in Eastern Europe commemorate Victory Day on May 9.

On June 24, 1945, a grand Victory Day Parade was held in Red Square, Moscow, to honor the victory, with Stalin and Zhukov presiding. The spectacle also featured 200 captured Nazi banners, which were "piled up against the wall of the Kremlin," wrote historian Geoffrey Roberts in his book "Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov" (Icon Books, 2012). In 1995, another grand parade was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Victory Day.

Events marking the 75th anniversary of Victory Day in 2020 were delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, The Moscow Times reported.

Similarly, official U.K. plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day in 2020 were canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

To learn more about some of history's most important battles, subscribe toAll About History andHistory of War magazines.

The World War II You Don’t Know

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the conflict’s end, a special section that grew out of a yearlong project brings to light overlooked stories of bravery and adversity.

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

Some of the most enduring images of World War II come from the Holocaust, the blitzkrieg, the Battle of Iwo Jima and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stories about the six-year global conflict that killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians often surround these events, but they are hardly the only ones.

About 75 years ago, on Sept. 2, 1945, hostilities formally ended when Allied powers and Chinese and Japanese government officials signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. This weekend, The New York Times is marking the anniversary with a 24-page special section, “Unsung History.”

The section is a culmination of the series “Beyond the World War II We Know,” which since January has documented lesser-known stories about the war and its aftermath through original reporting and first-person accounts. Inside the section are stories about the all-female, all-Black mail battalion who ran the fastest and most reliable mail directory in the European Theater about Black troops who returned from the war only to confront more racism at home and about Japanese-Americans who moved from internment camps to a shabby trailer camp in Burbank, Calif.

Contributors to the section included Times journalists Alexander Chee, a Korean-American author and essayist Yoko Ogawa, a Japanese novelist and short-story writer and the actor, writer and producer Tom Hanks.

Lauren Katzenberg, who heads The Times’s At War team, and Dan Saltzstein, deputy editor for Special Sections, led the entire project. The number of people who could still provide eyewitness accounts is diminishing all the time, Mr. Saltzstein said, adding, “This is probably the last chance we’re going to be able to hear from them.”

The team wanted to push beyond the “typical, expected World War II coverage,” he said. On Oct. 31, The Times invited readers who served in the war, or whose family members did, to share stories and photographs via a form on the Times website. About 500 responses poured in, Ms. Katzenberg said. “It was just really incredible to get such a response, and to read everyone’s stories,” she said.

On Jan. 7, The Times published another invitation, this one aimed at civilians from anywhere in the world who lived through the war. Over 140 responses rolled in. Jake Nevins, who was the editorial fellow at The New York Times Magazine, wrote several accounts based on responses from readers and interviews with them. Three of these accounts appear in the section.

For the special task of writing the section’s introduction, Mr. Saltzstein approached Mr. Hanks, who has worked extensively to chronicle the war through films and television series like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific” and, most recently, “Greyhound.”

Mr. Hanks agreed to write the introduction, in which he explores the legacy of the war. “World War II and its history is something that Tom Hanks is really invested in,” Ms. Katzenberg said, adding, “We were really thrilled to have him on board.”

In order to include “the creative perspective,” Mr. Saltzstein said, he asked Mr. Chee, the Korean-American author, to contribute. In his essay, he wrote that his grandfather had told him that he dreamed in Japanese, and that eventually Mr. Chee learned that this was because the Japanese tried to systematically erase Korea’s culture during its occupation of the country from 1910 to 1945.

Mr. Saltzstein said he also wanted to invite a writer who could offer a distinctly Japanese point of view. Ms. Ogawa, who has written many novels in Japanese — only a few of which have been translated into English — contributed an essay about how literature is essential to retaining memories of the atomic bombings. She writes only in Japanese, so a translator, Stephen Snyder, worked with The Times to translate her correspondence and her essay into English, Mr. Saltzstein said. Versions of her essay were published online in English and in Japanese — and the Japanese version has attracted more readers, he said.

