To What Extent Was the Second World war in Europe Decided by Economic Factors?


The Second World War is often considered the most extensive war in humankind’s history. At least 100 million people drawn from more than 30 nations participated in the war.  Owing to the fact that the Second World War was a total war – there were no restrictions with respect to the goals pursued, combatants and territories involved and the weapons utilized – the chief participants in the war dedicated all their scientific, industrial and economic resources towards the war. The Second World War was also characterized by mass civilian deaths, a holocaust, and bombing of both populated areas and industrial centres. Resulting in about 50-80 million casualties, the Second World War is usually considered the deadliest conflict in terms of the death toll in the history of humankind. As aforementioned, the Second World War was a total war, which implies that economic variables played a role in determining the outcome of the War.

Since the industrial revolution, economic factors have played an important role in warfare. Prior to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, military power was crucial in determining the outcome of war. Military power was measured using the number of horses and man that a participant was able to raise. At the same time, a large number of men posed problems relating to feeding them and supplying them with weapons. Warfare during the pre-industrial age was constrained by the difficulty in collecting taxes, and recruiting militants in large territories. The significance of economic factors in warfare was highlighted during the American Civil War as well as the early 20th century in Europe during the Franco Prussian War that occurred during 1870. As of 20th century, wars involving great powers were characterized by countries dedicating at least 50 percent of their resources into the war. As a result, the side endowed with vast resourced won. However, this does not imply that having vast resources guarantees victory. Wars can be won using two ways, which include the use of surprise attacks and using an overwhelming force derived from economic resources. The Second World War was characterized by both tactics, although surprise attacks were uncommon and was mostly used by Germany. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the extent to which the outcome of the Second World War was influenced by economics. In this respect, this paper adopts a general understanding of the concept of “economic factors,” which include the resources available, their amount and superiority, and their mobilization. 

It is imperative to note that resources are not only limited to physical resources but also human resources and assets in the form of technological and scientific knowledge. Moreover, in exploring the importance of economic factors in the Second World War, it is imperative to look at the two phases of the war, wherein during the first phase, economic variables were of less importance whereas military factors were of more importance. This is evident in the success of the Axis during the preliminary stages of the conflict. Japan and Germany had strategic advantages and military power that assisted them to defeat a combination of powers that were superior in terms of economics. Japan and Germany were favoured the use of surprise attacks, tactical trickery, promptness, and skilfulness. The importance of economic factors emerged during the second phase of the war, whereby the economically superior Allies started emerged victors by the end of the war. The economic weakness of the Axis could not compensate for their military power during the second stage (1942-1945) of the war. During the second phase, military superiority was less important whereas economic factors such higher population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) numbers helped the Allies to counterbalance the Axis. In the end, economic factors influenced the outcome of the war.

Economic Factors during Pre-war

Before delving into the role played by economic variables in influencing the Second World War, it is imperative to look at the economic conditions prior to the commencement of the war. The military and economic significance associated with the Gross Domestic Product and total population before the war imposed limitations on the availability of resources as well as personnel for the war in the power coalitions. The size of the territory was also an important factor before the war since it determined the diversity and amount of natural resources like mineral fuels and metal ores, and the extent to which each power coalition could establish a self-sustaining economic bloc amidst war disruptions on global trade. One faction of the war was the Anglo-French alliance system (Allies) that had a population of about 0.7 billion people when their corresponding colonies are considered – this constituted about 33 percent of the world’s population. The Allies covered a territorial space of 47.6 million km2. The other side was Axis that comprised of Germany, Japan, and Italy including their Japan colonies East Italian colonies. The Axis had a population of about 0.260 billion and covered a territorial space of about 6 million km2. Therefore, the Allies outstripped the Axis in terms of both territorial space and total population. In terms of GDP, during 1938, the Allies together with their affiliated colonies had a total GDP that surpassed $ 1 billion, which was over and above the total GDP of the Axis including their empires – about $ 0.75 billion. 

As a result, it is evident that, in all major economic aspects including territorial space, total population and GDP, the Allies were relatively advantaged when compared to the Axis. Specifically, the Allies enjoyed superior advantages in terms of territorial space and GDP, and slightly advantaged in terms of GDP. This can be attributed to the fact that the Allies were associated with low income economies in Asia and Africa; as a result, the territorial space of the Allies per head of the population was nearly three times more that of the Axis. However, the average income level for the Allies did not exceed $ 1500 whereas the average income level for the Axis was $ 2900. A similar imbalance was also evident in the case of China and Japan, wherein Japan was relatively poor in terms of European standards. However, the income level per head of Chinese was less than 50 percent of that of Japan. When focusing solely on the great powers with Japan and Germany on one side, and France and the United Kingdom on the other side, the exclusion of their respective colonies and lesser powers results in the balance shifting in favour of the Axis. Despite the fact that the Allies were endowed in resources and had higher GDP per head, they were relatively smaller when compared to the Axis powers. Overall, it is evident that, before the war, despite the fact that Allies were advantaged in terms of GDP, territory and population, they had lower income levels per head when compared to that of the Axis powers.


