World War II was a great tragedy, claiming 60 million lives and throwing millions more into turmoil. Yet the war also spurred rapid technological development, hastened the end of colonialism, and laid the foundation for institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. Here are 42 maps that explain the conflict — how it started, why the Allies won, and how it has shaped the modern world.
1) World War II, animated
World War II was the biggest conflict in world history, with major battles on three continents and some of the largest naval engagements in history. This amazingly detailed animated map, by YouTube user Emperor Tigerstar, provides a global view of the conflict. It shows Japanese conquests in the Pacific, German gains in Europe, and then the slow but inexorable Allied effort to recapture the lost territory. The full YouTube animation, available here is even more detailed, with a frame for each day of the war.
2) The Allied countries had larger economies, a crucial factor in their triumph
A lot of factors contributed to the ultimate victory of the Allies over the Axis powers. But the most important factor was economics. Once the United States and the Soviet Union entered on the Allied side of the war in 1941, the combined economic output of the Allies was approximately twice that of the Axis powers. And that was crucial because World War II was the most mechanized war in history up to that point. Troops needed a constant supply of new tanks, guns, airplanes, ships, bombs, and other manufactured goods. It was only a matter of time before the gap in economic output provided a decisive advantage on the battlefield.
3) After World War I, the allies took territory away from Germany
Meeting in Paris in 1919, at the end of World War I, the victorious Allies redrew the map of Europe. They dismembered the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and shrank the borders of Germany, creating several new countries in Central Europe. Adolf Hitler exploited German resentment of the war’s outcome to aid his rise to power. When Hitler began forcefully annexing territory to his east in 1938, it provoked a political crisis and, a year later, the start of World War II.
The Axis (and the Soviet Union) attacks
4) Japan and China were already at war in 1937
People often describe World War II as beginning in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. But Japan and China had already been at war for several years at that point. China was politically chaotic in the early 1930s, and Japan saw opportunities for territorial expansion. Japan established a puppet state called Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1932 and dispatched troops to the area. Tensions escalated into full-scale war by 1937. This map shows the situation in 1940; the areas in pink were under Japanese control. Japan never gained full control of China, but neither could Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek expel the Japanese from Chinese territory without help from the United States.
5) Hitler demands the Sudetenland, the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia
Hitler annexed neighboring Austria in 1938, an event that was welcomed by many of the country’s inhabitants. Next, he set his sights on the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with large German-speaking populations. This map shows the fraction of German speakers in each of the judicial districts in the modern-day Czech Republic (which was then the western half of Czechoslovakia) in the 1930s. As you can see, areas near the borders with Germany (to the Northwest) and Austria (to the Southwest) were predominantly German-speaking. Hitler claimed that these regions should be part of Germany, and his threats to take them by force sparked a political crisis. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in Munich, in September 1938 to discuss the crisis. The Czechoslovakian government wasn’t invited the the negotiations. Chamberlain agreed to let Hitler annex these portions of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise from Hitler not to seek further territorial gains. Chamberlain declared that the agreement represented “peace for our time,” which of course it didn’t.
6) Germany and the Soviet Union shock the world with a non-aggression pact
People were used to thinking of Nazis and Communists as occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, so the world was stunned in August 1939 when Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin made a non-aggression pact. While the existence of the pact was made public, the world didn’t know about a secret addendum detailing Hitler and Stalin’s joint plan to dismember the countries that lay between them. So when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, the British and French responded by declaring war on the Nazis. In contrast, Stalin merely made plans to invade Poland from the other direction. By the end of 1940, the Soviet Union had not only annexed part of Poland, but the nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well.