Mixed in with the text in the special section are dozens of archival photographs that readers are unlikely to have seen. Anika Burgess, a Times photo editor, found these photographs by searching The Times’s archives. She also found photographs from Getty Images, The Associated Press, museums and universities, Ms. Katzenberg said.

“We really wanted to talk about the history through a different lens,” she said, “and that also meant finding photography to go with those stories, which was at times really challenging. But Anika was able to track down excellent photography for every single story that we did.”

Working on the project “was often moving,” Mr. Saltzstein said. Having what is probably one of the last chances to hear from eyewitnesses was “a terrific responsibility on our part, and it had a deep effect on me,” he added.

Ms. Katzenberg took satisfaction in including not only unknown acts of bravery but also darker narratives that have been overlooked. “In remembering war,” she said, “we have to recognize those moments, too only then can we come to terms with a conflict’s true costs.”

How and when did the Second World War end?

While 2 September 1945 is generally recognised as the final, official end of the Second World War, in many parts of the world fighting continued long beyond that date. And, given the vast scale of the war, which involved troops from every part of the world, it did not simultaneously come to an end everywhere. Instead, it ended in stages. Historian Keith Lowe explains how and when the war officially concluded, and asks – how important were the atomic bombs dropped over Japan in ending WW2?

This competition is now closed

Published: September 1, 2020 at 2:25 pm

The Second World War was a gigantic struggle that involved troops from every part of the world. Fighting took place on several different continents and oceans, but the main theatres of conflict were in Europe and in the far east. The war did not come to an end everywhere at the same time, rather it ended in stages.

When did WW2 end in Europe?

In Europe, the beginning of the end came in 1943 when the Allies finally began to turn the tide against the Nazis and their collaborators. In the west, Allied troops successfully invaded Sicily and southern Italy that summer. The following year, France was liberated after the D-Day landings, and the long, slow drive into Belgium and the Netherlands also began. In most places, the arrival of Allied troops was accompanied by wild celebrations, because local populations understood that, while the conflict was still raging elsewhere, for them the war was over.

In eastern Europe, the beginning of 1943 also marked the point when Soviet troops turned the tide against the Germans at the battle of Stalingrad. Over the next two years the Red Army gradually drove the Germans from Soviet territory, and then began to push forward for the liberation of their neighbours. In contrast to western Europe, however, there were few celebrations at their arrival. Most eastern Europeans still regarded the USSR as a hostile country. Some, like Hungary and Romania, had spent most of the war fighting against the Soviets as allies of Nazi Germany. Others, like Poland and the Baltic States, simply did not trust them. They had been invaded by the USSR at the start of the war, when the USSR was still allied to Germany, and so were not inclined to view the return of the Red Army as a ‘liberation’.

By the spring of 1945 the Allies had closed in on Germany from both sides. Adolf Hitler, realising that his cause was hopeless, committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on 30 April. From that moment, events moved fairly quickly. German troops in northwest Europe surrendered to the British at Lüneburg Heath on 4 May. A formal surrender of all the remaining German forces took place three days later, in the French city of Reims. However, the Soviets did not recognise this event, so a final surrender document was signed in Berlin the following night, on 8 May.

The official time on the ‘Act of Military Surrender’ was 23.01 on 8 May 1945, which, because of the time difference, was already 9 May in Moscow. For this reason, countries in western Europe have always celebrated the anniversary of VE Day on 8 May while the Russians still celebrate ‘Victory Day’ on 9 May.

When did WW2 end in the far east?

Once the war in Europe was over, the Allies could turn all their attention to fighting in the far east. Here, as in Europe, the war ended in stages.

In the Pacific, the war turned in America’s favour in June 1942, when the US Navy defeated the Japanese at the battle of Midway. Over the next three years the Allies clawed their way back across the Pacific, liberating islands one at a time, often at great cost to both sides.

