It is difficult to comprehend the encompassing and titanic nature of this conflict, which for our children today, seems to be almost ancient history. After all, it is way before the War on Terror, or the earlier Gulf War or even that distant conflict the Vietnam War. Putting the Second World War into numbers and facts can at first seem to be too clinical and almost desensitizing or even demeaning. Without those facts and numbers, though, it is too easy to lose hold of the magnitude and consequence of this conflict. There have been earlier "world wars", specifically World War One (of which it is often claimed that World War Two is merely an extension), and then earlier, the Napoleonic Wars (1790's to 1815).
So how do we quantify this as a World War? First there is simply the magnitude of the human impact. In martial terms, it was the largest conflict ever, involving 100 million soldiers (16 million in the US military). Nearly 100 nations were involved either because of battles or operations in their territories (fifty-five countries) or as members of either the Axis or the Allies.
70 million people were killed, the majority, nearly 50 million, being civilians and the majority of those (28 million) being civilians in China and Russia. In fact China and Russia accounted for 43 million (civilian and military) of all deaths in World War II. In terms of mortality, after Russia (23.1m representing 13.7% of the population) and China (20m representing 3.9% of the population), the countries next most affected by World War II were Germany (7.3m dead, 10.5% of the population), Poland (5.6m and 16.1% of the population) and Japan (2.7m and 3.8% of the population). The US and UK respectively suffered 418,000 and 450,000 deaths during the war, overwhelmingly military deaths though the UK did lose 68,000 civilians to the extensive bombing of Britain early in the war. US civilian deaths (just over a thousand) were individually tragic but comparatively minor in number, consisting primarily of citizens interned by Japan during the war but also including 68 civilians in Hawaii as a result of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and, generally little known, 6 civilian deaths from the balloon bombing campaign conducted by Japan against the mainland US.
The major countries involved in the conflict were, among the Axis; Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, (and at various times the Soviet Union, Finland, Thailand, and Iraq). Among the Allies were the US, UK, the Commonwealth, France, China, USSR, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Central America, Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, and towards the end of the war virtually all the countries of South America.
Land battles occurred in all inhabited continents save South America and even there, there were instances of sabotage and intrigue. Little in Europe remained untouched by the destruction of war and North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, South East Asia, and the Pacific all saw extensive and prolonged military campaigns.
The duration of the war, while not of the scale of, say, the Napoleonic wars, still was prolonged. For China, with Japan's invasion in 1936, the war lasted eight and a half years, for the UK for six and a half years, and for the US three and a half years.
The range of the conflict is part of what is so astonishing and is often the source of some startling and little known tales of the conflict. Among the lesser known and more remote corners touched by the war were the Azores Islands, Iceland, Madagascar, East Timor, the Aleutian Islands, Greenland, etc.
During the war there were all sorts of peculiar twists and turns in alliances. The Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war with the invasion and partition of Poland, but then became the victim in turn of German invasion and consequently an ally of the Western Alliance. Western-oriented Finland became an ally of Germany as a consequence of being opportunistically invaded by the Soviet Union and having to turn to Germany for support (the subsequent Winter War being one of the most remarkable David and Goliath contests ever). The Kingdom of Thailand became an ally of the Japanese as part of the effort to throw out the colonial powers from South East Asia. Vichy France fought against the Allies in North Africa, Madagascar, the Middle East and elsewhere. An independence group in India, the Indian National Army, mustered troops to fight with the Japanese.
At the end of the war, countries disappeared completely (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Manchuria) or had their boundaries substantially redrawn (Poland, Soviet Union, and Germany), or were called into existence (South Korea, East Germany, etc.).
The economic, scientific, political, cultural and philosophical ramifications of World War Two continue to unfold even today. Just as after the titanic contest of the Napoleonic Wars, there was nearly 100 years of peace, increasing prosperity and a tighter binding together of the regions of the world, so there has been so far sixty odd years of global peace (at least among the major powers), increased prosperity, and integration of the peoples and economies of the globe. Long may the trend continue.
Out of the massive destruction of World War Two and consequent rebuilding, (Europe and Japan lost much of its existing capital of factories, shipping, and transportation and had to replace nearly all of it; the US created a vast industrial infrastructure in the space of three years that had not existed before), came new prosperity and productivity. Whole fields of science were exponentially expanded (physics, medicine, surgical technology, chemistry, materials engineering, electronic measurement and detection, etc.) and industrial engineering and management techniques were either newly pioneered or applied to a whole different magnitude (the coordination and transportation of materials to support the manufacture of tens of thousands of tanks, planes, ships, etc. in a short time frame) and remarkable feats of engineering and manufacturing were accomplished such as being able to produce a completed (Liberty) ship forty days after laying the keel.
