World War II: overview and participation of Brazil
Last update: 17/03/2022
The global military conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945 involved the great powers and most nations of the world, which were organized into two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis.
World War I (1914–18) had ravaged Europe. The Treaty of Versailles had altered the map of Europe: France was given back Alsace and Lorraine; the Polish Corridor was withdrawn from German territory, provided Warsaw with access to the Baltic, and separated East Prussia from Berlin. Danzig was created as a free city, under the aegis of the League of Nations and with a commissioner of the League, but despite the population being German, it was the Poles who controlled customs and foreign affairs.
The Treaty of Versailles, in addition to making Germany cede part of its territory to the victors, also obliged it to pay a high indemnity for the damage caused by the War. This defeat aroused the resentment of the Germans for the Treaty.
Large segments of the German population blamed the government of the short-lived Republic for having signed the Versailles Treaty, for saddling their country with a war-built psychology, for having “given away” Alsace-Lorraine, a large part of Prussia and part of Silesia, and for having accepted a staggering reparations commitment and reduction of the once-proud Imperial Army and Navy to the status of a 100,000-man police force, with neither tanks nor aircraft, and a 15,000-man coastal patrol force. (BALDWIN, 1978, p. 21-22).
When the New York Stock Exchange crashed in October 1929, a worldwide economic crisis began.
The great economic crisis, added to the political and social tensions in several countries, gave rise to totalitarian regimes, especially in Germany, Italy and Japan.
The expansionist policy of these great powers led them to equip themselves militarily, creating a climate of world tension.
Germany was heavily affected by unemployment and poverty. The Jews became the “scapegoat” of the situation in which Germany found itself.
The National Socialist Party (NSDAP, its acronym in German) was responsible for spreading this idea that the Jews were responsible for the problems that the country faced. The party leader Adolf Hitler and his followers hated the Jews and in the party’s program it was already determined what they intended to do with the Jews if they came to take over the government. The intentions included: to prohibit Jews from living in Germany, not to allow Jews to become civil servants or teachers, and to expel Jews from the country if there was a food shortage.
In 1929, the NSDAP was still small and had few adherents, but within three years the party won the elections. One in three voters then voted for Hitler’s party. The Nazis promised Germany a golden future: a big and powerful country. At the end of January 1933, Adolf Hitler became the leader of the German government. (METSELAAR, 2019, p. 6).
After a few years, in 1933, left-wing (communist) and right-wing (brown shirts) extremists were vying for sovereignty in the streets after a few years of extreme inflation, incipient anarchy and mass unemployment.
From the beginning Hitler was dedicated to dominance—to a Master Race, to expansionism by subtlety and guile and ruthless power. He rearmed openly and moved his armed forces into the Rhineland (in 1936) despite the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, reassured his potential enemies publicly while excoriating them privately, signed a nonaggression pact with Poland in order to have a free hand against Czechoslovakia and Austria, and started the construction of the West Wall—a fortified zone opposite France and Belgium (BALDWIN, 1978, p.22).
In 1939, Hitler insisted on the return of Danzig and on German control over a strip of land 25 kilometers wide, for access to the city via the Polish Corridor. In mid-March Poland was flanked by the south and the north and shortly afterwards Lithuania, forced by Nazi power, handed over to Hitler Memelland, a former German territory. The summer of that year, according to Baldwin (1978, p. 17), witnessed a steady march towards World War II.
The invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939, reinforced by declarations of war by France as well as most countries of the British Empire and the Commonwealth (British Commonwealth, former British colonies) against Germany, could have been the main reason for the war.
In the early 1940s, the whole world was in crisis and all of Europe collapsed.
Some countries ended up getting involved in the war after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans and the attacks of the Japanese against the United States in the Pacific, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the declaration of war by the United States against Japan.
Japanese Nationalism already prevailed for centuries in the sense of duty and honor dedicated especially to the Emperor and this fact made them obey the Emperor’s orders without hesitation.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese military decided to attack Pearl Harbor, which was the main US naval base in the Pacific, because the United States represented an obstacle to Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean.