By February 1945, the Americans had finally made it to the fringes of Japan. US Marines first set foot on Japanese soil at the remote island of Iwo Jima, followed by the attack on Okinawa six weeks later. Fighting on these two islands was so fierce, and so costly, that American leaders began to fear that the final defeat of Japan might cost them hundreds of thousands of casualties. In the meantime, the British, the Americans and the Chinese were fighting equally vicious battles against Japanese troops in Burma and central China.

Listen as historian Saul David revisits one of the bloodiest clashes of the Pacific War and explains how it played a crucial part in the United States’ decision to use atomic weapons against Japan:

In the summer of 1945, therefore, American leaders sought an alternative way to defeat the Japanese. On 16 July they had successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, and plans were made to use two such bombs on Japanese cities. Despite some disagreement from the atomic scientists themselves, President Truman steadfastly believed that this was the only way to persuade the Japanese to capitulate swiftly.

On 6 August an atom bomb was dropped over the city of Hiroshima. In a matter of moments the entire city was destroyed, and around 78,000 people were killed instantly. Many more would die in the years to come from the effects of nuclear radiation – by the end of 1945 the death toll had reached approximately 140,000. Three days later a second bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, with similar results. Around 35,000 people died instantly and the final death toll was calculated as at least 50,000.

Understanding that his armed forces had no response to this terrifying new weapon, Japanese emperor Hirohito prepared a speech, which he broadcast to the nation on 15 August. Although he never used the word ‘surrender’, he announced that he had told his government to accept the demands of the Allies. The alternative, he made clear, was the complete “collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation”. All over Asia and the Pacific, Japanese troops began to lay down their weapons.

As a consequence of this speech, 15 August 1945 is officially commemorated as the anniversary of VJ Day in Britain and Korea, and unofficially so across much of Asia. However, a formal surrender document was not signed until 2 September aboard the American battleship, USS Missouri. This later date is considered the anniversary of VJ Day in the USA.

On this podcast, Keith Lowe examines the struggles that faced postwar Europe:

Continued violence after the war

It is worth noting that, while 2 September 1945 is generally recognised as the final, official end of the Second World War, in many parts of the world fighting continued long beyond that date.

Parts of Europe were left in such chaos that they often fell victim to other forms of violence indistinguishable from the main war. In the Baltic States, for example, which had been invaded by the Soviets at the start of the war, nationalist partisans resisted the return of Soviet troops in 1945. A form of guerrilla war continued here well into the 1950s. According to Valdas Adamkus, the former president of Lithuania, the Second World War did not truly come to an end until the last Soviet troops withdrew from the Baltic States in the early 1990s.

Similar events happened on one or two islands in the Pacific, where isolated groups of Japanese soldiers refused to believe that the emperor had surrendered. Some continued hiding in the forests for years after 1945. One famous case was Hiro Onoda, who spent 29 years fighting a lonely guerrilla campaign on Lubang Island in the Philippines. He did not surrender until 1974, when his former commanding officer flew to the Philippines and ordered him to do so.

Keith Lowe is the author of The Fear and the Freedom: Why the Second World War Still Matters (Penguin, 2018) and the international bestseller Savage Continent, which won the PEN/Hessell-Titlman Prize and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize. His latest book, Prisoners of History, is a study of Second World War monuments around the world, and what each of these monuments say about the societies that put them up. It is published on 9 July 2020. You can find him on Twitter @KeithLoweAuthor


Today, three out of five Americans are overweight, and one in five is obese—that is, a body mass index over 30. And as obesity rates continue to rise, especially among American children, this health crisis has never felt more urgent.

But it’s important to know our collective fattening didn’t happen overnight.

The adult obesity rate in the U.S. increased by 214 percent between 1950 and 2000, in large part due to the unprecedented economic, technological, and cultural shifts rippling through America in the wake of World War II. 1 The war was over, the allies won. We all got fat.

Emerging from a period of patriotic scrimping and sacrificing, the U.S. post-war era became an age of total expansion—there was an economic boom, a baby boom, and a hungry consumer class driving it. It wasn’t much of a shock when the American waistline expanded right along with everything else.

