By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe life on the home fronts in World War II
- Explain how the war affected women’s lives in the Axis and Allied nations
- Describe how new technologies developed during World War II and affected its outcome
Those left behind on the home front during the war followed the fates of their absent loved ones wherever they were. They often coped with shortages of needed items and new workloads as the conflict continued year after year. Research also continued at home as the countries engaged in the war sought to gain an advantage over one another. As a result, new technologies and scientific understandings emerged that affected not only the war and its outcome but the postwar global society as well.
Life on the Home Fronts
For European countries in World War II, the distance between the battlefield and the home front was often very short or nonexistent. Total war, fought using all available resources with no restrictions on weapons or their targets, took the conflict to millions. The occupation of territory and the resulting resistance movements meant that homes, farms, and factories became minor battlefields. Places farther from actual combat, in Africa and the Americas, were more traditional home fronts.
Partisan resistance groups sprang up, the largest among the Dutch, the French, the Polish, the Soviets, and the Yugoslavs. On December 7, 1941, Hitler responded to this resistance with his “Night and Fog Decree” in which he stated that people threatening German security should disappear into the night and fog. Consequently, thousands of brutal reprisals for resistance were visited on local populations. In the Kragujevac massacre in October 1941, Germans killed 2,700 Serbians in retaliation for a partisan attack that had killed ten German soldiers and wounded another twenty-six. Such brutality sometimes recruited more resistance. In Yugoslavia, for example, German cruelty enabled Josip Broz Tito to recruit and lead 650,000 people against the Germans, tie down thirty-five German divisions, and destroy eighteen thousand supply trains. In the Soviet Union, the Germans faced perhaps 150,000 partisans. In the Netherlands, railroad workers went on strike in support of Allied offensives in the winter of 1944, and the Germans retaliated by cutting off their food supplies, leading to thirty thousand deaths by starvation.
The experiences of Europeans under German occupation varied greatly depending on their place of residence (rural or urban), social class, and ethnicity, as well as on the state of the national economy. Since most resources were funneled toward the Germans and away from local populations, much of Europe had to solve the problems of food shortages, rationing, and black markets. In the more industrialized countries, German policy sought to largely maintain the economies and just redirect them toward German needs. In Norway, for example, the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling ruled as minister president in partnership with Josef Terboven, a German civilian administrator. The country lost all its foreign trade partners, and its entire economy became tilted toward Germany. The result was that only about 40 percent of Norwegian production was left for consumption by Norwegians, necessitating rationing (Figure 13.14).
Where economies were less modern, it was difficult to increase production. Laborers were lost, either through death or because they were sent to Germany to work. As many as twelve million forced laborers from twenty different countries, mostly in eastern and central Europe, fell under German control, further depressing the production of civilian goods. Despite German hopes, eastern Europe exported to Germany only 800,000 tons of bread over the course of the war, and hunger and starvation became common experiences for resident populations. In Greece, the appropriation of foodstuffs led to a famine that killed a quarter of a million people in the winter of 1941–1942, including 90 percent of the babies born.
Across the globe, the rationing of food and products useful to the war effort affected life on the home fronts. The Germans instituted a four-year economic plan in 1936, and rationing began in August 1939. The first few years of the war brought little change in their standard of living, but by early 1945, rationing had grown uncomfortably tight. The Italians too had to adjust to rationing, which began in 1939 and progressively diminished the standard of living. In 1943, major labor strikes took place in protest against these measures in Italy, even in war-related industries. In the Soviet Union, the loss of Ukraine and other grain-producing areas necessitated strict rationing. China’s agricultural economy had been severely disrupted by the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, and the war did little to improve the situation. Food shortages in Japan were severe, and by 1944, the population was surviving on eight ounces of rice a day.
