World War Two was over... only, not really.
The war has ended, but the fighting hasn't. Some isolated bands of Axis forces and numerous partisan and revolutionary groups continue to fight the Soviets, the Allies, the Axis and each other. Whole Japanese platoons disbelieve the Emperor's surrender and continue fighting the Allies for months. Individual soldiers slip into the jungle on isolated islands and fight the Emperor's enemies well into The '70s. Many other units simply transition from partisan activities to organized crime, with banditry rife as the Allies find themselves unable to police effectively the huge areas and populations that have come under their nominal control. In China, particularly, the country's sheer size and political fragmentation mean that the transition from Imperial to nominally-republican control is rarely a smooth one, with Japanese garrisons in many cases being ordered to hold their positions until the Americans can fly loyal Guomindang troops over to take over from them. The Nationalists' underwhelming and inglorious victory by mere association with the USA increasingly looks like the prelude to a second and bloodier phase of the Civil War as Jiang vows to unite the country and eradicate its true enemy - Communism, as embodied by the recently-unified Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong.
Throughout the war, the Soviets had demonstrated a characteristically Russian contempt for their soldiers' intelligence. NKVD records show Red Army soldiers being both satisfied with the righteousness of their cause, and asking such wide and varied questions of their commissars as the state of food supplies from South America, the true effect of Allied strategic-bombing on German armaments production, and the shape of the post-war world to come. But High Command still thought that there was only one way to get the grunts to keep fighting into Germany itself: vengeance. From the Vistula-Oder Operation onward, the NKVD's commissars were ordered to whip the men into the frenzy of bloodlust that command deemed necessary. The likely cost to the civilian and POW populations was at best ignored, and if considered was deemed worth it. The result was at once similar and very different to the infamous indiscipline of Japanese soldiers in China - e.g. the Nanjing Massacre. For while Japanese soldiers were routinely brutalised, humiliated, and encouraged to take out their anger on others the Soviets had never and even in those final months did not do likewise. Even so, their behaviour was similar as an orgy of looting and mass-rapes ensued in Soviet-occupied Germany. There was even public disorder within the USSR itself as many categories of Gulag prisoners (some of the Red Army personnel who'd been captured by Germans but hadn't fought for them, white-collar criminals and petty thieves) were issued blanket-pardons and quickly re-offended. Soon sober again, their rage abated, and with shame coming to the fore the troops stopped of their own accord within just a couple of weeks.
For most civilians the first months of the post-war world are little different from the chaos and suffering that came before, except for the tens of millions of people on the move. Axis POWs are herded into concentration camps, where many will stay for years on end as the Allies decide what to do with them. Many refugees return home, only to find they have no home and/or family to go back to - assuming it's even in the same country anymore, as many Finns, Germans, Rumanians and Poles who have been fighting with The Commonwealth discover. Some, like the Finns of Petsamo and East Karelia, the Poles of Wilno and Lwow or the Germans of Silesia and East Prussia, are driven out from their homeland and to the new borders decided by The Big Three and more specifically Stalin. Rationing is still in effect in most places, and the Allies only barely avert famine through much of Europe and Japan as transportation problems compound those caused by their underestimation of the disruption the war caused to the former Axis powers' agricultural sectors. Rationing will continue to be a fact of life for many years to come - rationing in 1945-47 Britain is worse than it was at the height of the war, in fact - even as (after 1947) loans and grants given under the US' Marshall Plan help to repair the damage done to European and Japanese infrastructure. This is accompanied by a programme of debatable effectiveness to 'de-nazify' Allied-occupied Germany and Austria, moderated by the fact some are perceived as needed in their administrative posts. Other occuped countries also draw their elites from collaborateursnote .
France is an interesting case-study in this period. Despite the informal revenge-killings of 25,000-30,000 people in France and the widespread grassroots collectivisation of business that had been seen to collaborate with the Germansnote , only a few thousand people were imprisoned and formally tried with treason (many of these being found guilty and sentenced to death)note . 98+% of French Public Servants retained their positions (a figure quite typical throughout Europe, including Germany and even Japan). Moreover, many of those who had (by post-1980s moral standards) committed Crimes Against Humanity went on to become very rich and powerful. In France the Ur-Example would be Maurice Papon, who had organised the efficient deportation of Jews to Germany for extermination while a Police Chief in Occupied Bordeaux. Papon, valued for his competence and lack of moral qualms, was later dispatched to Algeria to organise repression in the Constantine Prefecture when the War in Algeria was just getting off the ground. (His condoning of random reprisal killings and torture negatively affected the humane conduct of the forces involved.) Later, as head of the Parisian Police, he was responsible for the 'Paris Passacre' (in which at least 200 were killed without trial by his men) and other measures to stamp out public protest of the Algerian War at home before going on to even higher office in the service of the French people. It was not until the 1980s that Papon was charged with 'Crimes Against Humanity', a new concept which stemmed from the belief that all humans had certain inalienable rights that it was immoral to violate (e.g. the right not to be the victim of murder/Genocide).
