How World War II Impacted American & European Society

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the impact World War II on American and European society. We'll explore the notable social changes and trends brought about by the war.

The Home Front in World War II

We tend to think of the Second World War as a series of battles fought throughout Europe and the Pacific. This is not necessarily incorrect, but World War II was also so much more. It was an event that affected the very fibers of societies all over the world. In this lesson, we're not concerned with battle strategies, machine guns and tanks, or which side had the best generals. Instead, we will be learning how the war impacted society.

We will be learning about the impact of the war on the home front. Maybe you've heard this term before. Home front simply refers to the civilian populace at the time of war. In a war, the 'front' is the region where the two sides meet to engage in combat. By contrast, the home front is the region where the civilian population responds to the changes and challenges brought about by their nation at war. In order to get a full understanding of World War II, we need to learn about not only the major battles of the war (like Pearl Harbor and Stalingrad), but also how the war impacted society.

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Impact of the War on European Society

The Second World War began in Europe, so we'll begin by looking at its effects on European societies. After the war broke out in response to Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, the governments of European countries launched major campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion. To do this, they made widespread use of propaganda. Propaganda is any genre of media used to influence a person's attitude about a particular topic or theme. Music, film, art, and speeches can all be used as propaganda. One of the most popular forms of propaganda during World War II was the poster. The governments of nearly all major countries created propaganda posters. Some were intended to boost morale, others to demonize the enemy. In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitic posters portraying Jews in a negative light were produced under the leadership of the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. And yes, that was his actual title! Sometimes the word 'propaganda' has a dirty connotation. Remember, not all propaganda was necessarily deceitful or 'bad.' Propaganda posters were often aimed at getting women to join the workforce, or saving resources like scrap metal and oil for the war effort.

During the Battle of Britain, the people of London played a major role in maintaining morale through their determination to withstand Germany's strategic bombing. During 'the Blitz,' as it was often called, civilians were forced to take shelter underground. London's metro system, nicknamed the tube, was a popular source of underground shelter for British civilians. The civilian population also responded with enthusiastic mobilization. Auxiliary organizations like the Home Guard and the Air Raid Precautions sprang up to deal with the challenges of German bombing.

Most European countries (and even the United States) were forced to resort to various systems of rationing to deal with food shortages. Also, with men fighting on the front, increasingly, women were being called upon to enter the workforce. These changes were generally true across the board, among all countries during the war. In the Soviet Union, women were even called upon to serve in combat roles right beside of men.

Impact of War on American Society

The United States was tremendously fortunate to be insulated by the vast expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Nevertheless, the war brought about drastic changes within American society. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America's industrial might was turned on almost overnight. Factories that had once turned out automobiles, were now turning out tanks and planes at an unbelievable rate. Detroit, Michigan was an especially important industrial center. With men overseas, female factory workers became common. One of the most enduring symbols of the American home front is Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter was a fictional character based upon real-life female factory workers. By the mid-1940s, female war workers were often nicknamed 'Rosie'. One of the most well-known American propaganda posters features a 'Rosie,' with the text 'We Can Do It!' above her.

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