7) Russia invades Finland in the “winter war”
Americans mostly remember World War II as a conflict to stop aggression by Germany and Japan. But it’s important to remember that America’s ally, the Soviet Union, was also guilty of unprovoked aggression. Not only did Soviet troops annex the Eastern half of Poland shortly after Hitler invaded the country, but the Russians launched the little-remembered “Winter War” against Finland in November 1939. The vastly outnumbered Finnish troops put up a surprisingly stiff resistance, imposing heavy losses on a Russian army that wasn’t well prepared for combat in the bitterly cold environment of a Finnish winter. Finland fought the Soviets to a standstill, losing about 10 percent of their territory but maintaining their sovereignty. Finland’s hostility toward the Soviets forced the relatively liberal democracy into an awkward de facto alliance with Nazi Germany. As a result, Finland was diplomatically isolated after the war and wasn’t invited to join the anti-Soviet NATO alliance.
8) France’s Maginot Line helped more than you think
The trench warfare of World War I convinced the French that a strong defense would be crucial to stopping a future German invasion. So France constructed a series of fortifications known as the Maginot Line (the heavy blue line in the lower-right of the map here) that stretched along the common border between France and Germany. Hitler realized that a frontal assault on the Line would be counterproductive. Instead, in a repeat of German strategy from World War I, Germany attacked through Belgium and Holland, two small countries that lay north of France. The Germans soon reached the portion of the French border not protected by the Maginot Line. The pink region in this map shows German gains between May 10 and May 16, 1940. The Maginot Line has become a symbol for backwards-looking bureaucracies that waste resources “fighting the last war.” But this criticism is somewhat unfair. It’s true that the fixed defenses of the Line were less useful against highly mobile Nazi tanks than they would have been against German troops circa 1914. But the Maginot Line still played an important role in the defense of France. It forced early fighting to occur on Belgian rather than French soil, giving the French army time to mobilize before German troops arrived. And it allowed the French — whose army was smaller than Germany’s — to concentrate their forces along the portions of the border not protected by the Maginot Line. The Line didn’t stop the Germans from overrunning French defenses, but it probably helped.
The Allies besieged
9) Tens of thousands of British troops escape from Dunkirk
The war in France didn’t go well for the Allies. French and British troops were forced to retreat rapidly as German troops advanced. By May 21, German troops had encircled the British forces, effectively trapping them with their backs to the sea. As the Germans closed in from three sides (gaining the territory highlighted in pink here), the British troops were ordered to evacuate, which they did between May 27 and June 4. In all, 338,000 British and French troops escaped. While the circumstances that necessitated the evacuation weren’t good news for the Allies, the successful evacuation was a minor triumph. It saved hundreds of thousands of British troops who would go on to fight the Nazis later in the war.
10) The amphibious invasion of the United Kingdom that never happened
Germany knocked France out of the war by the end of June 1940, leaving the United Kingdom to face the Nazis alone. This map shows Hitler’s planned next step: an amphibious invasion of the British Isles. But first, Germany needed to gain control of the skies over Britain. The British were determined to prevent that. The conflict British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dubbed the “Battle of Britain” was the first large-scale conflict to be fought primarily in the air. It didn’t go well for the Nazis. Between July and October, they lost dramatically more airplanes than the British. British industry was able to build planes more quickly than their enemies could destroy them, something that wasn’t true for the Germans. As the British advantage in the air grew, Hitler was forced to shelve his invasion plans.
11) Hitler begins targeting British cities
As it became clear he wasn’t going to be able to destroy the Royal Air Force, Hitler switched strategies and began bombing British cities, an event that became known as the Blitz. Thanks to the Bomb Sight project, you can see an interactive map of bombs dropped on London between October 7, 1940, and June 6, 1941. These attacks took a heavy toll, with as many as 43,000 British civilians killed and 139,000 injured. And those Londoners not directly touched by tragedy were profoundly affected by having to spend many long, uncomfortable nights in bomb shelters. Hitler hoped that attacking civilian populations could break the spirit of the British people, but he underestimated his foes. Brits emerged from months of bombings as determined as ever. The British and Americans bombers would subject German cities to even more intensive bombings later in the war. A three-day bombing campaign against Dresden in February 1945 took more than 20,000 German lives.
