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The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




The Second World War



Allied forces propaganda poster, 1943


With its attack on Poland in September 1939, the German Nazi regime under Hitler initiated the most devastating military conflict in world history to date. Before the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945, World War II claimed the lives of some 62 million people. The heavily ideological aspect of the war led to incomprehensible crimes against humanity. World War II fundamentally altered the international political situation. The victorious United States and the Soviet Union became the leading world powers.


Operation Barbarossa: The German invasion of the Soviet Union

The German attack on the Soviet Union was initially devastating and forced the Russians to withdraw all the way to Moscow in the winter of 1941. Despite appalling casualties suffered in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-1943, the Red Army managed to break out and surround the German besieging forces. This victory marked a crucial turning point in the war against Nazi Germany.


Hitler had planned his 2 ideological "main war" against the Soviet Union since the summer of 1940.

In violation of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, Operation Barbarossa began on June 22,1941. A vast army of more than three million soldiers, 3500 tanks, and 2000 aircraft invaded the Soviet Union.

As Stalin had not been expecting a German attack at that point in time and the 1 arming and reorganization of his army was not yet complete, it seemed that the German intention of crushing the Soviet military within a few weeks was realistic.

By encircling the Soviet armed forces, the Germans were able to obliterate a significant proportion of them, and by October they had reached as far as Moscow. With all his energy, Stalin in the meantime had organized his defenses. A considerable part of the armament industry was moved east, and areas abandoned to the invaders were first stripped of all resources.

Appeals to patriotism—the war became known as "the Great Fatherland War"—and revulsion at the savagery of the occupation forces toward civilians rallied the Russian people.

2 Nazi propaganda in Russian against "Jewish Bolshevism," 1942

1 Workers in the Soviet armaments industry, 1941

4 Soviet propaganda poster: "For our home! For Stalin!",

The sheer size and boundless resources of the country inevitably worked in their favor. Thanks to the neutrality pact signed with Japan in 1941, Stalin was able to redeploy troops from the Far East to the Moscow front. Meanwhile, German operations were slowed by extreme weather conditions and the vast distances; the advance on Moscow became bogged down in mud.

The Germans were not prepared for the onset of the Russian 5 winter with -40°F (-40°C) temperatures.

Despite a collection drive for winter clothes among the German population, many soldiers froze to death. The German army retreated for the first time. The defeat outside Moscow shattered German plans for a quick victory. Supply difficulties and the long-term materiel superiority of the Soviets undermined German hopes for outright victory.
The real turning point was the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943. After beseiging the strategically important city in the summer of 1942, the 250,000 German soldiers were surrounded by Soviet troops.

The entire army ultimately surrendered, following fighting that inflicted 6 great losses on both sides and on the city's civilian population.

5 German soldiers supplied by air at Stalingrad, 1942

6 Fallen German soldiers near Stalingrad, 1943

Treatment of German 7 prisoners matched that suffered by Soviets during the invasion.

After the last German offensive at 3 Kursk, the Red Army gradually regained lost territory and in January 1945 finally crossed over the eastern border into Germany.

7 German prisoners of war near
Stalingrad, 1943

3 Partisans place dynamite at a railway near Kursk, 1943

12 Byelorussian partisan with his
daughters, 1944



Wars of Ideology and Extermination

During the campaign of conquest against the Soviet Union, the Nazi leadership put its genocidal program into action.


In accordance with their ideology, the Nazi leaders planned the war against the Soviet Union not simply as a military operation but rather as a "war of two ideologies"—a "battle of extermination" against what they called the "Jewish-Bolshevik" system.

The Polish campaign had already been presented as a struggle of the German "master race" against Slavic 9 "subhumans" and as a struggle for Lebensraum ("living space") in the East.

Tragically, the invaders were initially greeted as liberators in many of the Soviet republics, such as 8 Ukraine, which were suffering under Stalin's regime.

In a number of countries, notably Lithuania, anti-Semitism was very strong, and the local population eagerly joined in the massacres of Jews. Nevertheless, from 1941 the German occupiers brought their own terror and destruction to the Soviet Union.

According to Hitler's personal instructions—the "Commissar's order" of June 6, 1941—all captured political leaders of the Red Army were to be shot immediately. This was primarily carried out by Heinrich Himmler's SS troops who followed in the wake of the army, but the army was also involved in Nazi extermination policies. "Ruthless measures" were also to be taken against Soviet prisoners of war. More than 3.3 million of them died from starvation, torture, execution, or slave labor.

