World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, killing an estimated 50 to 85 million people from 1939 to 1945. The large-scale ways in which WWII changed the world are well-known: the Holocaust's decimation of Jewish people and culture, the use of atomic bombs on Japan, and the wide swath of death and destruction caused by the Axis powers in Europe. But there are also more indirect ways that WWII impacted modern society.
An investigation into how WWII shaped the modern world reveals that, much like during World War I, technological innovation flourishes during wartime. Inventions we still use today, such as modern computers, Super Glue, duct tape, and even Tupperware, were devised to support the war effort. Read on for more on how World War II changed the world in ways both large and small.
It's hard to believe, but the term "genocide" did not exist before 1944. A Polish-German lawyer named Raphael Lemkin coined the term that year by combining the Greek word for race or tribe ("geno-") with the Latin word for killing ("-cide"). In 1945, the word was used at the Nuremberg trials as a descriptive term, but it wasn't until 1948 that genocide became the word used, internationally, for the crime it signifies.
Lemkin wrote: "Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean immediate destruction of a nation except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended, rather, to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life national groups with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."
Following the Nuremberg trials, the medical atrocities committed by the Third Reich came to light, leading the medical community worldwide to adopt the World Medical Association’s Helsinki Declaration. The Declaration has been called "the bedrock of ethical standards for human experimentation and informed consent."
Things didn't get immediately better, as James Bradley from the University of Melbourne notes, but learning about horrific human experiments carried out by the Nazis made scientists think twice about the ethics of human experimentation.
The United Nations was founded in 1945 to prevent another conflict with the horrific consequences of World War II. A controversial organization from the start, the UN has nonetheless encouraged disarmament, promoted human rights, fought poverty, and worked to promote peace worldwide. Its pursuit of stability and global humanitarian efforts also led to the World Health Organization. WHO was formed thanks to a declaration that emerged from that first meeting of the UN, setting the control of malaria, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases as its initial priorities.
According to British historian Paul Kennedy, "When all its aspects are considered, the UN has brought great benefits to our generation and will bring benefits to our children's and grandchildren's generations as well."
If you're reading this on a computer, smartphone, or tablet, then you're reading it on a descendant of the Colossus. The Colossus was the first programmable, electronic, digital computer, developed during World War II by British codebreakers. It enabled the Allies to gather a ton of military intelligence from the Germans, and it contributed to their victory in the war.
British electronics engineer Tommy Flowers designed and co-developed the Colossus, leading to the assembly and installation of 11 Colossuses used during the war. At the end of the war, all but two of these room-sized behemoths were dismantled and recycled. The remaining two were used for continued codebreaking efforts in other endeavors but dismantled by 1960. The public didn't learn about Colossus until the 1970s.