12) A Nazi-friendly French government takes power in Vichy
Officially, Germany didn’t complete its conquest of France in 1940. Instead, France signed an armistice that preserved a degree of French sovereignty in the southern parts of France that had not yet been overrun by German troops. In a July 10 vote, the French Parliament voted to give power to a new, Nazi-friendly regime under former general Philippe Pétain. What sovereignty the Vichy government had was ended in November 1942, when the Nazis occupied the rest of France. While the Vichy government maintained nominal control after 1942, it was a puppet regime for the remainder of the war. The degree to which the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis — including participation in the persecution of Jews — has been a source of controversy and recrimination in French society ever since.
The USA and USSR are drawn into the conflict
13) Hitler betrays Stalin and invades Russia
In 1939, Hitler had signed a pact vowing not to attack the Soviet Union. But in June 1941 Hitler broke his promise and invaded his eastern neighbor. In the first few months, the campaign was stunningly successful. The Nazis were able to drive hundreds of miles east and reach the outskirts of Moscow by October. But then Stalin was saved by the bitterly cold winter. The Soviets had more experience operating in cold weather and were better prepared than the Nazis. German equipment was not designed for below-zero temperatures, German soldiers were under-dressed, and they lacked essentials such as antifreeze. Germany never took Moscow, and that failure proved to be a crucial turning point in the war. Germany simply didn’t have the manpower or industrial base to fight a prolonged two-front war against the Soviet Union and the British Empire.
14) The Nazis begin a gruesome siege of Leningrad
One of the worst places to be during World War II was in Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), which is located at a strategic location on the Gulf of Finland. When the Germans reached Leningrad in September 1941, they decided to simply encircle the city and starve its inhabitants into submission. They received some assistance from the nearby Finns, who took territory north of Leningrad. Hundreds of thousands of Leningrad residents died in the winter of 1941-42. The worst month of the famine, February 1942, had days when more than 20,000 people died. The city’s suffering would have been even worse if the Soviets had not succeeded in building the “Road of Life,” a route across the frozen Lake Ladoga that allowed some provisions to be brought into the city and some civilians to be sent out. The city remained under siege for more than two years before the Red Army finally drove the Nazis out of the area.
15) The Japanese stage a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
As war raged in Europe and Asia, Americans remained ambivalent about the conflict. Many took a dim view of America’s involvement in World War I, and they didn’t want to send their sons to die on distant battlefields again. But everything changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. This map shows which ships were in the harbor that morning and how much damage the Japanese attack did. Japan regarded US entry into the war as inevitable (America had already imposed trade restrictions over Japanese attacks in China), and they hoped that a surprise attack would destroy enough of the American Navy to ensure Japanese dominance of the sea. This proved to be a miscalculation. For one thing, the most powerful ships in the American fleet, its aircraft carriers, were not in the area on that fateful day. But more important, the American economy was more than five times as large as Japan’s — the US quickly replaced the ships that had been destroyed, and would eventually build many more.
16) The Japanese empire expands in the Pacific
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to knock the US Navy out of commission, clearing the way for an ambitious military campaign in the Pacific. It is illustrated by this map prepared by Douglas MacArthur, one of the top American commanders in the Pacific. (Solid lines show actual Japanese attacks, dotted lines show attacks the Americans feared could come next.) In the months after the Hawaii attack, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, Burma, New Guinea, and the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese took the British colonies of Hong Kong in December and Singapore in February. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had conquered a broad swath of Southeast Asia, shattering the aura of European and American invincibility that had allowed Western nations to dominate the region for so long.
17) Japanese kill thousands in the Bataan Death March
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, a US colony at the time, the American and Filipino troops stationed there were outgunned, and they soon got cornered on the Bataan Peninsula. They surrendered after a 3-month siege. The victorious Japanese took around 75,000 prisoners, including around 10,000 American troops. The prisoners were then forced to march 65 miles up the peninsula to San Fernando, where they boarded railcars bound for a prisoner-of-war camp further north. Japanese troops beat the prisoners, denied them food and water, and coldly executed stragglers. Precise casualty counts are disputed, but it is believed that the march cost hundreds of American lives along with several thousand Filipinos. The Bataan Death March, as it became known to Americans, was hardly the worst atrocity of the war — the Japanese atrocities in Nanking killed many more non-combatants, for example. But Bataan was one of the biggest atrocities to take American lives, and so became widely known in the United States. A Japanese general who oversaw the Philippines campaign was tried for war crimes and executed in 1946.
