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updated: 3/21/2011 1:08 PM

Kids Ink: History behind WWII

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  • Normandy: American soldiers landing on the coast of France during the D-Day invasions.

    Normandy: American soldiers landing on the coast of France during the D-Day invasions.
    Courtesy of The National World War II Museum


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Students in Jennifer Janik's third-grade class at Big Hollow Elementary in Ingleside asked, "How and why did World War II happen?"

World War II was a conflict between the world's most powerful nations. Launched in 1939 when Germany's ruler Adolph Hitler invaded Poland, the war lasted until 1945 when Germany and Japan surrendered.

All wars involve horrifying atrocities, and this one was no different. During World War II, the Nazis, the ruling party of Germany, built death camps and murdered 6 million Jews, as well as people of Roma, Polish and Soviet heritage; homosexuals; and people of Christian and nonChristian faiths.

An estimated 50 million to 70 million soldiers were killed, and 35 million civilians died during the conflict.

"As long as there have been people on Earth, there have been wars," said Kenneth Hoffman, director of education, National World War II Museum in New Orleans. "The reasons why World War II was fought could fill a very big book.

"As you walk into the museum you see three flags from World War II -- the Japanese flag, the German flag with a swastika, and the U.S. flag. The U.S. flag is much smaller, indicating that Germany and Japan were ready for a world war, the U.S. was not," Hoffman said.

The exhibit includes a film, "The Road to War," which describes Germany's rise to power and Japan's assault on Pearl Harbor.

Soon after World War I ended in 1918, political and economic changes worldwide created an imbalance of power. The Germans suffered huge monetary and land losses at the end of World War I. This created an opportunity for the worst case -- a desire for world dominance.

At the same time, the Russian monarchy collapsed and triggered a Russian civil war and the Japanese invaded China.

As Hoffman explains, German national pride and anger helped bring Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party to power by blaming Jews on their economic and territorial woes. Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and Great Britain and France retaliated by declaring war on Germany.

Only two years later, the U.S. was forced into the war when Japan tore Hawaii's Pearl Harbor to shreds, destroying eight U.S. ships and taking the lives of more than 2,400 servicemen.

"History doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes; there are elements that are the same," Hoffman said. "That's what's great about history. You can learn what people have done right and what people have done wrong and learn lessons from those experiences."

Responding to the U.S. call to war, Andrew Higgins designed boats that would bring thousands of soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, France, for the D-Day invasion. The battle that began June 6, 1944, turned the tide to victory for the Allies.

Those water craft were constructed in New Orleans, now home to the National World War II Museum.

Teachers can obtain lesson plans and sign up for an e-newsletter by logging onto the museum website,