In Italy, the idea of restoring the Roman Empire was really attractive to many inhabitants of this country and the alliance between Germany and Italy was one of the essential objectives contained in Mein Kampf (a book written by Adolf Hitler in which he expressed his ideas that were adopted by the Nazi Party). The two powers could be very useful to each other. After Germany’s refusal to participate in the sanctions against Italy, the effectiveness of these sanctions decreased considerably. The two countries then began to fight side by side in order to crush the republican government of Spain. The next step would be collaboration at the European level.
Gradually, in view of the events that were happening, other countries ended up getting involved and adhering to the conflict.
International politics was going through serious turmoil and the Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas, aiming to maintain commercial advantages, adopted a posture that oscillated between approaching Nazi Germany at one time and the United States at another time. However, with the growth of hostilities, Vargas was forced to unite with the North Americans.
By then, the chess pieces of world politics were moving frantically. The Japanese aggression against the United States, engendered by Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, generated an avalanche of declarations of solidarity. On December 8, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Panama also entered the war against Japan. Peru offered to collaborate with the Americans in whatever it took – with its entire coastline facing the Pacific, it was a strategically important country. Belgium, Colombia, Egypt and Greece broke diplomatic relations with the Japanese. Still on the 8th, Vargas summoned the ministry and announced solidarity with the United States. The Venezuelan government followed the Brazilian decision. The next day it was Costa Rica’s turn to declare war on Japan. On the 10th, Cuba did the same. On the 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. In solidarity, the Mexican government also broke diplomatic relations with Germany and Italy. Still trying not to expose itself, Brazil, on the 17th, declared itself officially neutral, both with regard to the war between European countries and the one involving Japan (SANDER, 2007, p. 30).
Brazil was strategically fundamental to the defense of the Americas due to the extension of its lands, which aroused the interest of the United States in making the country an ally.
US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, in order to resist possible threats and promote continental unity, organized an emergency meeting. The Conference of Chancellors in Rio de Janeiro, the then Brazilian capital, hosted the ministers’ meeting.
The events resulting from this meeting, in addition to other factors such as the interruption of maritime trade with Europe (due to the English naval blockade), forced Brazil to abandon its ambiguous posture in relation to the world conflict.
The Brazilian defense focused much more on the theoretical anti-militarist spirit of the population than on equipping the Armed Forces, therefore unable to defend its coast and mainland territory without military aid. According to Sander (2007, p. 42), a secret document from the Northeastern Army Command, based in Recife, dated September 1, 1941, detailed a complete strategy for this region.
President Roosevelt then undertook to give support to rebuild the Brazilian Armed Forces, definitively determining Brazil’s break with the Axis.
In February 1942, at dawn on the 17th, a Nazi submarine sank the Brazilian ship “Buarque” in Rio de Janeiro and, at noon on the 18th of February, it attacked again and sank the “Olinda”.
At the beginning of hostilities, there were only six Nazi submarines working against the United States; however, when Brazil joined the allies, Hitler decided to retaliate against Brazilian accession by sending a new flotilla and the number of submarines reached about forty. From then on, German commanders could even afford to choose which ships would be sunk, as the American defense against this type of attack was fragile. So much so that, in this period when Brazilian ships were torpedoed, only three German submarines were sunk in American territorial sea.
In all, 34 Brazilian vessels were torpedoed during World War II, causing the death of 1,081 people (most were civilians).
According to Sander (2007, p. 246), of the more than 25,000 Brazilian soldiers who went to fight in the Italian trenches, 454 died and about 3,000 were wounded.
The pracinhas (short for private, or common soldier), as Brazilian soldiers were affectionately called by the population and the press, took on a huge challenge from the FEB (Brazilian Expeditionary Force).
According to Rosas (2014, p.3), the first contingent of soldiers landed in Italy on July 16, 1944 and was incorporated into the US 5th Army. The pracinhas were welcomed in Naples with an American marching band, performing Brazilian music with effort and providing a festive atmosphere amid the pains of war. The orders were given in English and there was extreme cold and the inevitable cultural shock demanding efforts from both sides, especially the Brazilians.
