Although the Empire of Japan was already at war with the Republic of China in 1937, the world war is generally said to have begun on 1 September 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Germany, and subsequent declarations of war on Germany by France and most of the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Germany set out to establish a large empire in Europe. From late 1939 to early 1941, in a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany conquered or subdued much of continental Europe. Following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the nominally neutral Soviet Union fully or partially invaded, occupied and annexed territories of its six European neighbours, including Poland. The United Kingdom and its Commonwealth remained the only major force continuing the fight against the Axis, with battles taking place in North Africa as well as the long-running Battle of the Atlantic. In June 1941, the European Axis launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, giving a start to the largest land theatre of war in history, which tied down the major part of the Axis' military forces for the rest of the war. In December 1941, the Empire of Japan, which aimed to dominate East Asia and Indochina, joined the Axis, attacked the United States and European territories in the Pacific Ocean, and quickly conquered much of the West Pacific.
The Axis advance was stopped in 1942, after Japan lost a series of naval battles and European Axis troops were defeated in North Africa and, decisively, at Stalingrad. In 1943, with a series of German defeats in Eastern Europe, the Allied invasion of Fascist Italy, and American victories in the Pacific, the Axis lost the initiative and undertook strategic retreat on all fronts. In 1944, the Western Allies invaded France, while the Soviet Union regained all of its territorial losses and invaded Germany and its allies. The war in Europe ended with the capture of Berlin by Soviet and Polish troops and the subsequent German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. During 1944 and 1945 the United States defeated the Japanese Navy and captured key West Pacific islands, dropping atomic bombs on the country as the invasion of the Japanese archipelago became imminent. The war in Asia ended on 15 August 1945 when the Empire of Japan agreed to surrender.
The total victory of the Allies over the Axis in 1945 ended the conflict. World War II altered the political alignment and social structure of the world. The United Nations (UN) was established to foster international cooperation and prevent future conflicts. The great powers that were the victors of the war— the United States, Soviet Union, China, the United Kingdom, and France—became the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union and the United States emerged as rival superpowers, setting the stage for the Cold War, which lasted for the next 46 years. Meanwhile, the influence of European great powers started to decline, while the decolonisation of Asia and Africa began. Most countries whose industries had been damaged moved towards economic recovery. Political integration, especially in Europe, emerged as an effort to stabilise postwar relations.