In the story of World War II we all know, a handful of murderous villains and flawed yet capable defenders of democracy drive the narrative. The authors of a Kings College London project argue that this conventional history shows “a preoccupation with the culpability of statesmen….. Above all else, the debate about war in 1939 revolves around personalities.” But there is another way to see the causes of war: through the escalating arms race of the 1930s, despite the global push for disarmament following World War I’s devastation.
The leaders of Germany, Italy and Japan wanted war, yet their ability to wage it, and the ways in which that war played out, came down to logistical contests between war machines. “First in Berlin, then in Rome and finally in Tokyo,” writes historian Joseph Maiolo, “the ebb and flow of arms competition compelled leaders to make now-or-never decisions about war.” Such decisions produced a wealth of unintended consequences, and led to catastrophic losses of life. Air, sea, and land power created at an unheard-of industrial scale turned war into an assembly line-like process that “would see humans as no more than pieces of a larger military-industrial machine,” as theorist of war Manuel De Landa writes.
Thus, we see the enormity of the casualties of WWII. Millions of soldiers were fed to the front lines in “the need to prepare for future total wars that would demand sweeping mobilization,” writes Maiolo. Wars for global supremacy demanded all of the state’s capital, especially its human resources. The animated map above tells that story in raw numbers: “WWII Every Day with Army Sizes.” Beginning with Germany’s declaration of war on Poland on September 1st, 1939, the map covers the entirety of the war, showing numbers — sometimes in the tens of millions — fluctuating wildly along the front lines of every theater.
1939 may be the only logical starting point for this presentation. Yet when it comes to understanding why World War II claimed more lives than any other war in history, the explanation must begin several years earlier with arms dealers and generals seeking bigger and bigger budgets for more sophisticated weaponry. As technical problems increased so too did the human costs, until the struggle for global supremacy during WWII became a proliferating race toward mutually assured destruction after the war’s end.