Rationing was a fact of life in Allied countries as well. In Britain in 1939, oil and gasoline were rationed first, then a year later foods such as bacon, butter, meat, cheese, and eggs were rationed. In 1940, the Ministry of Food established canteens in factories and schools throughout the country to provide food and regulate its distribution. In the United States, the Office of Price Administration had been established in August 1941. It commenced rationing sugar, meat, butter, gasoline, tires, and canned goods three weeks after Pearl Harbor.
Many nations sent their children abroad to safer areas. During the blitz of London, one million British children were evacuated to the countryside or to Canada. By 1942, the Germans, the Soviets, and the Japanese had sent hundreds of thousands of children out of their major cities, and sometimes their civilian parents as well.
The governments of nearly all the combatants sooner or later assumed command of their economies to direct labor and resources to their war efforts. As early as the mid-1920s, the Italian government had begun direct intervention in the economy, and by 1939, Italy had the second-highest percentage of state-owned enterprises in the world; only the Soviet Union had more. The Soviets had instituted state control and a centrally commanded economy in 1928 with the goal of industrializing rapidly. When the Germans attacked, about a third of the western portion of the nation, with most of the Soviet industrial base, fell into German hands. In anticipation of a conflict with capitalist nations, the Soviets had begun to establish industrial bases east of the Ural Mountains. During World War II, they intensified their efforts to save their industrial centers and moved twenty-five hundred factories and twenty-five million people east of the Urals, out of reach of the Wehrmacht. Steadily, Soviet productive capacity regained its balance and began to achieve impressive results.
Germany’s four-year plan, begun in 1936, carried them into the early stages of the war, and in 1942 the economy was kicked into high gear. The Luftwaffe had taken delivery of 8,300 aircraft in 1939, a number that exploded to a peak of 39,800 by 1944. British factories similarly began turning out tens of thousands of planes in the last years of the war. The Japanese shifted to turning out planes to defend the nation from air attacks, and work on battleships and cruisers ceased altogether.
Government efforts to spur production led to nearly full employment in many nations. In the United States, unemployment dropped from 15 percent in 1939 to 1 percent in 1943 as seventeen million new civilian jobs were created. Workers achieved a nearly 100 percent increase in productivity and output. All these changes transformed the human landscape as workers from across the United States, and increasingly women and African Americans from the south, were drawn into defense industry work. Half the world’s war production came from the United States. The Lend-Lease program sent material and foodstuffs to forty Allied nations, mainly Britain and the Soviet Union but also other nations from Brazil and Belgium to Iran and Uruguay.
Total war meant that the enemy’s productive capabilities were fair targets for destruction. While the air raids on Britain often targeted civilian locations, the Allies initially attempted a program of strategic bombing of Axis locations in Europe. The plan was to disrupt industrial production, though reality often fell short of this goal. Bombs missed targets and hit purely civilian ones or simply did not inflict the necessary damage on a factory. Naples sustained nearly two hundred attacks from 1940 to 1944. The Royal Air Force conducted nighttime bombing campaigns over German cities, similar to those Germany carried out over England. The multiday attacks on Dresden by more than one thousand British and U.S. bombers in February 1945 dropped high explosives and firebombs on the center of the city, destroying most of it and killing more than twenty-five thousand people. Some of these bombing runs were deliberately aimed at civilian targets.
The danger air raids posed to civilians was clear. Air raids killed 60,000 British people and injured 86,000 during the Battle of Britain. Nationwide German wartime losses reached 305,000 killed and 800,000 injured, with five million rendered homeless. The Allied bombing of Japan was severe as well. The U.S. Air Force destroyed sixty-nine Japanese cities. The March 1945 raid on Tokyo alone killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people and destroyed the homes of a million more. By 1945, Japan was on the verge of economic collapse.
But life was more than just working in war plants and rationing. Everywhere people tried to maintain some semblance of ordinary life through diversions and entertainment. Radio programming kept them informed and entertained. In England, “We’ll Meet Again,” probably the most popular wartime song, came out in 1939. The Germans banned jazz, but wherever they went, U.S. soldiers, known as GIs, introduced locals to jazz and the jitterbug, popular back in the States.