Economic Factors during Wartime

The war resulted in shifts in economic variables. This can be attributed to the new allies joining either sides of the war following its progression into a global conflict. During 1938-1942, Romania, Hungary and Finland joined the Axis coalition whereas the Soviet Union and the US joined the Allied. China also became an Ally despite the fact that it was already engaged in a war with Japan. The Allies benefited significantly following the globalization of the Second World War, in terms of population since the Soviet Union and US resulted in an additional 300 million people whereas Romania, Hungary and Finland resulted in an additional 28.5 million. The shifts in economic variables can also be partly attributed to the alterations in the jurisdiction following the expansion of the Axis. As of 1942, the 1938 Allies had lost territories that they had previously occupied prior to the commencement of the war having with a population of about 260 million. The shift in economic variables (population and territory) resulted in changes in the resources available on each side of the war. The wartime effect resulted in the shift of resources in favour of the Axis. Essentially, the Axis coalition was no longer considered being economically inferior when compared to the Allies as of 1942. Prior to the commencement of the War, Japan and Germany looked at the colonies of their enemies and perceived them to have vast sources of materials and labour; as a result, they anticipated to exploit them after taking them over. Concurrently, when looking at the home territories of their enemies, Japan and Germany did not expect any form of spirited economic mobilization as a means of responding to the expansionism of the Axis. In other words, Japan and Germany did not foresee that their adversaries would later become significantly richer than prior to the war, or that the colonies that had taken over would turn out poorer because of the war. Indeed, for every conquest by the Axis coalition, income levels reduced further. In addition, they were faced with the challenge of obtaining resources from their newly conquered territories. At the same time, the Allies were mobilizing their fiscal resources, which made them become richer and augmented their respective economic power when compared to before the beginning of the war.

As the war advanced, the Axis increased their financial strength although they failed to match the economic power of the Allies. Axis grew economic power from their expansion and the subsequent move by France to leave the Allies during 1940. However, from 1942, Allies significantly grew their fiscal power after US joined them. The US has the largest economy between the great powers with respect to the GDP. Italy moved out of the Axis, which further weakened the economic positon of the Axis. In addition, as the 1944 ended, the economies of Japan and Germany were crumpling. As a result, during 1942-43, the shift in economic balance favoured the Allies. In addition, it is imperative to note that, as of 1944, the great powers still participating in the war had at least 43 million battalions, of which 66 percent were fighting for the Allies. This is an indication that size advantages (territory) resulted in numerical strength in terms of military personnel. Because of the superior economic strength of their Allies, they had greater munitions. During the war, about 9000 naval vessels, 400000 military aircraft, at least 200000 tanks, at least 2 million mortars and guns, and about 50 million machine guns, automatic guns and rifles were produced. Majority of this war equipment were produced in dockyards and plants in Allies powers. The Allies dominated the production of warships, mortars, tanks, military aircraft and rifles. The result was that the Allied fighters had more equipment per soldier than the Axis fighters did.

Impact of Economic Development on the War

Territorial size was not the only important economic factors that influenced the war. The degree of economic development also played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the war. In this respect, the Allies were relatively advantaged in terms of GDP per head. As mentioned earlier, the Allies had slightly higher income levels prior to the commencement of the war. However, it is imperative to note the unequal distribution of GDP amongst the Allied territories when compared to the Axis territories. As of 1942, Allies had the richest great power, the US and the least rich, China and the USSR including the low-income British colonies in Africa and India. From the war, an observation that could be made is that, when poor nations are attacked on a massive scale, their economies integrated irrespective of the size. This was attributed to lack of economic diversity, poorly commercialized agricultural economy, and low productivity. Poor economies including those large one depended significantly on agriculture and were not capable of diversifying to other economic activities. Japan was the most poor amongst the Axis powers, followed by Italy. Italy was the first Axis powers to fall in 1943, and then Japan in 1945. Japan and Italy were more vulnerable to external supply disruptions rather than internal disruptions. The economy of Germany, the wealthiest amongst the Axis powers, was the last collapse. Essentially, the Axis was more vulnerable economically, which helped the Allies in winning the war.


From the discussion, it can be inferred that the aftermath of the Second World War was decided by economic size in the sense that the Allies, the economic larger coalition, won the war. Nevertheless, it is also imperative to note that large GDP and population were important due to the developmental advantages associated with high GDP levels per head. Because of economic superiority, the Allies had more war equipment and were more resilient to the effects of the war as it progressed. In addition, it is evident that, during the early years of the war, economic factors were not important in influencing the aftermath of the war; however, the changes in alignments that occurred during the second phase of the war such as the US joining the Allies resulted in economic imbalance in favour of the Allies that ultimately resulted in the Allies winning the war. Therefore, an inference that can be made from this observation is that, largely, the Second World War outcome was decided by economic factors.


Related essays