Between 1940 and 1950, the country’s GDP rose from $100 billion to $288 billion. By 1960, it had reached $515 billion Americans were experiencing the largest expansion in the nation’s history. 2

Soon there was a car in nearly every middle-class driveway, drastically reducing our daily amounts of physical activity labor-saving appliances like washing machines and microwaves turned into middle-class staples television sets found their way into the nation’s living rooms.

And then there was the food itself. Postwar tech and economic changes meant a whole new kind of diet. WWII left the government with a large quantity of unused ammonium nitrate and poison gases – what became America’s fertilizer and pesticides. 3 These chemicals were a pivotal part of creating a huge food surplus and a market for cheap, high-calorie foods—especially anything with corn. Consider the potato chip: in 1945 per capita consumption was at 1.91 pounds, in 1955 it was at 2.56 pounds of chips.

TV shows and the ads swarming around them promoted easy, unhealthy foods like popcorn, pork rinds, and cheese crackers. Soon supermarkets – the suburb’s food hub – stocked their shelves with everything salty, fried or sweet. 4

But these ads weren’t simply selling junk food. They were marketing the entire suburban way of life. Stuffed refrigerators and snack-bearing moms with oversized smiles became the symbols of domestic well-being. And once the taste was acquired, it stuck – and the weight stuck too. Overexposed to fast and cheap junk food, obesity became the problem we all know so well. Today the infrastructure and appetites that make us overweight are firmly in place with little to no sign of their origins. 5

1 Bird, Beverly. “How Much Have Obesity Rates Risen Since 1950?” Demand Media, Inc., 26 May 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

2 “The U.S. Economy: Key Data.” The Public Perspective Nov.-Dec. 1992: 22-27. The Public Perspective. Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

3 Will, George F. “Corn as a Health Issue.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 08 Mar. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

4 Crum, Madeleine. “How World War II Changed The Way Americans Ate.” The Huffington Post., Inc., 03 Apr. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

5 McKenzie, Richard B. “Free to Be Fat.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC, 23 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.


American refugee policy in the post-war period was driven by conflicting tendencies towards isolationist restrictionism and Cold War internationalism. The former approach was staunchly advocated by powerful figures in Congress and important organs of public opinion, for example, the Chicago Tribune.

The deepening of east-west conflict in the early years of the Cold War provided the context for subsequent US legislation.

In 1948 the Displaced Persons Act, primarily inspired by anti-Communism, finally led to a relaxation of US immigration policy. The US Escapee Program was established in the same year, and offered sanctuary to a limited number of refugees from Communist countries.

The deepening of east-west conflict in the early years of the Cold War provided the context for subsequent US legislation. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 provided for the admission over three years of 214,000 refugees - of these, it was laid down that 186,000 should be from Communist countries.

By 1959 some 900,000 European refugees had been absorbed by west European countries. In addition, 461,000 had been accepted by the USA, and a further 523,000 by other countries. But many 'hard-core' refugees still remained in camps. At that point the United Nations launched an ambitious effort to resolve the refugee problem once and for all.

World Refugee Year, in 1959-1960, was designed as a 'clear the camps' drive. It achieved some significant results - at any rate in Europe. By the end of 1960, for the first time since before World War Two, all the refugee camps of Europe were closed.

But the global refugee problem was far from solved. In Africa and Asia millions of fugitives from persecution, hunger, and natural disasters continued to scramble for secure homes. Europe, hitherto mainly an exporter of refugees, henceforth became a net importer. Today the United Nations estimates that over 17 million asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people are seeking homes worldwide.

How Did World War I Lead to World War II?

The terms on which World War I ended set the stage for World War II, which began just 20 years later, by negatively impacting the belligerent countries politically, economically and socially. The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I in 1919, was an instrument of vengeance against the Central Powers, and dissatisfaction over its terms left the defeated nations vulnerable to extremist movements promising revenge.