Movies were produced everywhere as both propaganda and distraction. German, Italian, Japanese, and Soviet films leaned heavily toward propaganda. Most German films were pro-war and heroic in theme, with significant portions of anti-Semitic propaganda. In general, the Japanese discouraged distractions from the war effort. Bars had their hours cut to restrict frivolous activities, but movie houses remained open. Japanese pro-war and propagandistic movies began to appear as early as 1937, starting with Marching Song about the fighting in China. Beginning in 1941 and often thereafter, many Japanese movies focused on Koreans who volunteered and heroically served the greater cause of Japan. Movie theater attendance in Britain increased 50 percent in 1944 and 1945, and in the United States it also reached new highs.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed a cascade of racist assumptions about the Japanese, and it was generally feared that Japanese Americans living in the United States might engage in espionage or sabotage. Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt in February 1942, authorized West Coast military commanders to exclude from designated military areas anyone deemed a threat to national security. It thus allowed the widespread forced relocation of tens of thousands of Japanese and Japanese American families into ten relocation camps administered by the War Relocation Authority from 1942 until 1946 (Figure 13.15).
The internees at these camps, many of them U.S. citizens, were forced to abandon their homes and businesses, and most never recovered them. Conditions in the camps were bleak. Families were separated, and men were often sent to different locations for investigation and interrogation. Most internees complied, many desiring to show their loyalty to the United States. Some even volunteered for and were later enlisted in the army. Others, however, felt betrayed and denounced the United States. An even smaller group were deemed recalcitrant and repatriated to Japan during and after the war.
In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the relocation, but in the early 1980s, the federal court system reconsidered the issue. Several Japanese Americans who had been convicted for not complying with the executive order in the 1940s saw their convictions overturned, and in one case vacated. Fred Korematsu, a U.S. citizen, had been arrested in 1942 for defying the exclusion order and fought the abridgment of his civil liberties for forty years. His was one of the convictions finally overturned in the 1980s. In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized to the people who had been interned and awarded $20,000 in reparations to each survivor. In an interview in 2000, Korematsu said, “I’ll never forget my government treating me like this. And I really hope that this will never happen to anybody else because of the way they look, if they look like the enemy of our country.”
While most Latin American countries did not participate in combat in the war (Brazil was an exception), none could avoid the harsh realities of the conflict. All became more dependent on trade with the United States and were subject to the shortages, rationing, and price controls that came along with the dearth of needed items on the home front. Some areas saw increased economic opportunity at home, such as Panama, where the canal had become extremely busy during the war as goods were transferred from ocean to ocean.
Along with becoming a theater of battle in its northern lands, Africa was also drawn into World War II when Africans were enlisted into the armies fighting fascism. More than a million African soldiers fought in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific or provided labor for colonial forces during the war. Most were forcibly recruited and paid far less than White European soldiers. The colonial holdings of the European powers throughout the continent meant that Africa’s resources were available for the war effort. African labor, for instance, was essential in maintaining the production of such strategic materials as coal, tin, rubber, and food. Mobilizing African comunities for support forced colonial regimes to deal with resentments associated with rising prices, increased taxes, inflation, and control of the economies. Increased urbanization of the continent also offered populations greater freedom of action and expression, calling colonialism into question. Brazzaville was the capital of Free France (France’s collected colonial territories) under Charles de Gaulle, and issues of subjugation and racism came into stark relief. Many Africans saw their loyal contribution to the Allies as a down payment for greater self-determination and independence after the war.
Women Mobilized for War
The status and roles of women underwent seismic shifts around the world because of the war. In belligerent nations, with so many men sent to the far-flung fronts, women represented a large available pool of labor that could be tapped, and they increased their participation in their nation’s economies significantly.