Papon's defence centered around the argument that he had only done his duty to his country and that he had acted to protect France from the excesses of the Germans. These were the two central themes of the 'Shield Argument' that had been put forward by many collborators and their sympathisers in the Post-War period. However, his lengthy trial made it clear that he and many like him had actually done far more than they needed to - in many cases because they liked Nazi goals and policies. Not only had they been highly efficient in carrying out the Nazis' wishes, but they had also exceeded them (this perhaps being Ur-Example of institutional Working Towards The Fuhrer involving a non-German organisation). The Ur-Example of this would be the French Police, who saved the SS a lot of time and manpower by rounding up the French Jews and Gypsies and deporting them to Germany even though they had not been asked to do so (the SS had just wanted their identities so they could do it themselves). The French Police also gave the SS French quarter-Jews, even though the SS had only asked for the identities of their full- and half-Jews. Papon was found guilty of Crimes Against Humanity, and during and after his trial his actions were often contrasted with those of one of the Bordeaux Police secretaries, who physically destroyed (at great personal risk) the identity cards of many of the Jews filed away in the Bordeaux Police Archive and thereby saved many of them from being deported by the Police and exterminated by the Germans.
The liberation of Axis POW, Concentration, 'Work', and Extermination camps brings the horrific true extent of the Axis Powers' war crimes against their own and other peoples to light, especially The Holocaust. Japanese brutality in occupied China and the inconsistent and sometimes-decent-sometimes-brutal manner in which Japanese POW camps were run had been popular knowledge for some years by that point, but the only-somewhat-less-racist-than-the-Axis Allies never saw these atrocities as being particularly 'out of character' for an 'asiatic' (and therefore somewhat primitive, barely-civilised, and semi-barbarous) race. But the wartime actions of Germany shock all; how could an advanced nation of such 'cultured' and 'civilised' ethnic Europeans have fallen into such insane, murderous barbarity? Could the idea that European peoples are inherently more civilised have never been anything more than a misconception? Worse, could this misconception have contributed to Germany devolving into what it became? Did pseudoscience prime a nation to take a racist psychopath's Word Salad Philosophy as gospel truth?
Almost overnight, in Europe and East Asia the scientific classification of races, Social Darwinism, and Fascism apparently become forever discredited by their association with the Nazis and Imperial Japan. In the world in general and the Anglosphere in particular, Nazi Germany in particular goes from being seen as merely 'the enemy' to being considered the popular embodiment of evil itself.
This general sentiment generated public support for the famed Nuremberg and Tokyo War-Crime Trials that began in late 1945. Their purpose was to publicly try the most prominent supporters of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes. Indirectly, they were intended to forever debunk the entire concept of authoritarian and fascist military governments on the basis of their inherent and spectacular brutality and inhumanity. However, the trials ran into a number of problems. Foremost, many high-ranking figures within the Axis powers had used the last days of the war to destroy as much incriminating documentation as they could. As a consequence, while it was obvious that major atrocities had taken place, there was a crucial lack of direct evidence linking them to specific persons. The Tokyo-based trials in particular suffered from this critical lack of evidence. As Japan itself had not come under direct occupation, Japan's leadership had time enough between the formal surrender and the beginning of the Allied Occupation to destroy their records. note
Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan's scientists are not prosecuted for their war crimes because they are useful sources of information about human anatomy, biological weapons, and rocket science. While both the US and USSR were willing to turn a blind eye to how it was obtained in order to secure any advantage they could in the emerging Cold War, the USA ended up with virtually all of the actual scientists (including Rocket Scientist Werner von Braun and Biowarfare Specialist Shiro Ishii) and the USSR ended getting most of their research labs and factories (chiefly the V-2 factories in east Germany and Unit 731's half-demolished laboratories in Liaoning province). The members of the wartime live-human medical research groups of Germany and Japan, and the Imperial Japanese Army's biological-weapons research unit (Unit 731 of the Kwantung Army), were also spared prosecution for their inhuman treatment of people as guinea pigs in return for the data they gathered. Despite having made extensive use of slave labour, Werner von Braun and the Nazis' other top rocket-research scientists avoided trial when they were poached for the USA's strategic rocket and space programmesnote . This was executed by the OSS, the wartime predecessor to the CIA, in Operation Paperclip (1944-46).