The biggest damage and also the biggest victory of the Brazilian soldiers was the Conquest of Monte Castelo, in February 1945, which elevated them to the category of “war heroes.” In the Morro Maldito campaign (as Monte Castelo was known), which lasted 3 months, the Allies needed to overcome the so-called Gothic Line, a barrier of German troops to advance and reach Bologna. To do so, they had to travel a route exposed to enemy attack, which is why there were so many casualties.
The Brazilians were put to the test as a military force of occupation in regions such as Montese, Castelnuovo, Zocca, Monalto. and Barga.
At the end of April 1945, the soldiers also participated in the surrender of the 148th division of the German forces, when 4,000 horses, 80 cannons of different calibers, and 1,500 vehicles were seized, in addition to 14,799 prisoners. Three days later the FEB participated in the liberation of Turin.
The year 1945 would mark the defeat of Nazi Germany as predicted by Franklin Roosevelt who, according to Sander (2007, p. 245), would have stated: “The War will end by the end of May”. When Roosevelt died of a stroke on April 12, Hitler interpreted his rival’s death as a sign of reversal of the war situation, but he was wrong.
By March 1945, the Soviets had advanced into Vienna and the Allies (American, British, Canadian and French troops) had crossed north of the Rhine and south of the Ruhr, and surrounded the Nazi forces.
In early April, Soviet forces invaded Berlin and Western Allied forces gained ground in Italy and crossed into West Germany, the two forces meeting on 25 April on the banks of the Elbe.
On April 29, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker (fortified stronghold, built underground, made to resist war projectiles) and the next day, the Reichstag was captured, symbolizing the military defeat of the Third Reich.
German troops in Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and northwest Germany (what was left of the German army) surrendered on May 7, 1945, in Berlin, Germany signs the surrender.
The surrender to Russian troops of what was left of the German Army marked the end of the war in Europe, but the bloodiest and most inhuman conflict in human history was forever marked by the Holocaust and the only time nuclear weapons were used in combat, with a balance of between 50 and 70 million civilian and military deaths.
Itapagé, a Brazilian ship torpedoed by the German submarine U-161 on September 26, 1943, on the coast of the state of Alagoas, became a tourist attraction. Being only 25 meters deep and, due to the clear waters of the region, it can be seen from the surface. It has an intact bow and some marine species that frequent it, such as barracudas and stingrays, form a good setting for photographs next to the wreckage.
Recife, March 19, 2020.
BALDWIN, Hanson W. Batalhas ganhas e perdidas. Rio de Janeiro: Biblioteca do Exército, 1978. Traduzido por Cel. Alvaro Galvão. (Coleção Gen. Benício, v. 159, publ. 480).
METSELAAR, Menno. Tudo sobre Anne. São Paulo: Companhia das Letrinhas, 2019. (Tradução de Yaemi Ntumi e Karolien Van Eck).
PARAÍSO, Rostand. O Recife e a 2ª Guerra. Recife: COMUNICARTE, 1995.
PRACINHAS [Foto neste texto]. Available at: https://radios.ebc.com.br/tags/segunda-guerra-mundial-forca-expedicionaria-brasileira-pracinhas-musica-militar. Accessed: 19 mar. 2020.
SANDER, Roberto. O Brasil na mira de Hitler: a história do afundamento de navios brasileiros pelos nazistas. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2007.
VICENTE, Tullo. A Segunda Guerra Mundial. 2. ed. São Paulo: Ed. Moderna,
ROSAS, Frederico. A aventura dos pracinhas brasileiros na Segunda Guerra Mundial. El País, São Paulo, abr. 2014. Available at: https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2014/04/18/politica/1397851823_514835.html. Accessed: 17 mar. 2020.
how to quote this text
VERARDI, Cláudia Albuquerque. World War II: overview and participation of Brazil. In: PESQUISA Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2020. Available at: https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/en/artigo/world-war-ii-overview-and-participation-brazil/. Accessed on: month day year. (Ex.: Aug. 6 2020.)