The deadliest conflict in world history by a long shot, World War II has a series of dubious titles linked to its name, including the most civilian casualties during a war. With thousands killed across the globe as a result of military action and war crimes, almost six million Jewish people killed in German concentration camps and over twenty million who succumbed to starvation as a result of the war, the conflict left an indelible impact on our history.
Based solely off of the number of civilian casualties, WWII distances itself greatly from more recent conflicts like Vietnam (627,000), Syria (475,000), Iraq (460,000) or Afghanistan (31,000) with a staggering 50,000,000 deaths – almost 3% of the world’s population at the time. Although not downplaying the huge loss of life in those respective wars, the Second World War set a precedent that saw a myriad of rules and regulations put in place to help protect civilians in war zones.
Apart from the German concentration camps, major reasons for the high number of civilian casualties are especially bolstered by the massive famine that gripped the Soviet Union and its’ satellite states. Over twenty million died across Eastern Europe as a result of poor crop yields. In the Pacific and Asia there was also a fair amount of civilian fatalities. Japan’s role in the Rape of Nanking is one that continues to haunt it, whilst their work camps were infamous for their poor conditions and harsh treatment of prisoners – let they be military or otherwise.
Smaller countries exposed to much of the fighting or that were occupied for most of the war saw a large portion of their country’s citizens decimated. Yugoslavia (10.97%), Greece (11.7%), Lithuania (14.36%) and Poland (17.22%) and bearing the brunt of it. Bombings of major cities and exactions carried out by both sides led to high rates of civilian casualties in large swathes of continental Europe and Asia.
One of the largest deliberate military attack on a soft target coming at the hands of the United States, who dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 120,000. This attack led to the end of the Second World War, but also set a dangerous precedent for a nuclear arms race that is arguably still in effect. Major conflicts since then have often sought to reduce civilian casualties, but as wars drag out and urbanization spreads, there continues to be a large amount of innocent lives lost.