Despite their deep complicity in POW- and partisan-related war crimes, many senior Wehrmacht members also go free because they can advise the US and British militaries on how to improve their combat effectiveness and can be used to construct a new German military note . General Franz Halder is arguably the most influential of those senior German officers complicit in war crimes who was never brought to trial. Having headed the Army General Staff from 1939-42 and enforced regulations of the 'Commissar' and 'Commando' orders, he went on to advise the US Army in tactical and historical matters including a detailed critique of the US Army's 1952 FM-100-5 Field Service Regulations (tactical doctrine) manual and later helped found the West Germany Military (Bundeswehr). General Heinz Guderian, on the other hand, is the most famous of those Generals who was never imprisoned. Guderian (who presided over the show-trials following the Valkyrie coup attempt) note was tried for war crimes but was acquitted with the help of friends including the military theorist Captain Hart (assistant to the widely influential armoured warfare theorist General JFC Fuller) and Sir Winston Churchill.
The other senior Wehrmacht leaders complicit in war crimes were convicted of them and given harsh prison sentences, only to be released early to create and run the Bundeswehr (est. 1955). General Erich von Manstein is the most famous of these men. In 1949 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for war crimes against Soviet civilians note , but was released in 1953 and became the 'father of the Bundeswehr'. Another notable acquittee was Friedrich Foertsch, who in 1950 was convicted of and sentenced to death for his war crimesnote . His sentence was commuted to 25 years' Hard Labour and in 1955 he was released at the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's personal insistence, later becoming the Inspector-General (de facto Chief of Staff) of the Bundeswehr from 1961-63.
The main trials, conducted at Nürnberg in Bavaria, resulted in more convictions and harsher sentences as the defendants were merely administrative personnel who had no scientific or military expertise which made them useful and were mostly unrepentant Nazis who'd used the war to line their pockets with the wealth and treasure of plundered nations while sending their peoples to death camps for the crime of being non-German. Former Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering was the poster-boy for the occasion, his defiant sociopathy setting the tone as he apologized for nothing and mocked his captors throughout. The main trial saw 23 of the highest-ranking surviving members of Nazi government brought before an Allied military tribunal to answer for both war-crimes, and "crimes against humanity" to account for the horrors of the Holocaust. Though a handful of the accused were acquitted, the majority received lengthy prison terms if they were lucky, and dates with the hangman's noose if they weren'tnote . Subsequent rounds of smaller trials would convict additional persons who had participated in other atrocities such as the systematic mistreatment of Soviet POWs, enslavement of conquered civilian populations in war industries and unwilling human medical experimentation. Or at least, the more high-profile and less scientifically-rigorous members, like 'Doctor' Josef Mengele - who himself wasn't tried on account of him hiding in Argentina -note - and the running of the "justice" system under the courts, SS courts, Order ('Green') Police, and Secret Police (Gestapo).
The Holocaust has an unforeseen effect in lending a newfound urgency to the Zionist movement, which uses all its clout to secure the creation of a dedicated nation-state for the Jewish people, whom many were staying in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, and their allies. In 1948 the British finally approve the establishment, in British Palestine, of the state of Israel. The circumstances of the state's creation lead to the first phase of what we now call the Arab–Israeli Conflict. Similarly, more and more new countries are created from the European powers' overseas empires as local elites there become increasingly vocal in their desire to rule for themselves while their now-war-ravaged masters are in no political or economic position to try and hold on to them. The most important and symbolic of them is Britain's dismantling of their Raj over the Indian Subcontinent. They grant Indians their independence as two separate states in 1947 - the subcontinent's Muslim population being given their own state as a result of their significant contribution to the war effort. A whole host of other countries are reconstituted as some semblance of order is finally brought to central Europe, most of Europe's inter-war countries re-appearing (albeit with sometimes-radically altered borders) and almost all the territories of the former Russian Empire becoming Republics within the Soviet Union.
Not quite understanding the situation, the Americans and Soviets try to get the Chinese Nationalists and Communists to form a government together. Throughout the negotiations and the war which follows, the two powers' intervention is notable by its absencenote . The Guomindang's factionalism and dysfunctional command structure bite Jiang in the ass one last time as he bungles the war effort and after three years of further fighting loses the war, fleeing to Taiwan with what remained of his forces. As the tide of the war turns against the Nationalists, Churchill makes his 'Iron Curtain' speech and the Americans begin to see Communism as a new and very real threat. The borders and 'zones of influence' that Roosevelt and Churchill negotiated with Stalin at Yalta take on sinister dimensions as the US realises just how powerful the Soviets are now, and how vulnerable their Allies are to 'being overrun by the Red Menace'. After years of dithering, America speedily moves to invest in rebuilding the economies and militaries of Germany and Japan, changing their earlier program of peaceful 'nation-building' to create strong Allies under the 'Marshall Plan'. note Of course, the Soviets don't want to be vulnerable to another surprise invasion of the kind the USA may be planning, so they maintain a large military and start upgrading it just to be on the safe side. Thus do the Americans see the Soviets upping their military capabilities, possibly for a war upon the capitalist world. Following this logic, the Americans up their military budget some more...