9 "The Subhuman" cover page of a Nazi propaganda magazine, 1942

8 Ukranians murdered by the Soviet secret
service, accused of collaborating with the
Germans, 1942

In June 1941, four SS task forces followed the German army east and immediately began mass executions to eradicate "racial inferiors" systematically, particularly 11 Jews, who were rounded up, shot in fields and forests, and buried in mass graves which they themselves had to dig.

The organized mass murder of the European Jews had already started in Poland.

The "General Plan East" of 1942 resulted in the decimation of the Slavic peoples through the deportation and forced labor of about 30 million and the step-by step "Germanization" of Eastern Europe. The conquered regions of Byelorussia and Ukraine were placed under the Reich's Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories. As a result of the triumphs of the Red Army, the realization of this plan became impossible.

The violence and inhumanity of the German occupiers radicalized the resistance on the Soviet side.

Propaganda chief Ilya Ehrenburg called for violent 10 revenge.

Many German prisoners of war died under wretched conditions.

Soviet resistance groups also waged a 12 partisan war against the German occupiers.

This in turn was crushed with violence as villages were razed and children were shot.

When the Red Army reached German soil in 1945, the Soviet soldiers treated the German population with the same brutality. The Soviet Union lost a total of 28 million people in World War II, of whom more than half were civilians, far more than any other country.

11 Execution of Jews by German troops, near Sniatyn, Poland 1941

10 Soviet propaganda poster urges
Russians to take revenge on Nazi Germany, 1943



Ilya Ehrenburg

The Russian writer and journalist, born in Kiev, wrote in the journal Soviet News on March 8, 1945:

"The only historic mission, as far as I can see it, is modestly and honorably to diminish the German population."

Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg, 1935




Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg

Ilya Ehrenburg

Soviet author

born Jan. 15 [Jan. 27, New Style], 1891, Kiev, Ukraine, Russian Empire
died Aug. 31, 1967, Moscow

prolific writer and journalist, one of the most effective Soviet spokesmen to the Western world.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family that later moved to Moscow, Ehrenburg became involved as a youth in revolutionary activity and was arrested in his early teens. He emigrated to Paris, where he began publishing poetry in 1910. During World War I he was a war correspondent at the front, returning to Russia in 1917. He experienced the civil war in Ukraine and, between 1917 and 1921, wavered between supporting and rejecting the Bolsheviks. He returned to Europe, living in France, Belgium, and Germany, and published his first novel—generally considered his best work—the philosophical-satirical Neobychaynyye khozhdeniya Khulio Khurenito i yego uchenikov (1922; The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples). By 1924, however, his attitude had changed again, and he was granted permission to return to the Soviet Union. He participated in writers’ meetings and other literary activities in Moscow, and soon afterward was sent back to Europe, this time as foreign editor of several Soviet newspapers. Most of the period from 1936 to 1940 Ehrenburg spent in Spain and France as war correspondent for the newspaper Izvestiya. In 1941 he returned to the Soviet Union, where his Padeniye Parizha (The Fall of Paris)—a bitter attack on the West—was published that year, winning the 1942 Stalin Prize.

Besides his activities as a journalist and novelist, Ehrenburg wrote poetry, short stories, essays, travelogues, and memoirs. After his acceptance of the Soviet regime, he adapted his writing to Soviet literary demands and was successful in avoiding the political purges that destroyed the careers of many other writers and artists. In 1946–47 he won a second Stalin Prize with Burya (The Storm), and in 1951–52 another major novel was published, Devyaty val (The Ninth Wave). Shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death Ehrenburg produced the novel Ottepel (1954; The Thaw), which provoked intense controversy in the Soviet press, and the title of which has become descriptive of that period in Soviet literature. It dealt with Soviet life in a more realistic way than had the officially approved literature of the preceding period. In succeeding years he devoted himself to promoting new and different tendencies in writing. In his autobiography, Lyudi, gody, zhizn (“People, Years, Life”), Ehrenburg ranged over many topics (e.g., Western art) and people (e.g., writers lost in the purges of the 1930s) normally not considered proper material for Soviet authors. This attitude brought official censure upon him in 1963 when the “thaw” began to reverse. But Ehrenburg survived and remained prominent in Soviet literary circles until his death.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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