Watch World War II Unfold Day by Day: An Animated Map

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

World War and Soci­ety in the 20th Cen­tu­ry: World War II (A Free Har­vard Course) 

Watch World War II Rage Across Europe in a 7 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1939 to 1945

The Stag­ger­ing Human Cost of World War II Visu­al­ized in a Cre­ative, New Ani­mat­ed Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Dennis Batchelor says:

    Thanks so much. My fam­i­ly moved to Ger­many in 1963 (father was US Army). Ger­many was still in a state of eco­nom­ic recov­ery from WWII. I loved his­to­ry and col­lect­ed WWII mil­i­tary mod­els (ships, planes, tanks). But, I was only 3rd to 5th grade. So I took in a lot as we toured all of west­ern Europe. But, it was hard to take in the scope and mag­ni­tude of the time line around the world. It’s amaz­ing how much Ger­many was able to grab before the US and USSR were able to flip the aggres­sion of Hitler.

    Thank you again.

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