Even though the talks on unifying Germany, Austria and Korea under neutral democratic governments continue, at least until a proxy war is fought by both powers and their allies over the future of The Two Koreas, all three countries and Europe as a whole become increasingly divided between the Soviet-enforced communist dictatorships of the East and the American-'backed' dictatorships and democracies of the West. Through the remainder of the '40s and into the '50s, a state of war still exists with Germany and the Allies. note In 1951, The Western Allies end their state of war (mostly) with Germany. The USSR would be officially at war with Germany until 1955. By this time, the Federal Republic of Germany was a member of NATO and the German Democratic Republic was part of the Warsaw Pact, giving the respective power blocs legal basis to continue to station troops on German soil. It is only in 1989 that the Communist '2nd world' crumbles from within and the regimes of eastern Europe go down in a series of revolutions. Germany is officially reunited the next year, largely bringing a close to one of the most visible legacies of World War II. In 1990, the two Germanys entered into talks with the US, USSR, UK and France, plus separate border talks with Poland. These ended with a single Germany signing two treaties. The first, officially the Two Plus Four Agreement, was the long-awaited peace treaty, returning complete sovereign control of Germany to Germany and recognizing the Oder–Neisse line as a permanent frontier, officially ending the last vestiges of the postwar occupation. The second, which was a condition of the Two Plus Four Agreement, was a border treaty with Poland.
In all, the war killed about 62 to 78 million people, 3-4% of the world's population at that time. The USSR takes the top spot in the military and (confirmed) civilian death counts, with a generally accepted figure of 27 million dead, about 17 million of which were civilians, for a total 14% population loss. The western republics of the USSR suffered greatest proportionally, with the Soviet Republic of Belarus - which bore the brunt of multiple German and Soviet offensives and history's highest-intensity guerilla warfare - losing 25% of its people, followed by Ukraine at 16%, with the death tolls still wreaking havoc on the demographic structures of those countries well into the 21st century. Next was China, who with as many as 4 million military dead probably won out in the numbers of civilian dead with a total in the mid-teens of millionsnote for a total of 2-4% loss. Next was Germany, which suffered military losses more than twice that of last time (5 versus 2 million) and civilian losses of some 1-3 million to boot to a tune of 10%. Although Poland 'only' lost 5-6 million people, they effectively lost 14% of their population. Yugoslavia lost a million of its 15-million population. Hungary and Greece were similarly mauled, losing up to 6% and 10% of their populations respectively. Though a major combatant, the USA got off rather lightly with half a million (almost exclusively military) dead for a population loss of less than 0.5%. The Commonwealth and France actually suffered drastically fewer military deaths than in World War I (contrast two-million-plus with around 0.6 million). This isn't particularly surprising, since the Soviets bore the brunt of the German onslaught, but civilian casualties were much higher than last time due to the aerial bombings, massacres of civilians (as reprisals), famine from disruption of agriculture and infrastructure and the occasional spot of genocide. This brought the Anglo-French total up to over a million and about 1% apiece.
In the grand scheme of things, World War II was perhaps the second-biggest cultural and political turning point in modern human history, bested only by its direct predecessor (in terms of human history altogether, that position's most definitely held by the emergence of humanity itself). The conflict resulted in a radical restructuring of world politics and the emergence of the Cold War (which itself would define both western and nonwestern politics for the next 46 years), the recognition of countless popularly-supported western social and political ideas as humanly immoral (including, but not limited to, eugenics, ethnic cleansing, scientific bigotry, religious persecution— especially antisemitism— and the very concept of authoritarianism that led to the rise of the Axis Powers in the first place), and the foundation of a wide number of new beliefs and movements born out of backlash towards the brutality of the six-year global war. Among other examples, the involvement of nonwhite soldiers in the American army galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and the publicizing of the Holocaust directly contributed to the beginning of the postcolonial age of sociopolitical philosophy (with retrospective analysts attributing it to the fact that the genocide brought the horrors of colonial violence to the forefront by utilizing common methods of colonialist ethnic cleansing against a population that was primarily white). Outside the west, the fallout of the Pacific Theater led to permanently tense relations between quite literally every country in East Asia, with Japan and South Korea being at particularly ugly odds with one another in the face of 35 years of occupation and ethnocide. While much of the state of world culture and politics in the 20th century and beyond is heavily indebted to World War I, World War II brought its own dramatic reshaping of humanity in a way that practically set the foundation for everything that would occur after August 1945; an Earth in which World War II never occurred would be practically unrecognizable.