Germany was dealt with especially harshly. The country, which had only been unified 50 years earlier, was forced to cede over 10 percent of its home territory and all of its overseas possessions. Germany was required to take full responsibility for World War I and agreed to pay crushing reparations that the fragile domestic economy couldn't hope to sustain. Militarist Germans were further insulted by the extreme restrictions on the size and composition of the post-war German army and navy.

Politically, the former German Empire was in chaos. The Kaiser's 1918 abdication left a power vacuum that extremist parties rushed to fill. By 1931, the largest political party in Germany was the Communists, with the extremist Nazi Party a close second. Dictatorship, militarism, a sense of grievance and severe economic hardship eventually made the Nazis' message of redemption attractive enough to set Europe back on the road to war.

World War II in the Pacific

Click through this timeline to better understand how the Axis and Allies engaged in conflict throughout the Pacific between 1935 and 1945.

Social Studies, World History

A "theatre" of conflict is the geographic place where military events occur. World War II had two primary theatres: The European Theatre and the Pacific Theatre.

The Pacific Theatre of World War II was largely defined by the territories of the Empire of Japan. At its peak, the empire stretched throughout eastern China, southeast Asia, the islands of Oceania, and even the Aleutian islands in North America.

Click through this timeline to see how battles dotted the Pacific Theatre between 1931 and 1945, and how the U.S. entry into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor radically altered the war&rsquos progress.


Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society
Melissa MacPhee, National Geographic Society
Meghan Modafferi, National Geographic Society


Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society


Adapted from World War II Timeline © 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

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World War II in Europe

Click through this timeline to better understand how the Axis and Allies engaged in conflict in Europe between 1935 and 1945.

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European Borders Through History

Students compare maps of European borders at three points in history: after World War I, after World War II, and the 2011 European Union (EU) countries. Students look for political borders that have changed and others that have remained the same, and compare those to what they know about cultural and physical geography in Europe and in their own state or local area.

Related Resources

World War II in Europe

Click through this timeline to better understand how the Axis and Allies engaged in conflict in Europe between 1935 and 1945.

Compare and Contrast Historical Maps of Europe

Students compare and contrast maps of European borders at three points in history: after World War I, after World War II, and the 2011 European Union countries. Students analyze borders that have changed and others that have remained the same.

European Borders Through History

Students compare maps of European borders at three points in history: after World War I, after World War II, and the 2011 European Union (EU) countries. Students look for political borders that have changed and others that have remained the same, and compare those to what they know about cultural and physical geography in Europe and in their own state or local area.

Tiny Tinian Played a Big Role in World War II’s End

WE STOOD AT THE END OF RUNWAY ABLE at the northern tip of Tinian in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Islands and looked at a wooden 2ࡪ, not quite seven feet tall, jutting straight up out of the tarmac. An arrow pointed south, to our left, toward the start of the runway. To our right, 100 feet away, the runway ended. Just beyond, a small patch of vegetation kept us from seeing the ocean lapping at Tinian’s shore.

Nearly 75 years earlier—at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945—Colonel Paul Tibbets’s B-29 Enola Gay began its takeoff roll down this very runway. It was weighted down with 7,000 gallons of fuel, two extra crew members, and a 9,500-pound bomb—“Little Boy,” the world’s first atomic weapon destined for a live target.

The heavy load meant Tibbets had to accelerate longer than usual before reaching takeoff speed. Speaking to our group, historian Don Farrell, who lives on Tinian, said, “Tibbets was determined to get that plane in the air,” and that crew members have told him of the incredible tension aboard the bomber. In his memoir, Tibbets described “using every inch of the runway.”

When the plane reached the spot marked by the arrow on the 2ࡪ, its nose lifted. It was airborne, rising above the Philippine Sea. Six and a half hours and 1,570 miles later, Enola Gay dropped its bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, helping to bring an end to World War II, ushering in the nuclear age, and forever changing the course of human history.

