Accessibility links

Breaking News

Today's World Was Shaped by World War II

Sunday, May 8 is the 60th anniversary of VE Day -- the day that the Allies accepted the surrender of the Germans in World War II. Many historians say that this marked the beginning of today's modern era, and in many ways the world still lives in the shadow of the events of the war.

It has been 60 years since the end of World War II in Europe. Yet, the world still bears the scars of that war.

History Professor Joseph McCartin of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, says, "It's unlikely that the world will ever see a war again like World War II - a six-year war that involved most of the world."

Ronald Spector, Professor of History at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. adds, "It was the largest war in terms of number of people engaged and in terms of the amount of wealth that went into it."

He notes that World War II was unprecedented. Over 50 million people, most of them civilians, were killed. Professor Spector suggests that one major cause of the cataclysm was worldwide economic hardship. "The great depression at the beginning of the 1930s provided an opportunity for extremist parties to come to power," adds the professor.

And the extremists didn't hesitate to attack other countries. Adolph Hilter's Fascist movement in Germany and the Japanese Imperialists conquered huge amounts of territory. This aggression finally brought the United States into the war when Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The war was fought with advanced weapons of ever-greater destructive power. The Allied forces employed massive bombing, including incendiary 'fire bombs', that killed large numbers of civilians. But it wasn't just the means of killing in World War II that were historic, it was also the intent, as seen when the Germans systematically killed six million European Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

"In terms of world genocides the Holocaust, most historians would say, still ranks as the worst and most momentous event of human slaughter of innocence," says Professor McCartin.

At the end of the war, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, an act that is thought to have shortened the war and saved the lives of U.S. soldiers. It was an event of such frightening proportions that it is thought to have prevented future wars.

"That bomb represented mass destruction that could take place in the future on a level that staggered the human imagination and to some extent may have led to a half century of peace, at least between superpowers," believes Professor McCartin.

After the war, the U.S. proposed the Marshall Plan to fund the massive rebuilding of Europe. It was unusual in history for the victors to so quickly act to help the vanquished and accept their populations as friends. Mr. Spector says, "It was very farsighted, and you could say it represented enlightened self interest on the part of the U.S."

World War II shaped the world we live in today. For example, the political landscape of the Middle East, with the creation of Israel. "It was in the aftermath of the Holocaust that the world community realized the importance of establishing a Jewish homeland," says Joseph McCartin.

"Of course, the partition of Korea, which threatens the world with nuclear war, that comes from the aftermath of World War II. So a lot of these legacies of World War Two are still alive and well," says Mr. Spector.

One legacy has died: the Soviet empire. The Allied victors ultimately were able to shape a new world where democratic government has expanded.

"The war brought to an end, for an example, the idea of imperialism and empire," says Professor McCartin. "World War II provided the moment in which you can see the world we now inhabit beginning to take shape."