18) Hitler suffers a crucial defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad
After a 1941 campaign that tried and failed to take the northerly cities of Moscow and Leningrad, Hitler turned his attention to the south in 1942. The plan was to capture the Caucasus and its rich oil fields. But in what historian Max Hastings calls “the decisive blunder of the war in the east,” Hitler decided in July to divert a large part of his forces to capture the city of Stalingrad, which is on the right-hand side of the map here. Stalingrad didn’t have any great strategic importance, but the city’s name gave the fight symbolic significance for both Hitler and Stalin. Weeks of brutal urban warfare followed, as the German’s sought to take the city one building at a time. In November, the Russians launched a counteroffensive to relieve the city, encircling the German attackers and taking tens of thousands of prisoners. The Stalingrad conflict cost the Germans as many as 800,000 casualties, while Soviet casualties numbered more than a million. Many historians consider the Battle of Stalingrad to be a decisive turning point in the European war.
The Allies retake Europe and Africa
19) Britain goes to war in North Africa
After the fall of France, Britain didn’t have the military strength required to mount an amphibious invasion of the Axis-held European continent. But British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was anxious to demonstrate to his people that Britain could continue making a contribution in the fight against fascism. So he dispatched troops to North Africa, where he hoped to dislodge the Italians — a German ally — from their colony in Libya. The British routed the Italians, taking tens of thousands of prisoners. But an exasperated Hitler dispatched a contingent of German troops commanded by the brilliant Erwin Rommel, who was able to reverse some of the British gains and extend the war in North Africa for another two years.
20) De Gaulle’s conquests in Africa
Of the French troops evacuated to Dunkirk, three quarters asked to be sent home to France, where they would be under the authority of the Nazi-friendly Vichy regime. But a minority of French troops opted to join the Free French, a government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle. Over the next few years, de Gaulle and his troops fought alongside the Allies. This map shows one of de Gaulle’s most important contributions to the Allied cause: wresting control of many of France’s colonial possessions away from the Vichy government. These military victories deprived Hitler of much-needed resources while building up de Gaulle’s own legitimacy in the eyes of the French people.
21) The Allies invade Italy
In 1943, the Western Allies still doubted they were strong enough for a direct assault on the Germans in France. So they attacked the Italian Peninsula instead. They hoped to knock the Italians out of the war, leaving Germany to fight the Allies alone. An amphibious assault on Italy began in September 1943. While the Allies did make progress up the Italian peninsula, it was too slow to play a decisive role in the outcome of the war. The British and Americans were still working their way north nine months later when they opened up another front with an amphibious landing in France.
22) A massive invasion on the beaches of Normandy
Since 1941, Stalin had been urging his British and American allies to open a second front in France. The stakes of such an invasion couldn’t have been higher. A failed amphibious landing could have not only cost tens of thousands of lives, it would have handed the Nazis a valuable propaganda victory as well and shaken the world’s confidence in the Allies. The Western Allies finally felt ready to retake France in June 1944. This map shows the invasion plan, which was dubbed Operation Overlord. It involved the amphibious landing of 150,000 British, American, French, and Canadian troops to beaches in Normandy, across the English Channel from Great Britain.
23) The Allies advance in Europe
Operation Overlord succeeded. The summer and fall of 1944 saw the Axis powers in Europe retreating along all fronts. In the West, British, American, and French troops recaptured France. In the East, the Soviets took parts of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkan nations. The Allies also advanced somewhat on the Italian front. This progress set the stage for the final advance on Germany’s homeland in 1945.