In 1939, women made up 37 percent of the German workforce, but because the Nazis encouraged them to be homemakers and resisted recruiting them to work, their participation in labor declined between 1939 and 1941. In 1942 when Germany geared up for war, however, more women went into the factories, and their share of the workforce climbed to about 50 percent. From its initial rise to power, the German Nazi regime had also promoted schemes to increase marriages and births, for which economic incentives were offered, while birth control was outlawed.
By 1945, women in the Soviet Union constituted 55 percent of the total workforce. In addition, about 800,000 women served in frontline combat positions, mostly as medical workers. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a sniper credited with killing 309 enemies. The Soviet women’s air unit called the Night Witches conducted more than twenty-three thousand bombing runs during the war. The war years led to the death of as many as twenty-five million Soviet citizens. Therefore, the role of motherhood also gained new importance during the war. In July 1944, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet created the Order of Maternal Glory and the title of Mother-Hero. There were financial incentives for having two or more children.
The Japanese also rewarded women for having children. The 1940, National Eugenics Law prohibited abortion or sterilization for any reason except eugenics (a discredited strategy that focused on cultivating desirable characteristics in a population). Women were encouraged to marry young, have many children, and fulfill their natural role as mothers. Those who did were rewarded, but women aged eighteen to twenty-five were also conscripted into the labor force beginning in 1943.
The Japanese military held views about the needs of men and the subservience of women that led to a vast system of forced prostitution and sexual slavery. Korean and Chinese women were the first to suffer, but the system spread wherever Japanese troops were, victimizing perhaps as many as 400,000 women from China, Korea, and elsewhere in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This type of treatment helped spur many women to embrace the activism encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party and to celebrate anti-Japanese actions. The nature and scope of the crimes against these “comfort women” remain controversial long after the war.
In the early 1990s, surviving Korean victims of sexual exploitation by the Japanese military went to court in Japan demanding recognition of their plight and compensation from the government. Through years of litigation, the Japanese court system consistently rejected their claims. The issue was revived in 2016 when twelve surviving “comfort women” (as they were called) entered South Korean courts to seek justice. In January 2021, the Seoul Central District Court rendered a decision in their favor and ordered the Japanese government to pay them $91,800 each. The Japanese government again rejected this ruling, and people on the political right in Japan, including former prime minister Shinzo Abe, argued that the women had not been forced into anything.
The charges leveled by the women were only one of the issues remaining from World War II with which Japan has yet to come to terms. Both while in office and afterward, Japanese prime ministers have paid visits to Yasukuni Shrine to honor soldiers who died in World War II, including men convicted of war crimes such as Hideki Tojo. Japanese history textbooks, which must be approved by the Ministry of Education, largely ignore the existence of the comfort women and have downplayed or denied the role of the Japanese military in forcing civilians on the island of Okinawa to commit suicide rather than surrender after the U.S. victory there in March 1945.
- Why do you think these issues still exist?
- Why might the Japanese government wish to deny or downplay actions of Japanese troops during the war?
In 1941, all British women between eighteen and fifty years old were declared available for national service. The Women’s Land Army recruited eighty thousand women for agricultural work on Britain’s farms, and 400,000 served in some other form of civil defense. Eventually, eight million women participated in the British war effort.
Encouraged by their government to think of all jobs as war jobs, six and a half million American women entered the labor force during the conflict and made up 50 percent of it by the war’s end. Three million members of the Women’s Land Army planted and harvested food. Women also took their places behind desks in hundreds of thousands of government and office jobs and in industries where few women had made inroads in the past. By 1944, for instance, the number of women in the banking industry had doubled to about 130,000 employees. The now-famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster expressed the commitment and competence of women stepping into industrial jobs to replace the men who had gone to war (Figure 13.16). Nearly 350,000 women also served in some branch of the U.S. military during the war.
Scientists at War
World War II, like World War I, brought about scientific and technological developments that soon became matters of life and death. The nature of total war itself prompted a transformation in the relationship between states and scientists. Governments invested in the development of lethal and nonlethal technologies that ultimately became essential to the war and national security. In the fall of 1939, the British scientific community rapidly shifted its focus from matters of pure research to work aiding the war effort.
