World War II in Europe

See also: European history

World War II had two main theatres: while the Pacific War took place in Asia and Oceania, the European theatre, which included North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, saw combat from September 1939 to May 1945. The war was by far the most destructive conflict in European history, in loss of human lives and historic architecture.

Understand

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940

The war in Europe began on September 1, 1939, as Germany invaded Poland, and the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany two days later, as they had declared in advance that they would consider an attack on Poland to be a casus belli.

From September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, which was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. While the Soviets failed to defeat Finland in the Winter War, the western front was brought to a deadlock called the phony war. In spring 1940, Germany swiftly captured Denmark, Norway, the Benelux and France.

The most destructive campaign in Europe was the Eastern Front, where the Axis attacked the Soviet Union. Starting with a sneak attack in June 1941, the Soviet Army retreated to Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg), Moscow and Stalingrad (today's Volgograd). Both sides lost millions of soldiers in a stalemate which lasted until spring 1943, when the Soviets counter-attacked, ending up occupying the eastern half of Europe including Berlin and much of Germany.

The war ended with the unconditional surrender of the Nazis on either May 7 or May 9 of 1945, which is usually celebrated as May 8 in Western countries and May 9 in the former Soviet Union.

During the war, Nazi Germany and other Axis nations conducted a campaign of internment, forced labour, inhuman types of experimentation on captive human subjects that usually ended in their murder, and outright mass murders, today known as the Holocaust. Concentration camps and other remnants from these crimes against humanity are described in the article about Holocaust remembrance.

In the following decades, Europe was divided between two power blocs in a latent conflict known as the Cold War, which ended through the East European revolutions in the late 1980's and early 90's.

Sites

Belgium

Czech Republic

With the emerging danger of Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia built a system of border fortification between 1935 to 1938. As a result of 1938 Munich treaty, the army gave up the resistance efforts and abandoned the defense line. The fortification system is mostly well preserved and can be toured in several locations.

Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1945, with Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia being established at approximately the area of today's Czech republic. The center for Czechoslovak resistance was the government-in-exile in London. They decided to perform an attack at Reinhard Heydrich, the acting Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. British trained Czech soldiers Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík lead the operation. Heydrich was wounded during the assassination on 27 May 1942 and died on 4 June in hospital. The act was followed by a brutal retaliation, during which two entire villages Lidice northwest of Prague and Ležáky in East Bohemia were completely destroyed by German forces. Inhabitants were massacred; men were shot, women taken to concentration camps or killed and children gassed or given over to German families for Germanization. The memorials of the civilian victims tell the story of these war crimes.

France

Germany

As Hitler fought the war to the bitter end (fighting on, long after any chance at military victory was gone) and military innovations (notably bomber airplanes) made this war far more destructive than the one before it, especially for Germany, hardly any place important during the Nazi era was left untouched by the war.

Netherlands

Poland

Poland saw a disproportionally high number of civilian deaths mainly because it was invaded by both the Soviets and the Nazis in the early stage of the war with both trying to "remodel" their part of the country according to their wishes, which in practice meant killing members of all groups that could potentially resist the occupation such as intellectuals politicians and high ranking military. As Poland had a big and thriving Jewish community it was also hit particularly hard by the Shoah, with Poles both aiding the Nazis and helping Jews escape. See Holocaust remembrance#Poland.

Russia

Russia bore the brunt of the fighting and had the most dead (both civilian and military) in the war's European theatre as the Nazis led the war as one of extermination on the Eastern Front. POWs of both sides were mistreated horribly on the Eastern Front and sometimes the surviving Soviet POWs were regarded as "traitors", as having survived the inhumane conditions without "treason" was deemed impossible. And in truth, a large number of Soviet prisoners, especially those from Ukraine the Baltic States and Byelorussia, did indeed jump at the chance to collaborate with the Nazis, for several reasons, including as a way of avoiding the high probability of death as Soviet POWs, hostility to the Soviet Union, and virulent anti-Semitism, as many of the SS "volunteers" among the Soviet POWs and other residents of the aforementioned republics were used to shoot Jews and serve as guards in extermination camps.

Crimea

Scandinavia

Despite Sweden being neutral throughout the war both there and in Norway and Denmark that were occupied by the Nazis, a number of bunkers still exist. Most of them were built after the Nazis took over Norway and many never saw a shot fired in anger, but their presence even in remote areas is somewhat eerie.

Finland, on the other hand, was directly involved in the Second World War fighting two wars against the Soviet Union and one to expel the German troops from Lapland towards the end of the war. In places like Kymenlaakso and North Karelia you can still see fortifications and bunkers. More can be seen on the Karelian Isthmus and other regions which were part of Finland before WW2.

United Kingdom

See also

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