24) The Soviet Union’s sacrifice dwarfed that of the Western allies
For obvious reasons, American memories of World War II focus on episodes where the United States or our English-speaking allies played an important role. But it’s important to remember that the people of the Soviet Union bore a disproportionate share of the burden in fighting the German war machine. The Americans and British each suffered around 400,000 deaths of military personnel. France suffered 200,000. The number of Soviet deaths is disputed, but the Soviets lost at least 8.6 million soldiers and possibly as many as 13.8 million. In other words, around 90 percent of the Allies who died fighting the Nazis were Soviet.
25) The aircraft carrier
The aircraft carrier came of age during World War II. In previous wars, ships shot at each other with increasingly powerful and long-range guns. Aircraft carriers rendered these older ships practically obsolete. Ships became floating platforms for aircraft that could fly much further than any gun could shoot, dropping bombs or torpedoes on enemy ships. The major naval battles of World War II revolved around each side’s efforts to sink the other’s carriers. This aerial photographs shows the first three American aircraft carriers, Lexington (top), Saratoga (middle), Langley (bottom) moored at Bremerton, WA, in 1929.
When Germany tried to bomb Great Britain into submission in 1940, the Brits had a secret weapon: a new technology called radar that allowed them to “see” incoming aircraft while they were still crossing the English channel. That allowed the defenders to send up their own pilots to intercept the attackers. The Germans had developed their own radar technology, but the British developed much better techniques for integrating the intelligence obtained from radar to guide tactical decisions.
27) The Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project, the top-secret project to develop the first atomic bombs, was one of the most ambitious and expensive military research projects in history. The project employed as many as 130,000 people and cost more than $2 billion (about $25 billion in modern-day dollars). This map shows the sites where the most important Manhattan Project work was conducted. A key site was in Oak Ridge, TN, where the military constructed facilities for separating uranium. The scientific research needed to develop the bomb was centered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The Hanford Engineer Works facility near Richland, WA, was the site of plutonium enrichment efforts. Scientists detonated the first nuclear explosion in history at the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.
28) The Allied code-breaking advantage
The British and Americans enjoyed a huge strategic advantage: for much of the war, they could decipher their enemies’ coded messages. The center for British code-breaking was Bletchley Park, an estate about 50 miles northwest of London. Here, a team of brilliant mathematicians and code-breakers, backed by as many as 9,000 support staff (predominantly women), analyzed coded enemy messages that had been transmitted by radio. To help them break the sophisticated German codes, the Bletchley Park team constructed some of the world’s most elaborate computing devices, which became the forerunners of modern computers. American code-breakers enjoyed similar success in cracking Japanese codes. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US commander Dwight Eisenhower, and other observers all gave these code-breaking efforts a major share of the credit for winning the war. This map shows the modern-day Bletchley Park, which has been turned into a museum.
29) Germany’s V-2 rocket
While American and British scientists were inventing the atomic bomb, German scientists were creating a super-weapon of their own: the long-range V-2 rocket. Between September 1944 and April 1945, the Germans fired around 3,000 V-2 rockets at Allied targets, killing at least 7,000 people. While the V-2 was a technological marvel, it wasn’t a terribly practical weapon. It was expensive, and unlike bombers it could only be used once. V-2 rockets were not accurate enough to reliably hit high-value military targets. The V-2 was the forerunner of the Intercontinental ballistic missiles the US and the USSR both developed in the 1950s to deliver nuclear warheads. Many of the German scientists who had built the V-2 went on to build rockets for the American space program.
30) The Battle of Midway was a turning point in the Pacific War
The turning point in the Pacific war came in June 1942, when American and Japanese naval forces met near the American-held Midway Islands. The Japanese attacked the islands, hoping to provoke a battle with what they expected to be an inferior American fleet. But the Americans had cracked the Japanese codes, so they knew exactly what they were up to. On June 4, four Japanese aircraft carriers (on the left in this map) engaged three American ones (at right). The Japanese made the mistake of launching an initial strike against land-based forces on Midway rather than against the American carriers. That allowed the US to launch the first carrier-to-carrier attack of the battle. The results were devastating: all four Japanese carriers suffered fatal blows. The single remaining Japanese carrier managed to cripple the American carrier Yorktown, which sank the next day. Still, the battle marked a turning point in the Pacific War. The Japanese, whose navy had previously dominated the Pacific, struggled to replace the carriers it lost at Midway. A growing fleet of American aircraft carriers soon had the Japanese on the defensive.
