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Chapter: 12th History : Chapter 14 : Outbreak of World War II and its Impact in Colonies

Second World War: Causes

In the beginning of the war, with Great Britain and France opposing Germany and with Italy remaining temporarily neutral and later joining Germany, the line-up of the two sides in both world wars was similar.

Second World War: Causes

In the beginning of the war, with Great Britain and France opposing Germany and with Italy remaining temporarily neutral and later joining Germany, the line-up of the two sides in both world wars was similar. The notable difference was that Japan aligned with Germany instead of with the Western powers. Russia and the USA did not enter the conflict until two years after it began. The methods of warfare had changed during the Second World War. Trench warfare gave way to aerial bombing. No distinction was made between combatants and civilians in the Second World War. Casualties in the Second World War were therefore heavy.

Let us first trace the circumstances that led to the outbreak of the War.


(a) The Unjust Nature of the Peace Treaty

The terms imposed upon Germany at the end of First World War were harsh. Stripped off its colonies, the size of the German army was drastically reduced. Germany was forced to cede Alsace and Lorraine to France and to agree to the temporary occupation by French troops of the Saar valley. Germany was also compelled to hand over to Poland large parts of the industrial area of Silesia. Further Germany was to pay an impossible sum (6600 million pounds) in reparation. These terms gave rise to a strong feeling of injustice in Germany and had much do with the subsequent success of the Nazi Politics. Italy felt aggrieved as Dalmatia, claimed to be predominantly Italian, was incorporated in the new state of Yugoslavia. Reduced to the status of a small republic, Austria was not allowed to unite with Germany as the combination would be a threat to France.


(b) Failure of the League of Nations

The League of Nations, envisaged as an international body to avert another world war, turned out to be an alliance of the victors against the vanquished. The seeds for another war were sowed ever since the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

From 1918 to 1933 a series of conferences were held to eliminate threats of war. In 1925, representatives of the chief European powers met at Locarno, a Swiss town, where Germany and France agreed to respect the Rhine frontiers, as established in the Versailles treaty. The next agreement widely appreciated was the Kellogg– Briand Pact of 1928. Though the US did not become a member of the League of Nations, it participated in this meet. The outcome of this pact was the pledge of all nations of the world to renounce war as “an instrument of national policy”. But the League of Nations was not strong enough to enforce these agreements when some countries defied them.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, a Disarmament Conference was organised by the League of Nations at Geneva. The issue was the German rearmament plan on a par with France. The French refused to agree to this proposal, while Britain was willing to concede Germany’s demand. Hitler’s response to French refusal was withdrawal of Germany from the conference and from the League of Nations. A plebiscite in Germany showed enormous support in favour of Hitler’s step. Encouraged, in March 1935, Hitler announced Germany’s intention of building up an army by conscription to over half a million men. This was the first breach of the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations attended by Britain, France and Italy condemned Germany’s action but took no further steps. Britain even went to the extent of negotiating a naval agreement. According to this agreement, Germany could build up to 35 per cent of Britain’s naval strength.

Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations, but received no help.


(c) Economic Depression of 1930s

The most important economic cause of World War II was the Great Depression. The Depression intensified economic nationalism. Hit by the problems of unemployment and business stagnation, governments resorted to high tariffs to preserve the home market for consumption of their home products. This resulted in an expansionist policy leading to the conquest of neighboring territories as a means of solving economic problems. Japan took the lead. In 1931 it reacted to the global economic crisis by seizing the Chinese northern region of Manchuria. In the face of decline of Japanese exports of raw silk and cotton cloth, Japanese militarists came up with this idea so that Manchuria could be a market.


(d) Aspirations of German Big Business and Grievances of German Patriots

Britain, France, the US and the USSR each controlled vast areas as colonies across the world. Germany, the most powerful industrial country in continental Europe, had no colonies. This prompted German big business to campaign vigorously to break the restraints imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. It wanted to recover German territory lost to Poland, absorb the German-speaking Austrian state and Czech border land, the Sudetenland. Under Nazi rule there was convergence between the requirements of big business and Nazi ideology.

Powers like Great Britain, the United States, France and Russia had their empire extending over one fourth of land area of the earth. Germany, Italy and Japan seemed poor by comparison. German patriots openly articulated their grievance by stating that the average German citizen had only .004 of square mile of living space at his disposal, whereas the average Briton could draw upon the wealth and economic opportunities of almost three square miles of imperial territory.


