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The War Begins?

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: August 30, 2009 
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Fact:  World War II started seventy years ago, on September 1, 1939.

Or did it?  Historians spend a lot of time thinking about dates, about issues of "periodization."  Questions like "When did the Renaissance start?" or "When did the Great Depression end?" are our bread and butter.  With that in mind, let's talk for a moment about 1939.

Certainly, a case can be made that Nazi Germany's unprovoked invasion of Poland was the curtain raiser, the first act in the great conflict that would rage for the next six years. Every student of the war knows it:  two days after the first Panzers crossed the border, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, and the world was at war.

Or was it?  In September 1939, the "world" was hardly at war.  Some of Europe was at war, to be sure.  But even here, we should exercise caution.  Unlike 1914, Russia was not yet involved directly (although it was assisting the Germans with supplies and raw materials, and it did send forces into eastern Poland two weeks into the campaign).  Austria-Hungary no longer existed, and its successor states hung back.  As in 1914, the Italians vacillated and would not enter the war until the second year.  Another great power, the United States of America, still stood aloof , although FDR had already made it known he would do whatever he could to assist the Allies.  The scope of the fighting was surprisingly limited.  Most of the early action would be confined to a relatively small area of eastern Europe, and after the German conquest of Poland there was no land fighting at all for six full months–the "Phoney War" to Americans, the "Sitzkrieg" to the Germans.

A war certainly did start in 1939, but it was a limited one, fought in a limited way in a limited theater.  The Germans were right to call it a "sitting war."  The armed forces on all sides mostly sat.  After all those years of pundits predicting devastation from the air by strategic bombing in the first fifteen minutes of a new war, all of the homelands remained pretty much untouched.  German "action" against France was limited mainly to loudspeaker broadcasts opposite the Maginot Line.  The British did send bombers over the Ruhr, but only to drop anti-Hitler leaflets.

So, did "the war " start in 1939?  Maybe, but I'd say it took a couple of years for this one to become "World War II."

Next time:  let's look at Asia and Africa.


13 Responses to “The War Begins?”


  1. 1
    Doctor Sinister says:

    I disagree – the writer fails to take account of the fact that the British Empire spanned much of the globe and that by declaring war, Britain's colonies were also committed. The same can be said of the French Empire, plus of course Germany's colonies. Thus, by proxy, the war immediately became global.

    In December 1939, the Battle of the River Plate took place in the South Atlantic – an example of the fact that fighting was not just occurring in Europe but further afield as well.

    Does the writer also forget the U-Boats operating in the Atlantic?

    The very nature of Empires made the war global.

    Dr. S.

  2. 2
    Patrick McManus says:

    Dr. Sinister is right about the Empire's participation and the battle for the seas. Let's not forget Asia where the Japaneese and the Chineese had been at war for several years and the Japaneese immediately declared war on the Allies.

  3. 3
    Steve Litten says:

    True, the French and British empires were at war with the Third Reich, and Japan and China had been fighting since at least 1936, but the conflict only escalated in 1940, with Germany's invasion of North and Western Europe. But Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935(?), and lost it in 1941 – so where does the line in history get drawn?

  4. 4
    Roley says:

    I think that World War 2 began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

  5. 5
    Cee says:

    The course that eventually forced the US into World War 2 had been set 8 years before Hitler invaded Poland. Japanese annexation of Manchuria, and subsequent invasion of China threatened American strategic interests across the Pacific, providing the resources to build a navy to rival the US Pacific fleet, and perhaps more crucially, access to petroleum resources to fuel that navy without the need to buy from America or European colonial powers.

  6. 6
    Year 11 History class says:

    Most of us agree with the writer of the article that WWII began later than 1939. This group thinks that WWII did not start until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

    But there are some in the class who agree with Doctor Sinister's comments that the war was global in 1939. After all, we are in New Zealand and our Prime Minister said "Where she goes, we go. Where she stands, we stand". The "she" being Britain.

  7. 7
    Wladimir says:

    I stay agree with Roley,Mr.Steve Litten,Cee and Mr.Patrick McManus

    The World War II begining in 1931 as part of Japanese Army war planning in north asian mainland oposed to Japanese Navy war plannings for South Asia and West Pacific area included at Australian land.

    According with one old Geography expert,George Cressey and other sources in time "the world the not know why the Second World War if cominzed in September 18,1931 with "Mukden Incident" ,when Japanese Kantogun (Kwantung Army) invaded Manchurian soil.

    Another eyewitness in Asian Far East are journalist in period how Jim Tew,Chester Holcombe and Joseph Newman (who pubished "Goodbye Japan" a detailed accout of Japanese Empire inner politically and military plannings) among others.

    Such plan as more ambitious,for included to entire occupation of Mainland China,the Invasion to Russian Far East and Siberia mainland,Indochina and British India for created a new Asian Land Empire guided by Japanese.

    Such sucess occured much before at Italian invasion to Abissinia in 1935 or German Invasion of Poland in Sept 1939.

    I am thinked why the Nations Society acted with energy and autority and imposed the diplomatic and economic measures in period prior to Japanese aggresive maneouvers and plannings
    if possibly why WWII never occured debt at why the other political Axis nation companions Germany and Italy can t to free movements in your ours plannings and the entire free world watching with keep your moves.

  8. 8
    Ricardo Ribas says:

    Historians tend to use specific dates for the beginning and end of such events as a war, which is fine and useful for study purposes.

    But events do not occur all at once, as people and countries involved in a conflict such as WWII get into it at different stages.

    September of 39 saw events that eventually would become known as WWII for most of european, asian and american countries, and that date is fine for general study purposes.

    Otherwise you would have to consider the actual date that each country entered the conflict, and while true, it is not practical for study.

    But I would like to discuss the ending of the conflict, which most historians place with VE and VJ days.

    If WWII formally started with the invasion of Poland by German and Soviet armies, its ending would be , by logic, when the invading armies left that country, and that occurred almost 50 years later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
    Let us not forget that Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union were allies (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 39) for almost two years until Hitler's Invasion of the USSR. That period saw the maximum expansion of those two allies. Their combined territories went from France to Vladivostok, with almost everything in between included.
    When the german boots left Poland and Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, they were replaced by Soviet boots. For those peoples the war did not end in 1945.

  9. 9

    Ricardo–

    Your point is incontestable. Future blog: "When did World War II end?"

    –RC

  10. 10
    paul penrod says:

    As it was a Eurocentric world then, I would say the events that occurred in May-June 1940 made it a world war. Sounded better than calling it the Second Great War

  11. 11
    jack turso says:

    world war two ended on augest 6th when the mayor of hiroshimias watch stopped at 8.15 am ,his last comment was ( what the hell is that)
    Not funny but reality.Japan still had a million people under arms and at least 5000 aircraft of all kinds ready to fling at invading troops. they have
    this bushidio samuri belief..There was no other way to end it sad to say

  12. 12
    The Forester says:

    Certainly the opening salvos of what became WWII occurred when Imperial Japan invaded NE China (Manchuria.) However, the war didn't become truly global until the U.S. entry following the Pearl Harbor attack (despite Canadian involvement as part of the British Empire.)

    Ricardo, using your criteria, the war still hasn't ended, as Japan, Germany & Italy are still under U.S. military occupation.

  13. 13
    lyndon says:

    Japan, Germany and Italy have been independent for Yonks.

    Japan is America's lynch-pin in Northern Pacifice.
    Germany and italy are members of NATO,

    To those who think they are under U.S. ocuupation, all lI can say is "Have a a Life."



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