Advances in the understanding of radio waves led to the development of radar, providing advance warning of enemy attacks. Other advances injected more and better electronics such as microwaves and early versions of digital computing devices into a wide range of military applications, laying the foundation for the commercial proliferation of electronics into everyday life after the war. Allied efforts to break the Nazi spy codes inspired the birth of the first rudimentary computers. The British mathematician Alan Turing and a team of scientists working for the British Secret Service set out to break the seemingly unbreakable Nazi Enigma code. In the process, they built an electromagnetic device that could cycle through hundreds of thousands of possible key/letter combinations in intercepted Nazi messages and eventually succeeded in breaking the code. Another breakthrough in computing was ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, which was first developed to calculate artillery trajectories for the U.S Army and performed its calculations at electronic, not mechanical, speed. It is estimated that by 1955, ENIAC had completed more calculations than humans had ever solved to date.
Long-term results of World War II include the beginning of computerization. Alan Turing predicted that someday machines would be able to pass the Turing test, which he called the imitation game. That is, machines would behave in ways that were indistinguishable from human actions. This video explains the Turing test in more detail. Presented in this video is an example of the logic of artificial intelligence as demonstrated in “Sophia answers the Trolley Problem.”
Advances were made in life-saving scientific and medical techniques as well. A major medical development during the war improved the use and mass production of the antibiotic penicillin. Another life-saving advance was the achievement of Charles Drew, an African American physician who developed the process of rendering blood plasma, making it easier to store it for longer periods of time and offering an effective replacement for whole-blood transfusions. But racial bias entered the picture in 1941 when the American Red Cross agreed with a War Department decision to label blood and plasma as either “White” or “Negro.” Dr. Drew resigned from the National Blood Bank as a result of this racist and unscientific policy.
Few developments were more dramatic than the massive mobilization of scientific and civilian resources for the building of the atomic bomb. In December 1938, German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann accidentally split atoms and discovered nuclear fission. A few months later, the Germans established a secret weapons program called the Uranium Club to create an atomic bomb. Seeing the implications of Hahn’s work, German-born physicist Albert Einstein, who had recently immigrated to the United States, sent a letter to President Roosevelt that had been written by physicist Leo Szilard, warning Roosevelt of this research and urging an increased U.S. commitment to conducting its own.
By the late 1930s, British and other scientists became convinced that an atomic bomb was possible, and teams of physicists, some of them refugees from Nazi Germany, assembled and began experiments with nuclear chain reactions, the catalysts of an atomic explosion. In August 1942, the U.S. government boosted this effort with its top-secret Manhattan Project. At dozens of sites across the United States, from Los Alamos in New Mexico to Oak Ridge in Tennessee and Hanford in Washington State, 600,000 workers embarked on a frenetic race to build the world’s first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, Germany and Japan were also attempting to build their own. The German effort was hindered by technical and other problems. For example, top German scientists had fled Germany, and some were assisting the Manhattan Project. Further, Hitler preferred to support the development of V2 bombers for the air war with England rather than an atomic bomb. In 1941, the Japanese commissioned physicist Yoshio Nishina to begin working on an atomic bomb, calling the project Ni-Go. But lacking any information shared by the Germans and suffering under successful U.S. air raids, the project did not make much progress.
Eventually, in July 1945, the Manhattan Project bore fruit, and a bomb was successfully detonated in the Trinity Test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. William L. Laurence, the official historian of the project, described this first successful trial of an atomic weapon: “On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies split. One felt as though they had been privileged to witness the Birth of the World—to be present at the moment of Creation when the Lord Said: Let there be light.” President Roosevelt had died suddenly in April 1945, succeeded by Vice President Harry S. Truman. It fell to Truman to decide whether to use the new weapon or not.