Why Did So Many People Die in World War Two?

By death toll, World War Two is the largest waste of human life from a single conflict in history. High estimates say that 80 million people died. That’s the entire population of modern day Germany or about a quarter of the USA.

It took six years for 80 million people to be killed, but other wars have lasted much longer and not killed as many people. For instance, the Seven Years War in the 18th Century was fought by basically all the big powers in the world (and was really a world war, but no one called it that) and 1 million people died. World War One lasted more than 4 years but about 16 million people died. That’s even more, but it’s nowhere near 80 million – and World War Two only happened 20 years later.

So what changed? Why were so many more people killed in World War Two than any other war ever? There are four main reasons.

1. Strategic Bombing

Advances in technology meant that aircraft could fly faster and further than ever before and bomb enemy targets. But it wasn’t like the ‘precision bombing’ that we see today (where satellites and lasers guide missiles onto specific targets) – there wasn’t much precision at all. Bombs had to be dropped out of planes travelling at 300 MPH and could easily miss what they were aiming at. With this in mind, opposing sides began to indiscriminately carpet bomb each other’s cities.

A raid by the 8th Air Force on the Focke Wulf factory at Marienburg, Germany (1943). Targetted bombing regular missed.

A raid by the 8th Air Force on the Focke Wulf factory at Marienburg, Germany (1943). Targetted bombing regular missed.

Germany bombed Britain, killing 80,000 people in ‘The Blitz’ (1940-41), and carried out large scale bombing of the Soviet Union from summer 1941 onwards, directly killing 500,000 people.

The Allied bombing of Germany, which sought to destroy buildings and reduce the morale of the population, stepped up in 1943. Firebombing destroyed the cities of Hamburg (1943) and Dresden (1945). Half a million Germans died as a direct consequence of bombing.

the-bombing-of-dresden

The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 completely destroyed the city center.

In the Pacific, the Japanese bombed large cities like Manila and Shanghai, and America bombed mainland Japan and killed half a million people. To force the Japanese surrender, they also developed the atom bomb and dropped two on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About 200,000 people died from those two bombs alone. Japan surrendered shortly after.

Directly from bombing, at least 2 million people died. But the complete destruction of housing and city infrastructure had many more effects on the population. The bombing of Dresden, for instance, rendered 100,000 uninhabitable during the height of winter. 1,000s more would perish as the result of forced homelessness and the destruction of infrastructure.

2. Mobile Warfare

Warfare had also got much more mobile. The development of tanks and mechanised infantry meant that armies could move much quicker than they had in other wars. It’s a key difference between the two World Wars.

In the First World War, advancing troops with no armoured support faced machine guns in heavily fortified trenches, resulting in very heavy casualties. Even in the unlikely event of an offensive breaking through enemy lines, a lack of mechanised logistics and support meant gains were lost quickly.

Russian T-34s – the most successful tank of World War Two.

In the Second World War, airplanes and artillery would soften up enemy defences, then tanks could bust through fortifications easier and negate the effects of machine guns. Then support troops in trucks and armoured personnel carriers could be brought up quickly. Since warfare had got quicker, it could cover more ground, and thus it was easier to advance vast distances. People call this form of warfare ‘Blitzkreig’ which translates as ‘Lighting War’ – the German armies’ early success typified this method.

A German half track in the Russian steppe - 1942.

A German half track in the Russian steppe – 1942.

Mobile warfare meant that advances could move rapidly across vast areas. 11 million Soviet Union troops, 3 million German, 1.7 million Japanese and 1.4 million Chinese soldiers died. About a further million were lost by the Western Allies (Britain, USA and France). Axis countries such as Italy, Rumania and Hungary added another half million to the death toll. Total combat deaths exceeded 20 million men.

3. Indiscriminate Killing by Axis Powers

The third main reason was Nazi Germany’s and Imperial Japan’s indiscriminate killing of civilians in Russia and China. The Nazi ‘Generalplan Ost’ (Master Plan East) was a plan for Germany to colonise Eastern Europe – the so called ‘Lebensraum’ (living space) for German people. This meant enslaving, expelling and exterminating most of the Slavic people in Europe. When the Germans launched operation Barbarossa in 1941, huge numbers of mechanised infantry enabled a rapid advance across a 1,800 mile long front, and units regularly killed civilians as they advanced.

This map of Operation Barbarossa (June 1941 - December 1941) shows the vast distance covered by the German army on a wide front. Millions of civilians were killed in its wake.

This map of Operation Barbarossa (June 1941 – December 1941) shows the vast distance covered by the German army on a wide front. Millions of civilians were killed in its wake.

In 1995 The Russian Academy of Sciences reported that civilian victims in the USSR totalled 13.7 million dead – 20% of the popular in occupied USSR. 7.4 million were victims of genocide and reprisals, 2.2 million were killed being deported for forced labour and 4.1 million died of famine and disease. A further 3 million people died from famine in areas not under German occupation.

Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces with gas masks and rubber gloves during a chemical attack near Chapei in the Battle of Shanghai.

Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces with gas masks and rubber gloves during a chemical attack near Chapei in the Battle of Shanghai.

Action by the Japanese in China was similarly brutal, with an estimated death toll between 8-20 million. The horrific nature of this campaign can be seen through the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons. In 1940, the Japanese even bombed the city of Nigbo with fleas containing the bubonic plague – causing epidemic plague outbreaks.

4. The Holocaust

The fourth major contributor to the death toll was the Nazi extermination of Jewish people in Europe from 1942 – 45. Nazi ideology saw Jews as a scourge in the world, and the state had openly discriminated against the Jewish population through business boycotting and lowering their civil status. By 1942 Germany had occupied most of Europe, bringing approximately 8 million Jews within its borders.

Auschwitz Birkenau

Auschwitz-Bikenau camp near Krakow, Poland, saw over 1 million Jews exterminated.

At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, leading Nazis decided on the Final Solution – whereby Jews across the continent would be rounded up and taken to extermination camps. 6 million European Jews were killed as a result of the Final Solution during the war – 78% of the Jewish population in central Europe.

Conclusion

By the standards of any conflict before or since, World War Two was terribly amoral. The wars of conquest fought by the Axis killed millions as a direct consequence of fighting, and when they conquered land they were ready to exterminate the occupants. But even on the Allied side the killing of civilians was commonplace in strategy – reducing Axis cities to rubble was seen as a necessary evil to stem the tide of horrific tyranny.

Further Reading:

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James Carson graduated from the University of York with a degree in English and History and have a keen interested in both World Wars and popular science - particularly space.