In the World War II saga we all know, a handful of murderous criminals and defenders of democracy are flawed yet capable of driving the narrative. The authors of the Kings College London project argue that this conventional history demonstrates “a concern with statesman error… Above all, the debate about the war in 1939 revolved around personality.” But there is another way of looking at the causes of war: through the escalating arms race in the 1930s, despite the global push for disarmament following the devastation of World War I.
The leaders of Germany, Italy, and Japan wanted war, but their ability to wage it, and the ways in which it was fought, culminated in a logistical contest between the war machines. “First in Berlin, then in Rome and finally in Tokyo,” writes historian Joseph Maiolo, “the ebb and flow of arms competition forced leaders to make decisions now or never about war.” Such decisions lead to many unintended consequences, and lead to great losses in life. Air, sea, and land power created on an unprecedented industrial scale turned war into an assembly line-like process that “would see humans as nothing more than pieces of a larger military-industrial machine,” as war theorist Manuel De Landa said. write.
Thus, we see the magnitude of the casualties of World War II. Millions of soldiers were fed to the front in “the need to prepare for a future total war that would demand massive mobilization,” Maiolo wrote. The war for global supremacy demands all of the country’s capital, especially its human resources. The animated map above tells the story in raw numbers: “WWII Every Day with Army Sizes.” Beginning with Germany’s declaration of war on Poland on September 1, 1939, the map covers the entirety of the war, showing numbers — sometimes in the tens of millions — fluctuating wildly along the front lines of each theater.
1939 is perhaps the only logical starting point for this presentation. But when it comes to understanding why World War II claimed more lives than any other war in history, the explanation must begin years earlier with arms dealers and generals seeking bigger and bigger budgets for more sophisticated weaponry. As technical problems escalated, so did human costs, until the struggle for global supremacy during World War II became a breeding race to mutual destruction after the war ended.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician living in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness