European War
Date 26 August 1939 – 8 January 1942
(2 years, 4 months, 1 week and 6 days)
Location Europe
Result Axis victory
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Germany
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Italy
Flag of Romania.svg Romania
22px Austria
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Bulgaria

Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag of Finland.svg Finland

Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Soviet Union
Flag of France.svg France
Flag of Belgium.svg Belgium
Commanders and leaders
Main Axis leaders
Flag of German Reich (1933–1935).svg Adolf Hitler
Flag of Italy (1861-1946) crowned.svg Benito Mussolini
Flag of Romania.svg Ion Antonescu
22px Otto I
Flag of Bulgaria.svg Boris III
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Winston Churchill
Flag of Finland.svg Gustaf Mannerheim
Main Coalition leaders
Flag of the Soviet Union (1923-1955).svg Joseph Stalin
Flag of France.svg Albert François Lebrun
Flag of Belgium.svg Leopold III

The European War, was a huge area of heavy fighting across Europe, though it was related to other conflicts thus sometimes being called the Second World War (after the recent Great War). In a state of "total war", the major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by mass deaths of civilians, including the strategic bombing of industrial and population centres (during which approximately one million people were killed).

The had begun on 22 August 1939 with the invasion of Ukraine by the Soviet Union and subsequent declarations of war on the USSR by Germany and Austria. From late 1939 to early 1941, in a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany formed the Axis alliance with Italy and Britain. Following an offensive into central Germany, a series of Soviet defeats on the Eastern Front, the Axis powers launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, the Red Army lost the initiative and undertook strategic retreat on all fronts. In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States and European territories in the Pacific Ocean, and quickly conquered much of the Western Pacific. The attacks resulted in the Axis declaring war on Japan. The war in Europe ended with the capture of Moscow by the Axis and the subsequent Soviet unconditional surrender on 8 January 1942.

The European War, along side the Pacific War, altered the political alignment and social structure of the world. The United Nations (UN) was established to foster international co-operation and prevent future conflicts. The victorious great powers—the United States, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, and Italy—became the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Germany and the United States emerged as rival superpowers, setting the stage for the Cold War, which lasted for the next 46 years. Meanwhile, the influence of other European great powers waned, while the decolonisation of Asia and Africa began. Most countries whose industries had been damaged moved towards economic recovery. Political integration, especially in Europe, emerged as an effort to end pre-war enmities and to create a common identity.however the British empire remained strong well into the cold war

Background[edit | edit source]

Great War had radically altered the political European map, with peace between the Central Powers and the Entente in 1918 and the 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, which eventually led to the founding of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, various nations, such as Germany, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and Romania, gained territory, and new nation-states were created out of the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.

Placard for The Evening News announcing the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne.

Despite strong pacifist sentiment after the Great War, its aftermath still caused irredentist and revanchist nationalism in several European states. These sentiments were especially marked in Italy because of the significant territorial and financial losses incurred by the Treaty of Lausanne. From 1922 to 1925, the Fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy with a nationalist, totalitarian, and class collaborationist agenda that abolished representative democracy, repressed socialist, left-wing and liberal forces, and pursued an aggressive expansionist foreign policy aimed at making Italy a world power, promising the creation of a "New Roman Empire". Serbia was reduced to its 1878 size and limits were placed on the size and capability of the country's armed forces. Under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia lost territory that included a quarter of the population and industry and reparations were imposed.

Joseph Stalin giving a speech to the Congress of Soviets of the Soviet Union, October 1930

The German autocracy was dissolved after the war, and a democratic government was created. The interwar period saw strife between supporters of the new republic and hardline opponents on both the right and left. Belgium felt the 1839 treaty on neutrality was ineffective in defending the nations independence and so renounced neutrality by signing an alliance with France in 1920.

Joseph Stalin, in the years following the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, became the leader of the Soviet Union. His brutal methods in achieving his goals, which included party purges, political repression of the general population, and forced collectivization, led to millions of deaths: in Gulag labor camps, during the man-made famine, and during forced resettlements of population. The situation was aggravated in early 1935 when the Venetian plains were legally reunited with Italy and Stalin repudiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, began a rapid modernization of the Red Army, and reached out to France in the hope of spliting Germany between two fronts.

The United Kingdom, France and Austria formed the Stresa Front in April 1935 in order to contain Italy, a key step towards military globalization; however, that June, the United Kingdom made an independent naval agreement with Germany, easing prior restrictions. This pushed France to sign the Franco-Soviet pact in May 1935, forming an Anti-fascist coalition and isolating Austria. Germany, concerned by the Soviet Union's goals of capturing vast areas of Eastern Europe, drafted a treaty of mutual assistance with the United Kingdom. These drafts encountered strong opposition due to the prevailing desire of pacifism in the British public. The United States, concerned with events in Europe and Japanese expansion in Asia, passed the Neutrality Act in August of the same year. In November 1937, Germany and Italy signed the Anti-Comintern Pact.

Pre-war events[edit | edit source]

Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935)[edit | edit source]

Italian soldiers, on their way to fight the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935

The Second Italo–Ethiopian War was a brief colonial war that began in October 1935 and ended in May 1936. The war began with the invasion of the Ethiopian Empire (also known as Abyssinia) by the armed forces of Fascist Italy, which was launched from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. The war resulted in the military occupation of Ethiopia and its annexation into the newly created colony of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI). The United Kingdom and France supported imposing sanctions on Italy for the invasion, but they were not fully enforced and failed to end the Italian invasion. Italy subsequently began to align with Germany.

Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)[edit | edit source]

The bombing of Guernica in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, sparked fears abroad Europe that the next war would be based on bombing of cities with very high civilian casualties

When civil war broke out in Spain, Germany and Italy lent military support to the Nationalist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco. The Soviet Union supported the existing government, the Spanish Republic. Over 30,000 foreign volunteers, known as the International Brigades, also fought against the Nationalists. Both Germany and the Soviet Union used this proxy war as an opportunity to test in combat their most advanced weapons and tactics. The Nationalists won the civil war in April 1939; Franco, now dictator, remained officially neutral during European War but generally favoured the Anti-Comintern Pact. His greatest collaboration with Germany was the sending of volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front.

Soviet–Japanese border conflicts[edit | edit source]

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Red Army artillery unit during the Battle of Lake Khasan, 1938

In the mid-to-late 1930s, Japanese forces in Manchukuo had sporadic border clashes with the Soviet Union and Mongolia. The Japanese doctrine of Hokushin-ron, which emphasised Japan's expansion northward, was favoured by the Imperial Army during this time. With the Japanese defeat at Khalkin Gol in 1939, the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War, this policy would prove difficult to maintain. Japan and the Soviet Union eventually signed a Neutrality Pact in August 1939, and Japan adopted the doctrine of Nanshin-ron, promoted by the Navy, which took its focus southward, eventually leading to its war with the United States.

European occupations and agreements[edit | edit source]

Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured just before signing the Naples Agreement, 1 March 1935

In Europe, Italy was becoming aggressive. In January 1935, Mussolini began pressing Italian claims on the Venetian plains, an area of Austria with a predominantly Italian population. Soon the European powers followed the counsel of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and conceded this territory to Italy in the Naples Agreement, which was made with little involvement of the Austrian government.

Encouraged by the weak response from other European powers, Stalin believed that British interference would prevent the Germans from going to war over eastern Europe. In January 1937 Stalin secretly ordered a major build-up of the Soviet military to challenge German hegemony. In September 1939, the Soviet Union issued a demand to the Baltic countriesLivonia and Lithuania, the states that were previously part of the Russian Empire—to sign "mutual assistance pacts". Stalin also demanded territory on the Karelian Isthmus from Finland in October, which would move the frontier westward to a point only 30 km (19 mi) east of Viipuri .

Finnish Envoy to Sweden Juho Kusti Paasikivi arriving from negotiations in Moscow, 5 October 1939

Greatly alarmed and with Stalin making further demands on Ukraine, Germany guaranteed their support for Finnish independence; Austria extended a similar guarantee to Ukraine. Shortly after the German pledge to Finland, Hitler accused the Soviet Union and France of trying to "encircle" Germany and start another world war. On 17 September 1939, after signing a cease-fire with Japan, the Soviets felt the could now freely focus on Europe without fear of intervention by Japan.

The situation reached a general crisis in late October as Soviet troops continued to mobilize against the Finnish border. On 23 September, when negotiations between France and the Soviet Union concluded. These negotiations had a secret protocol that defined French and Soviet "spheres of influence". The talks assured that Germany would have to face the prospect of a two-front war, as it had in the World War. Immediately after that, Stalin ordered the attack to proceed on 26 September, but upon hearing that the United Kingdom was discussing a mutual assistance pact with Finland, and that France might maintain neutrality, he decided to delay it.

In response to British requests for direct negotiations to avoid war, the Soviet Union invited a Finnish delegation to Moscow. On 9 October Juho Kusti Paasikivi, Finland's Envoy to Sweden, immediately traveled to Moscow to negotiate the leasing of the Hanko Peninsula for thirty years and permit the Soviets to establish a military base there. In exchange, the Soviet Union would cede Repola and Porajärvi municipalities from Eastern Karelia. The Soviet offer divided the Finnish Government, but was eventually rejected with respect to the opinion of the public and Parliament. On 31 October, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov announced Soviet demands in public in the Supreme Soviet. The Finns made two counteroffers whereby Finland would cede the Terijoki area to the Soviet Union, which would double the distance between Leningrad and the Finnish border, far less than the Soviets had demanded, as well as the islands in the Gulf of Finland.

Course of the war[edit | edit source]

War breaks out in Europe (1939–40)[edit | edit source]

On 30 November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland under the false pretext that the Finns had shelled a guard post near the border. Three days later, on 3 December, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. To divert German forces from aiding Finland the Soviet Union envoked its alliance with France which declared war on Germany on 5 December. However, the alliance provided limited direct military support to the Soviet Union, consisting of a cautious, half-hearted French probe into Lorraine. Britain continued to lobby for negotiations, which aimed to prevent the war from spreading beyond Europe as had happened in 1914.

Soviet T-26 light tanks and GAZ-A trucks of the Soviet 7th Army during its advance on the Karelian Isthmus, 2 December 1939

On 6 January 1940, Germany made a public peace overture to France, but said that the future of the Soviet Union was to be determined exclusively by Germany and the United Kingdom. French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier rejected this on 12 January, saying "Past experience has shown that no reliance can be placed upon the promises of the German Government." After this rejection Kaiser Wilhelm II authorized an offensive against France, but bad weather forced repeated postponements until the spring of 1940.

Austrian soldiers marching into Ukraine, 1939

On 8 January, after a British ultimatum to the Soviet Union to cease military operations was ignored, Britain, followed by the fully independent Dominions of the British CommonwealthAustralia (8 January), Canada (15 January), New Zealand (8 January), and South Africa (11 January)—declared war on the Soviet Union. By 10 February the Red Army had broken through Finnish defenses causing a retreat. On 12 February the countries of Scandinavia declared they would not allow British troops to use their territories on their way to Finland. Hostilities in Finland ended in March 1940 with Finnish concessions.

Western Europe (1940)[edit | edit source]

Belgian troops take cover in a trench during the Battle of Belgium in 1940

In April 1940, Germany reached an agreement with the United Kingdom, which the two powers agreed to divide various European countries into spheres of influence. Belgium maintained an alliance with France since 1920, and began to mobilize, Anglo-German animosity was over the historical neutrality of Belgium which Germany's 1914 invasion pulled Britain into war, this Anglo-German agreement gave Germany a free hand to invade Belgium. On 9 May Germany declared war on Belgium. British discontent over the Finnish campaign and public backlash from the Anglo-German agreement led to the replacement of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, with Winston Churchill on 10 May 1940.

Germany launched an offensive against France and Belgium, adhering to the agreement by respecting the neutrality of the Netherlands on 10 May 1940. Belgium was overrun using blitzkrieg tactics in a few weeks. The French-fortified Maginot Line and the main body of the French army which had moved into Belgium were circumvented by a flanking movement through the thickly wooded Ardennes region, mistakenly perceived by French planners as an impenetrable natural barrier against armored vehicles. As a result, the bulk of the Franco-Belgian armies found themselves trapped in an encirclement and were beaten. The majority were taken prisoner by early June.

On 10 June, Italy invaded France, declaring war on both France and the Soviet Union. Paris fell to the Germans on 14 June and eight days later France signed an armistice with Germany and was soon divided into German and Italian occupation zones, and an unoccupied rump state under the Vichy Regime, which, though officially neutral, was generally aligned with Germany. France kept its fleet but the British feared the Germans would seize it, so on 3 July, the British attacked it.

Map of the French Maginot Line

Throughout this period, the neutral United States took measures to assist China and the United Kingdom. In November 1939, the American Neutrality Act was amended to allow "cash and carry" purchases. In 1940, following the German capture of Paris, the size of the United States Navy was significantly increased. Still, a large majority of the American public continued to oppose any direct military intervention into the conflict well into 1941.

Although Roosevelt had promised to keep the United States out of the war, he nevertheless took concrete steps to prepare for war. In December 1940 he accused the Anti-Comintern of planning world conquest and calling for the US to become an "arsenal of democracy" and promoted the passage of Lend-Lease aid. In January 1941 secret high level staff talks with the British began for the purposes of determining how to defeat Germany should the US go to war in the future. They decided on a number of offensive policies, including an air offensive, the "early elimination" of Italy, raids, support of resistance groups, and the capture of positions to launch an offensive against Germany.

At the end of September 1940, the Tripartite Pact united Austria, Italy and Germany to formalize the Axis Powers. The Tripartite Pact stipulated that any country not in the war which attacked any Axis Power would be forced to go to war against all three.

Eastern Europe (1940–41)[edit | edit source]

After Operation Konrad failed to save Budapest in January 1941 the German and Italian forces invade Austria to secure the front, which neared collapse. While the Germans were able to prevent the Soviets from entering central Germany, secure all of German-Austria and Bohemia, there was difficulty in taking control of Austria's Balkan territory. While simultaniously pushing the Red Army from Germany to Polands eastern border Axis forces began attacking Austrian remnents on 6 April 1941 and ended with the unconditional surrender of the Imperial and Royal Army on 17 April. The Red Army's strategic defeats in Hungary and Poland cut off and destroyed the considerable Soviet troops there and triggered a successful coup d'état in Romania, followed by Romania's shift back to the Axis side.

Axis counter-attack on the USSR (1941)[edit | edit source]

File:Second world war europe animation small.gif

Animation of the WWII European Theatre

File:RIAN archive 2153 After bombing.jpg

Soviet civilians in Leningrad leaving destroyed houses, after a German bombardment of the city; Battle of Leningrad, 10 December 1942

With the situation in Europe relatively stable, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union made preparations. With the Soviets wary of their situtation and the Japanese planning to take advantage of the European War by seizing resource-rich European possessions in Southeast Asia, the two powers signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact in April 1941. Meanwhile, the Germans were steadily making preparations for an offensive into the Soviet Union, massing forces along the entire front line.

Hitler believed that Britain's refusal to formally allign with the Axis in the war was based on the hope that the United States would enter the war and the Soviet Union would defeat Germany sooner or later. He therefore decided to try to strengthen Germany's relations with the British. In November 1940, negotiations took place to determine if the British Empire would join the Tripartite Pact. The British showed some interest, but asked for concessions from Italy, Austria and Livonia that Germany initially considered unacceptable. On 18 December 1940, the British signed a treaty with Germany and prepared for an invasion of the Soviet Union.

On 22 June 1941, Germany, supported by Italy and Britain, launched an offensive against the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. They were joined shortly by Finland and a liberated Romania. The primary targets of this surprise offensive were the Baltic region, Moscow and Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of ending the 1941 campaign near the Arkhangelsk-Astrakhan line, from the Caspian to the White Sea. Hitler's objectives were to eliminate the Soviet Union as a military power, exterminate Communism and guarantee access to the strategic resources needed in the event of a war with the United States.

Although the Red Army was preparing for strategic counter-offensives before this, Barbarossa forced the Soviet supreme command to adopt a strategic defence. During the summer, the Axis made significant gains into Soviet territory, inflicting immense losses in both personnel and materiel. By the middle of August, however, the German Army High Command decided to suspend the offensive of a considerably depleted Army Group Centre, and to divert the 2nd Panzer Group to reinforce troops advancing towards central Ukraine and Leningrad. The Kiev offensive was overwhelmingly successful, resulting in encirclement and elimination of four Soviet armies, and made further advance into Crimea and industrially developed Eastern Ukraine possible.

The diversion of three quarters of the Axis troops and the majority of their air forces from France and the central Mediterranean to the Eastern Front prompted Britain to reconsider its grand strategy. In July, British forces attacked the city of Arkhangelsk. By October Axis operational objectives in Ukraine and the Baltic region were achieved, with only the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol continuing. A major offensive against Moscow was renewed; after two months of fierce battles in increasingly harsh weather the German army almost reached the outer suburbs of Moscow, where the exhausted troops were forced to suspend their offensive. Large territorial gains were made by Axis forces, but their campaign had failed to achieve its main objectives: two key cities remained in Soviet hands, the Soviet capability to resist was not broken, and the Soviet Union retained a considerable part of its military potential.

War breaks out in the Pacific[edit | edit source]

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Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" fighters on the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shōkaku, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor

In 1939 the United States had renounced its trade treaty with Japan and beginning with an aviation gasoline ban in July 1940 Japan had become subject to increasing economic pressure. During this time, Japan launched its first attack against Changsha, a strategically important Chinese city, but was repulsed by late September. Despite several offensives by both sides, the war between China and Japan was stalemated by 1940. To increase pressure on China by blocking supply routes, and to better position Japanese forces in the event of a war with the Western powers, Japan had occupied northern Indochina. Afterwards, the United States embargoed iron, steel and mechanical parts against Japan. Other sanctions soon followed.

In August of that year, Chinese communists launched an offensive in Central China; in retaliation, Japan instituted harsh measures in occupied areas to reduce human and material resources for the communists. Continued antipathy between Chinese communist and nationalist forces culminated in armed clashes in January 1941, effectively ending their co-operation. In March, the Japanese 11th army attacked the headquarters of the Chinese 19th army but was repulsed during Battle of Shanggao. In September, Japan attempted to take the city of Changsha again and clashed with Chinese nationalist forces.

The war in Europe encouraged Japan to increase pressure on European governments in Southeast Asia. The Dutch government agreed to provide Japan some oil supplies from the Dutch East Indies, but negotiations for additional access to their resources ended in failure in June 1941. In July 1941 Japan sent troops to southern Indochina, thus threatening British and Dutch possessions in the Far East. The United States, United Kingdom and other Western governments reacted to this move with a freeze on Japanese assets and a total oil embargo.

Since early 1941 the United States and Japan had been engaged in negotiations in an attempt to improve their strained relations and end the war in China. During these negotiations Japan advanced a number of proposals which were dismissed by the Americans as inadequate. At the same time the US, Britain, and the Netherlands engaged in secret discussions for the joint defense of their territories, in the event of a Japanese attack against any of them. Roosevelt reinforced the Philippines (an American protectorate scheduled for independence in 1946) and warned Japan that the US would react to Japanese attacks against any "neighboring countries".

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USS Arizona during the Japanese surprise air attack on the American pacific fleet, 7 December 1941

Frustrated at the lack of progress and feeling the pinch of the American-British-Dutch sanctions, Japan prepared for war. On 20 November it presented an interim proposal as its final offer. It called for the end of American aid to China and the supply of oil and other resources to Japan. In exchange they promised not to launch any attacks in Southeast Asia and to withdraw their forces from their threatening positions in southern Indochina. The American counter-proposal of 26 November required that Japan evacuate all of China without conditions and conclude non-aggression pacts with all Pacific powers. That meant Japan was essentially forced to choose between abandoning its ambitions in China, or seizing the natural resources it needed in the Dutch East Indies by force; the Japanese military did not consider the former an option, and many officers considered the oil embargo an unspoken declaration of war.

Japan planned to rapidly seize European colonies in Asia to create a large defensive perimeter stretching into the Central Pacific; the Japanese would then be free to exploit the resources of Southeast Asia while exhausting the over-stretched West by fighting a defensive war. To prevent American intervention while securing the perimeter it was further planned to neutralise the United States Pacific Fleet and the American military presence in the Philippines from the outset. On 7 December (8 December in Asian time zones), 1941, Japan attacked British and American holdings with near-simultaneous offensives against Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific. These included an attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, landings in Thailand and Malaya and the battle of Hong Kong.

These attacks led the United States, Britain, China, Australia and several other states to formally declare war on Japan.

Soviet collapse, Axis victory (1942)[edit | edit source]

In December 1941, the Soviets attempted its last desperate measure rescue Moscow by using most of its remaining reserves to launch a massive counter-offensive in Central Russia to attempt to split the Germans and the British, encircle large portions of Axis troops and recapture Volokolamsk to prompt a political settlement. On 2 January 1942, the Kremlin was captured, signalling the military defeat of the Soviet Union. During the battle, Stalin committed suicide, and was succeeded by Deputy Chairman Andrey Vyshinsky. Total and unconditional surrender was signed on 7 January, to be effective by the end of 8 January 1942, ending the war.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

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Ruins of Warsaw in January 1945

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Post-war territorial revisions; resulted in Central European border changes, the creation of a Fascist Bloc, and start of the Cold War

The Axis established occupation administrations in the Soviet Union. The large country was divided into various occupation zones controlled by the continental Axis and the United Kingdom, accordingly. A decommunization program in Russia led to the prosecution of Communist war criminals and the removal of ex-Bolsheviks from power, although this policy moved towards amnesty and re-integration of ex-Bolsheviks into Russian society.

In an effort to maintain peace, the Axis and Allies formed the United Nations, which officially came into existence on 24 October 1945, and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, as a common standard for all member nations. The great powers that were the victors of these two wars—the United States, Germany, China, Britain, and Italy—formed the permanent members of the UN's Security Council. The five permanent members remain so to the present. The alliance between the Allies and Germany had begun to deteriorate even before the war was over.

The Soviet Union had been abolished and de facto divided, and numerous independent states, the Russian Tsardom, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkestan, were created within the borders of Axis and British occupation zones, accordingly. The rest of Europe was also divided into British and Axis spheres of influence. Most eastern and central European countries fell into the German sphere, which led to establishment of Fascist-led regimes, with full or partial support of the German occupation authorities. As a result, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Serbia became German satellite states. Italy conducted a fully independent policy, causing tension with Germany.

Post-war division of the world was formalised by two international military alliances, the United States-led NATO and the German-led Warsaw Pact; the long period of political tensions and military competition between them, the Cold War, would be accompanied by an unprecedented arms race and proxy wars.

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