An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the Second World War

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers the Second World War.


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The Second World War

E. H. Gombrich: Adolf Hitler had been a soldier in the First World War. He was a brilliant popular orator and drew huge crowds. He knew there was no better way to incite a mob to action than to give them a scapegoat, someone they could blame for their suffering, and he found one in the Jews.

Schoolchildren are often intolerant. Look how easily they make fun of their teacher if they see him wearing something unfashionable that the class finds amusing, and once respect is lost all hell breaks loose. And if a fellow student is different in some minor way – in the colour of their skin or hair, or the way they speak or eat – they too can become victims of hateful teasing and tormenting which they just have to put up with. Of course, not all young people are equally cruel or heartless. But no one wants to be a spoil-sport, so in one way or another most of them join in the fun, until they hardly recognise themselves.

Unfortunately grown-ups don’t behave any better. Especially when they have nothing else to do or are having a hard time – or, sometimes, when they just think they are having a hard time. They band together with other real or supposed companions in misfortune and take to the streets, marching in step and parroting mindless slogans, filled with their own importance. I myself saw Hitler’s brown-shirt supporters beating up Jewish students at Vienna University, and when I was writing this book, Hitler had already seized power in Germany. It seemed only a matter of time before the Austrian government would also fall, so I was lucky to be invited to England just in time, before Hitler’s troops marched into Austria in March 1938. After that, as in Germany, anyone who greeted someone with a simple ‘Good morning’ and not a ‘Heil Hitler!’ was taking a very grave risk.

Hitler believed in the power of propaganda, a faith which seemed justified when the successes of the first two years of the war exceeded even his wildest expectations. Poland, Denmark and Norway, Holland and Belgium, France, large parts of Russia and the Balkans were overrun, and only Britain, that little island on the edge of Europe, still held out. And even that resistance could surely not last long, for, to the sound of trumpet fanfares, the German radio ceaselessly proclaimed how many ships carrying supplies and armaments intended for the British had been sunk by their U-boats. 

But when, without any declaration of war, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor and virtually destroyed it, and Hitler took it upon himself to declare war on the United States, and when, in the autumn of 1942, the German troops were beaten back in North Africa and defeated by the Russians in January 1943 outside Stalingrad, and when the German air force – the Luftwaffe – proved powerless to prevent the Allies’ devastating bombardments of German towns, it became clear that it takes more than fine words and fanfares to win a war.

I am reluctant to talk about the monstrous crime that was committed during the Second World War – after all, this book is intended for young readers who should not have to read about such things. But children grow up too, and they too must learn from history how easy it is for human beings to be transformed into inhuman beings through incitement and intolerance. And so it came about that, in the last years of the Second World War, the Jewish inhabitants of every country in Europe under German occupation – millions of men, women and children – were driven from their home countries. Most were put on trains and sent eastwards, where they were murdered.

The impact of technology was demonstrated in the Second World War, when the almost inexhaustible reserves of the American arms industry, which benefited both Britain and Russia, made the outcome inevitable. Despite the desperate resistance put up by the German soldiers, the British and Americans were able to land on the French coast of Normandy in the summer of 1944 and drive the Germans back. At the same time the Russians were pursuing a by now unresisting German army and, in April, they finally reached Berlin, where Hitler took his own life. 

However, with the defeat of Germany the World War was still not over, for the Japanese, who had meanwhile conquered large parts of Asia, were far from defeated. And because no end was in sight, the Americans brought out an entirely new weapon: the atomic bomb. In August 1945, the Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the first victims of an unimaginable catastrophe, and Japan was finally defeated.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Second World War

BBC Bitesize (KS3)

World War Two

BBC Bitesize (GCSE)

World War Two 

Who was to blame for World War Two?

World War Two and Germany 1939-1945

BBC History

World War Two: Summary Outline of Key Events – Bruce Robinson 

World War Two (multiple resources) 

BBC Teach

World War Two with Dan Snow (video) 

Hitler’s Rise to Power – Andrew Marr (video) 

World War Two (videos) 

BBC In Our Time

Hitler in History 

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

A rich assortment of essays, video, images, primary sources, and lesson plans relating to America in World War II (note: currently available for free for parents and guardians of K-12 students; usually $25 for a year’s subscription) 

History.com

A wide collection of articles and videos on the Second World War, the Holocaust, and other related topics 

 Khan Academy

World War Two (multiple resources) 

The Yale Blog

Second World War blogposts

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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