B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay returns to Tinian on August 6, 1945, after dropping the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. (National Archives)

I had come to Tinian with my father-in-law, Louis Barker, on a different sort of mission. Louis, 86, wanted to see the remote island where his father, Lloyd Barker, served as a U.S. Navy Seabee in World War II. The Seabees were usually older volunteers with blue-collar skills that the navy put to work paving roads and tarmacs, erecting buildings, and repairing jeeps, tanks, and planes. Lloyd joined the Seabees at age 36.

A guided tour around Guam, Saipan, and Tinian greatly added to our understanding of the 1944 fight for the Marianas these critical victories enabled American B-29 bombers to reach the Japanese homeland. But the trip only allocated half a day on Tinian, which wasn’t enough for us. After the group left the island, we stayed behind, hiring our own tour guide, booking our own hotel, and arranging our return home.

For a tiny island of fewer than 40 square miles, Tinian has a complex history. Its first people, the Chamorro, live on Tinian and the other Mariana Islands to this day. Ferdinand Magellan landed on the islands in 1521, spawning centuries of outside rule. After World War I, Japan temporarily ousted the indigenous people and established a thriving sugar cane industry, which ended as World War II ramped up.

Seizing Tinian’s airfield was a primary goal of the 1944 U.S. invasion, when Marines swarmed the island’s northern beaches. (Dan Fost)

The bloody invasions of Saipan and Guam in June and July 1944 cost many thousands of American and Japanese lives. U.S. military planners chose a different approach for Tinian. They organized a successful diversionary attack, sending two Marine regiments and six warships toward a natural landing spot, a broad harbor near Tinian’s southwestern tip. When the Japanese spotted the Americans cruising past the northern coast on their way from Saipan, all hands raced to the southern harbor to join the fight. As the warships shelled Japanese defenses, Marines boarded landing craft and approached the southern beaches—then returned to their transports and reembarked. Although heavy Japanese shellfire killed 62 and wounded another 223 sailors and Marines, the feint worked perfectly—the defenders were diverted from the actual site of the full-scale invasion: two small beaches in the north.

We visited each of the beaches, and it was easy to see how the Japanese took the bait. At the scene of the diversionary attack, a broad, inviting harbor welcomed the Marines south of what is now downtown San Jose—the only municipality on the island.

Only one Japanese cannon remains in situ on Tinian, at the edge of a cave overlooking the large southern beach. Another local guide, Deborah Fleming, who escorted Louis and me on our second day, took us to see the weathered weapon, aimed for the last 75 years toward the harbor.

A Japanese cannon still points toward the southern harbor. (Dan Fost)

The main assault, mounted by Marines of the Fourth Division, soon landed at the lightly defended northern beaches and took over the nearby airfield. It took another week for the Marines, with support from the navy and Army Air Forces, to ultimately rout the remaining Japanese. The U.S. landed 42,000 troops in all, losing fewer than 400 lives and an additional 1,600 wounded. The Japanese lost nearly their entire complement of soldiers—about 9,000.

Once the U.S. took control of Tinian, it made the most of the strategic island. Seventy-five thousand men lived there at its peak. Naval Construction Battalions, made of Seabees like Lloyd Barker, built coral runways that enabled, within a few months, thousands of B-29s to take off on bombing missions, making Tinian the busiest airport in the world.

Military planners noted that the island’s size and shape bore a resemblance to another island back in America, between the Hudson and East Rivers. In homage, they laid out a grid of streets that to this day bear the names of those in New York City. Louis has photos of his father mugging for the camera at the intersection of Broadway and 64th Street with nary a skyscraper in sight. Coincidentally, the street names unwittingly foreshadowed Tinian’s most crucial role: as a second home to the top-secret Manhattan Project.

At its peak, the Manhattan Project placed 100 people on Tinian during 1945, including Robert Oppenheimer’s lieutenant, Norman Ramsey. Historian Farrell noted that Ramsey and his team were still finalizing details on how exactly the atomic bomb would work. After we saw the takeoff point at Runway Able, we drove to the runway ’s start and peered into the bomb bays. Hydraulic lifts, just like those that elevate a car so a mechanic can work beneath it, raised the bombs into the planes’ cargo holds.