In politics and philosophies, the idea that the various forms of totalitarianism and the naïve hope that centralized decision making could be a force for good took a heavy knock, reinforced forty years later with the fall of the Iron Curtain. It took some thirty or forty years to throw off some of the constraining regulatory regimens put in place for war purposes around the shipping, trucking, railroad, airline, telecommunication, and financial industries. Who was it that said that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program?
For our purposes, World War II also saw an explosion of cultural productivity particularly in terms of writing. These ranged from straight-forward autobiographical accounts such as William Manchester's Goodbye Darkness, E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed, George MacDonald Frazer's Safely Quartered Out Here to biographical vignettes about specific adventures in the war such as W. Stanley Moss's Ill Met by Moonlight and Ted W. Lawson's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. There is some magnificent history to be had in first-person reporting such as John Hersey's Hiroshima or from historians such as Cornelius Ryan and his A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day. Regrettably, as the years have advanced, some of those wonderful accounts by actual participants and direct observers have drifted out of print.
There are some wonderful contemporary books of those distant events. Louise Borden's The Little Ships: The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II, illustrated by Michael Foreman is a great example of momentous occurrence rendered in a fashion comprehensible and also moving to young minds. Carmen Agra Deedy's The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark, illustrated by Henri Sorenson, is another example. There are many, many perfectly adequate Independent Reader level fictional renditions of actual events; it intriguing though that they should be so popular currently when the actual accounts are even better without the transmogrification through the stereotype blender and the stock-plot cooking pan.
The real treasures remain among the books at the advanced Independent Reader and the Young Adult levels and those that were written nearer to the time of the events. Twenty and Ten; Run Silent, Run Deep; The Great Escape, The Snow Goose; The Caine Mutiny; Going Solo; the list is wonderfully long.
As always when reading of war, there is the treacherous path to tread - attempting on the one hand to honor the service and recognize the courage and heroism of those caught in the circumstances of war while at the same time attempting not to glorify the tragedy that is war. For some sensitive spirits, these events are too much. There are shadings as well - I enthusiastically enjoy World War II literature but find Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl almost impossible to re-read. Once was enough. Not because it is badly written. On the contrary, it still feels almost contemporary and I find the enormity of the tragedy almost overwhelming.
The literature of the Holocaust warrants its own list booklist. There is a disproportionate plethora of books, many of them of solid quality, covering the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. We have included a sampling of both these specializations in the list below. Our main objective though, is to cover the broader picture of this horrifically awesome event which affected a whole generation of people across the globe. People who are grandparents and great-grandparents today. In particular, by bringing attention to their stories, we seek to acknowledge the debt we collectively owe to so many who served, and who served heroically.
Let us know which World War II stories you share with your children.
The Little Ships by Louise Borden and illustrated by Michael Foreman Highly Recommended
The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Sorensen Highly Recommended
The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden and illustrated by Niki Daly Recommended
Across the Blue Pacific by Louise Borden and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker Suggested
Sadako by Eleanor Coerr and illustrated by Ed Young Suggested
Journey To Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida and illustrated by Donald Carrick Suggested
The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida and illustrated by Joanna Yardley Suggested
Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward Latimer Beach Recommended
Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois Recommended
The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden and illustrated by Niki Daly Recommended
Going Solo by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Recommendation
House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong Recommended
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico Recommended
Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff Recommended
Collins Atlas of World War II by John Keegan Recommended
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr Recommended
Thirty Seconds over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson Recommended
Day of Infamy by Walter Lord Recommended
Good Night, Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian Recommended
Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serraillier Recommended
The Cay by Theodore Taylor Recommended
The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen Recommended
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak Recommended
Graveyards of the Pacific by Robert D. Ballard and Michael Hamilton Morgan Suggested
The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond Suggested
Spying on Miss Muller by Eve Bunting Suggested
Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene Suggested
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry Suggested
Hiroshima by John Hersey Highly Recommended
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer Highly Recommended
Goodbye, Darkness by William Raymond Manchester Highly Recommended
Empire Of The Sun by J. G. Ballard Recommended
Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers Recommended
Flyboys by James Bradley Recommended
The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill Recommended
Das Boot by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim Recommended
Memoirs of the Second World War by Winston Churchill Recommended
Halsey's Typhoon by Bob Drury and Thomas Clavin Recommended
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler Recommended
The Great Escape by Anton Gill Recommended
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller Recommended
We Die Alone by David Armine Howarth Recommended
The Second World War by John Keegan Recommended
Incredible Victory by Walter Lord Recommended
Love & War in the Apennines by Eric Newby Recommended
A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan Recommended
The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan Recommended
With the Old Breed by E. B. Sledge Recommended
Mila 18 by Leon Uris Recommended
Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner Recommended
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk Recommended