(e) Mussolini’s Expansionist Policy

Mussolini’s Italy sought to expand its colonial empire by grabbing Ethiopia to add to its colonial possessions such as Somaliland, Eritrea and Libya. It looked for an opportunity to seize Albania from Yugoslavia.The establishment of an economy based on military state capitalism encouraged the drive to armed expansion. The arms industries needed raw materials and the only way to obtain the resources required was to grab extra territory.

Britain and France condemned Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and this helped Hitler to establish close relationship with Italy. This was the beginning of Rome–Berlin Axis


(f) Japan’s Imperial Policy

The German approach was emulated in East Asia by Japan. It had already taken Taiwan and Korea as colonies, and controlled Manchuria. The government that came up after a military coup in Japan (1936) began to cast its covetous eye over Dutch East Indies, the British colonies in Malaya and Singapore, the French colonies in Indochina and the US-controlled Philippines.


(g) Responsibility of Hitler for the War

(i) Incorporation of Saar into Germany

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, a plebiscite was to be held in the Saar in January 1935. The people were to decide whether they wished to join Germany or France, or remain under League of Nations’ control. Ninety per cent voted for a return to Germany. In March 1935 the Saar was incorporated into Germany. This was a morale booster for Hitler.

(ii) Annexation of Rhineland

In 1936 Hitler flouted the peace settlement by sending troops to occupy Rhineland, the area of Germany demilitarised by the Treaty of Versailles. If the French had resisted, the Germans would have withdrawn. The French army at that time was stronger than the German, but economic distress caused by the Great Depression and political instability leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Edouard Daladier rendered France incapable of resisting the breach of the Treaty of Versailles by Germany.

(iii) Forcible Merger of Austria with Germany

Hitler, an Austrian by birth, had always wanted Austria to be part of Germany. In February 1938, Hitler summoned the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to Berchtesgaden, a mountain town in the Bavarian Alps, for a discussion. The Austrian Chancellor was given a Hobson’s choice – either to legalise Nazi Party in Austria and integrate Austria’s economy with that of Germany or face a German invasion. Austria has lost the support of Italy with the formation of the Rome–Berlin Axis. Schuschnigg was therefore left with no choice but to choose the first option. At the instance of Hitler, the Austrian Chancellor cancelled the proposed plebiscite in Austria and formed a Nazi government there. Thereupon the German army entered Vienna to take control of the country.

(iv) Occupation of Sudetenland

Encouraged by the lack of resistance from major European powers, Hitler turned his attention towards Czechoslovakia. In June 1938, Hitler sent directions to his army about his intention of invading Sudetenland. A systematic Nazi propaganda that their German subjects were being subjected to harsh treatment in Sudetenland was launched. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, after consulting the French and the Czechs, eventually agreed to cede to Germany all territories where more than half the inhabitants were German. But to the warmonger Hitler, this proposition was unacceptable. He was keen to avoid any plebiscite in this matter. So he wanted his army to occupy Sudetenland before such a plebiscite could take place.

Munich Agreement

The mood in London was in favour of a war against Hitler. But Chamberlain and his counterpart in France were bent on buying peace at any cost – a policy called ‘appeasement’. A conference was held at Munich where the British, French, German and Italian premiers agreed that the German army should occupy the Sudetenland, as demanded by Hitler, on 1 October and that parts of Czechoslovakia should go to Poland and Hungary.

(v) Aggression against Czechoslovakia

The Czechs felt betrayed. The new frontiers of Czechoslovakia had been guaranteed by the four powers at the Munich Conference. Chamberlain claimed that the deal had averted another massive European war. But using the conflict between the Slovaks and the Czechs as an excuse, Hitler sent German forces to occupy the conflict zone.

Nazi–Soviet Pact

The guarantees that Britain and France had given Poland were considered weak without Russia’s help. During the early summer of 1939, Britain and France negotiated with Russia. But partly because of mutual distrust and partly because Russia was not prepared for a war against Germany, no progress could be made. Russians preferred peace and guarantee for their territories. As Germany offered both, in August 1939 the Nazi–Soviet (Non-aggression) Pact was signed in the Kremlin. The secret clauses in the pact were: Eastern Europe was to be demarcated into German and Russian spheres of influence and Poland was to be divided.

(vi) Invasion of Poland and Outbreak of War

In order to carry out Hitler’s larger plan of conquering the whole of Europe,Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 on the ground thatPoland had been planning with its allies, Great Britain and France, to encircle and dismember Germany and that Poles were persecuting ethnic Germans. In two days Britain gave the ultimatum: unless German troops were withdrawn from Poland, Britain and Germany would be at war. The ultimatum was ignored and the Second World War began.