The bomb pits are among the very few wartime relics remaining on Tinian. If you know where to look, however, you can find things. Tour guide Fleming has the nose of a B-29 that her brother found in the jungle in the 1960s. Out near Runway Able, Fleming also took us to a bombed Japanese fuel depot. When the American shells hit, hundreds of barrels of jet fuel went up in flames. “You can’t imagine the inferno,” she said. The rusted, burned-out barrels still fill the decaying concrete building, now covered in roots and vines like King Louie’s palace in Disney’s 1967 film, The Jungle Book.

Similarly, the foundations or frames of a handful of other buildings also stand, empty shells only hinting at the Japanese or Americans who occupied them. “Time, termites, and typhoons take their toll,” Fleming told us.

The island is sprinkled with a few significant monuments and memorials. Farrell believes the memorial to American servicemen, on Eighth Avenue on the island’s northwest side, was the first erected any where in the world after World War II. There’s a newer memorial to each branch of the service in San Jose, near a Japanese peace memorial.

Of special interest to Louis was the Seabee memorial at Broadway and 84th Street, a spare concrete block with a map of Tinian showing where each Seabee battalion was quartered. A flagpole reconstructed after 2018’s Typhoon Yutu is still missing its pulley and a flag.

Lloyd Barker served in the Seabees’ 38th Naval Construction Battalion. A map in Farrell’s 2018 book, Tinian and the Bomb, revealed that they bunked near 59th Street, not far from Island Command. Fleming took us to the spot we craned our necks to look past jungle vines over to some tall coconut trees standing on the likely location of Lloyd’s Quonset hut. Nearby was Army Air Forces general Curtis LeMay’s mansion, which Fleming said was opulently decked out with stained glass windows. Now all that marks the spot is a lone plane tree rising from the jungle.

The author traveled with his father-in-law, whose own father (above) served on Tinian as a Seabee in 1944-45. (Photo courtesy of Louis Barker)

The reference to the mansion, however, jibes with a story Louis remembers his dad telling him. One day in the summer of 1945, Lloyd and other enlisted men noticed an admiral, then another, and then another. While security fears prohibited letting lowly Seabees in on the secret, the presence of those commanders pointed to the imminent launch of the newest, most destructive weapon ever known to humanity, the atomic bomb.

Visiting Tinian proved an emotional experience for Louis. His father died of a heart attack at age 58 in 1963, barely a year after Louis’s daughter—my wife—was born. Standing at the corner of 59th Street and Broadway, staring at an overgrown field once home to scores of Seabees living in Quonset huts, Louis could feel himself in his father’s footsteps. He shed a few tears and was ready to head for home. ✯


To get to Tinian, you need to travel via Guam or Saipan. From Saipan, the closer option, Star Marianas Air offers numerous daily 15-minute flights for less than $100 on four- or six-seat Cherokees. Travel on Tinian, including tours led by Don Farrell or Deborah Fleming, can be booked through Gordon Marciano (email [email protected]) at tour company Pacific Development Inc. (Beyond Band of Brothers, the group we toured with, has recently suspended operations.)

Where to Stay and Eat:

Tinian offers a few small no-frills hotels: Lorilynn Hotel is clean and comfortable Tinian Oceanview Hotel is opposite a small beach and tour guide Deborah Fleming operates the Fleming Hotel. (The hotels can be found on Tripadvisor.) The primary restaurant, JC Café, where we ate all our meals, has offerings ranging from Chinese food to standard American diner fare. We also bought food at one of several small markets in San Jose.

What Else to See and Do:

Along with the wartime sites, Tinian features several coastal blowholes and outstanding snorkeling and scuba diving. The island makes an excellent side trip from Guam and Saipan, which have well-developed tourist infrastructures the War in the Pacific National Historical Park has outposts on both.

This article was published in the August 2020 issue of World War II.

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