31) A desperate Japanese gambit at Leyte Gulf
In October 1944, American and Japanese forces fought one of the biggest and most dramatic naval battles of the war. The Americans were trying to retake the Philippines, and they decided to begin by taking the island of Leyte. By this point, the Japanese were severely outgunned, but they staged a last, desperate effort to ward off defeat. The Japanese divided their forces up into three groups. One group of Japanese ships approached from the west and were attacked by American aircraft carriers (#1 on the map). The second group of Japanese ships — a group of four under-supplied aircraft carriers the Japanese hoped to sacrifice as decoys — appeared to the north, drawing America’s aircraft carriers away from the invasion site. (Toward #3 on the map.) Meanwhile, the final group of Japanese ships attacked from the south, drawing additional American ships away (#2 on the map). That left the American invasion force in the Leyte Gulf vulnerable. The middle Japanese group steamed east and caught the few remaining ships by surprise. The Americans were desperately outgunned and lost several ships. The Japanese could have inflicted more damage, but their commander lost his nerve. Fearing that more powerful American ships were about to return from the south, he broke off his own attack and retreated after a little more than 2 hours of fighting. The Japanese not only failed to stop the invasion in the Philippines, they lost so many ships that they would never again be able to launch an attack of this scale.
32) American bombs devastate Japanese cities
As the war in the Pacific reached its final phase in early 1945, American bombers began firebombing major Japanese cities. This map, from the US Military Academy, shows the extent of the damage in six of Japan’s largest cities. A single attack in Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945 killed more than 100,000 people. It may have been the single deadliest air raid of the entire war.
33) The US drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima
In the summer of 1945, the Japanese military situation was hopeless. The US Navy controlled the waters around Japan and could bomb its cities with impunity. Yet the Japanese refused to surrender, hoping that by holding out they could negotiate more favorable terms. In August, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This map shows the devastating consequences. The trauma of these attacks — and fears that America might drop atomic bombs on Tokyo next — led to Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945.
34) 6 million Jews die in the Holocaust
When reports began to come in about the mass slaughter of Jews, many in the West dismissed it as propaganda — exaggerated reports of enemy atrocities were common during World War I. It was only after the war was over, and the Allies had a chance to see the results of the Nazis’ actions first-hand, that the awful reality became clear. A campaign of mass murder, organized from the highest levels of the Nazi regime, killed around 6 million Jews. The Nazis dispatched death squads into occupied territories, where they would kill as many as 30,000 people in a single operation. They also organized a network of death camps to aid in the slaughter. This map shows the results. More than 80 percent of Jews in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were killed, as were large numbers in Hungary, Austria, and Romania. A smaller but still significant percentage of Jews in Italy and France perished. Notably, Denmark (north of Germany) was under German occupation, yet few of its Jews perished. That’s because Danish resistance fighters managed to smuggle 7200 of the country’s 7800 Jews to neutral Sweden. After the war, hundreds of Nazi officials were convicted of war crimes for their role in the Holocaust.
35) Jews create the new state of Israel
The end of World War II brought a flood of Jewish refugees from across Europe to Palestine, which had been under British rule since World War I. The newly-formed United Nations adopted a 1947 resolution calling for the region to be divided between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The proposal received support from the region’s Jews, but widespread opposition among Arabs, who both felt that Jewish settlers were being given a disproportionate share of the land and rejected the basic principle that Jews deserved a state in Palestine altogether. When Britain ended its supervision of Palestine in May 14, 1948, the Jews declared the creation of a new state of Israel. The new state was not recognized by its neighbors; Egypt, Jordan, and Syria all attacked the next day. The Israelis won the war, gaining control of more territory than they would have received under the UN proposal and creating many Palestinian refugees.
36) The Berlin Airlift saves West Berlin from Communist domination
European countries liberated from the Nazis by British, French, or American troops were allowed to become independent, democratic nations. In contrast, the Soviets installed Communist client states in their areas of occupation. This tension was most acute in Germany, which was carved up into four zones of influence — one each for the British, French, Russians, and Americans. The British, French, and American zones were combined to form the democratic state of West Germany. The Soviet zone became the authoritarian East Germany. But awkwardly, the German capital of Berlin, which had also been divided into four zones, was 100 miles inside the Communist zone. In 1948, in an effort to seize control over all of Berlin, Stalin stopped allowing surface shipping between West Germany and the Western-occupied sections of Berlin. The West responded with the Berlin Airlift, delivering vast quantities of supplies to the West Berliners by air. After a year, the Soviets relented and lifted their blockade, allowing goods to be delivered by truck and rail once again. But West Berlin would be surrounded by a hostile Communist government for another 40 years.
37) America goes to war to defend South Korea
After the war, the Korean Peninsula became divided much as Germany had been. The southern half of the peninsula was administered by the United States, while the Soviet Union took control in the north. As in Germany, this resulted in rival governments: a Western-friendly South Korea and a communist North Korea. In 1950, the North invaded the South with Stalin’s blessing. The United States intervened to defend South Korea and not only repelled the invasion force but continued on to invade into the north. That triggered an intervention from China, which helped push the Americans back to the south. The war ended with an armistice signed in 1953. Since then, South Korea has evolved into a wealthy, liberal democracy, while North Korea has one of the most repressive and economically backwards regimes on the planet.
38) The European powers lose their colonies
World War II fatally undermined the legitimacy of European rule over populations in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Not only did Japanese conquests shatter the European aura of invincibility, but non-whites resented the way their white rulers had treated them as second-class citizens during the war. The war’s end triggered a series of independence movements that ended European colonial rule almost everywhere by the 1960s. India gained independence from Britain relatively peacefully in 1947. Guerilla fighters in Vietnam drove the French out between 1946 and 1954. An insurgency in Algeria forced France to give up that territory in 1962, and France granted most of its other African possessions independence in 1960. By 1980, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom had also granted their African colonies independence.
39) US military bases in Germany
After the war, America established military bases in Germany to oversee the reconstruction of the country, ensure stability, and prevent another militarist regime from taking hold there. Seven decades later, many of those bases are still there (this map shows bases as of 2008), with around 40,000 Americans troops stationed at them. The American military presence, and Germany’s membership in the anti-Soviet (and now effectively anti-Russian) NATO alliance, allows Germany to spend just 1.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense, about a third of what the United States spends.
40) US military bases in Japan
The United States has also maintained its bases in Japan, which spends even less — 1 percent of GDP — on defense than the Germans do. The American military presence has sometimes created tensions in Japan. This is especially true on one of Japan’s southernmost islands, Okinawa. Okinawa hosts a disproportionate share of American troops, and there have been periodic scandals in which Americans have been accused of sexually assaulting Japanese women.
41) The European Union
In the first half of the 20th century, there had been two devastating wars that pitted the Germans against the French. A major motivation for the European Union, which began in 1957 as a free-trade area, was the hope that tighter economic and political integration among Europe’s major powers would help prevent another war. Over time, the EU has become both larger and more deeply integrated. Perhaps as a result, the continent’s major powers have never fought another war against each other.
42) The United Nations
In the wake of World War I, the victorious Allies attempted to create a League of Nations that could help mediate disputes and prevent the outbreak of another war. That obviously didn’t work, but the winners of World War II were determined to try again. They created the United Nations and established its headquarters in New York. As this map shows, almost every sovereign nation on Earth has become a member of the organization. The body’s most important institution is probably the UN Security Council whose five veto-wielding permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — were the major victors of the Second World War.
- 40 maps that explain World War I
- Here’s how Hitler invaded Poland
- 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire
Developer: Yuri Victor
Editor: Matthew Yglesias
Artist: Tyson Whiting
Video: Joss Fong
Special thanks: Zack Beauchamp
Correction: The article originally misstated the number of aircraft carriers the Japanese lost at the Battle of Midway.