Stages of War

War in Europe

In the first few years of the War the German army seemed unstoppable. Poland was easily defeated within two weeks and divided between Germany and the Soviet Union in a second agreement signed in Moscow in September 1939. In April 1940 Germany occupied Norway. With this annexation, Hitler ensured the protection of Germany’s supply of iron ore from Sweden apart from obtaining naval and air bases with which to strike at Britain. On 10 May 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France, launching its blitzkrieg (the lightning strike).

In six weeks all were defeated and British forces were expelled from continental Europe. About 198,000 British troops as well as 140,000 Allied troops, mainly French, had to be taken to the beaches in Dunkirk and evacuated in boats and small ships under heavy fire (May-June 1940). The French soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk formed the nucleus of the Free French army under General de Gaulle, who ran the French government in exile to fight the Fascists. But for the Dunkirk evacuation, Britain would have found it difficult to regroup.

Emboldened by Hitler’s success, Italy joined Germany and invaded France in June and Egypt in September 1940. Around this time Japan also joined the Axis powers. Hitler expected Britain to sue for peace. But Prime Minister Churchill, who replaced Chamberlain, refused to compromise. The German air force, in an attempt to force a surrender, began to attack specific targets, especially the ports, airfields and industrial installations. In September 1940, London was bombed – an operation known as the Blitz. By October 1940, night bombing raids on London and other industrial cities became routine. However, the German strategy failed because with the aid of the newly developed device ‘radar’ for detecting aircraft while still at a distance, the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force (Spitfires and Hurricanes) inflicted severe losses on the German bombers. In the Battle of Britain (in the air between July and October 1940), Hitler suffered his first defeat. But the U-Boat [a German Submarine] war in the Atlantic was disrupting British trade.

In November 1940, a decision taken by Germany to invade Russia was deferred due to the campaign in the Balkans (April) against Yugoslavia and Greece. On 22 June 1941 the invasion of Soviet Union commenced. After a series of victories, German forces approached Leningrad and Moscow. By 1941 Hitler’s empire in Europe had reached its zenith.

German rule everywhere was repressive, brutal and exploitative. More than seven million Europeans, from France to Russia, were taken as forced labour to Germany. One third of Germanys’ war costs was met by tribute extracted from occupied Europe. Nazi racism was directed against the Jews, communists and gypsies. Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps, and about six million Jews were murdered in a state-sponsored genocide using industrial methods of extermination (called the Holocaust).

The War in Asia and the Pacific

German victories in the Soviet Union prompted Japanese leaders to go on an offensive in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The decision for war with the US was taken in November 1941. On 7 December Japanese aircraft attacked the Pearl Harbour naval base in the Hawaiian islands, inflicting severe damages to the US Pacific Fleet. Japan then occupied English colonial territories in Burma, Malaya, Singapore (where the British beat a shameful retreat, leaving the population under the mercy of the Japanese) and the Dutch possession of East Indies.

Pearl Harbour Incident and its Fallout

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, instead of crushing the morale of the American people, galvanised them into action. Until then kept out of the war due to American public opinion, the United States declared war on Japan, thus making it an absolute world war. Britain and China joined the US. Under the Lend-Lease system, President Roosevelt had already committed the US government to aid the opponents of Fascism, in the context of Italy and Japan joining Germany. The direct involvement of the US greatly expanded the resources of the Allies as America brought more vehicles, ships and aircrafts than all the other fighting countries put together. In August 1942, US forces commanded by MacArthur began to play a prominent role in the Pacific. The naval battle planned by Admiral Yamamoto resulted in a major Japanese defeat.

The US navy defeated the Japanese navy in the Battle of Midway (4–7 June 1942), which turned the tide in favour of the Allies. The Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was a combined offensive of the army and the navy, and lasted for several months (7 August 1942–9 February 1943). This battle too ended in a crushing defeat for the Japanese. After this, the American forces were able to re-take the Philippines and gradually the Japanese were pushed out of most of their conquered territories. In 1944, the combined British and Indian armies were able to repulse the Japanese who attempted to invade the north-east of India. Then, along with the Chinese, they pushed the Japanese out of Burma, and took over Malaya and Singapore.

The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942

The German strategy of lightning strikes was initially successful in Soviet Russia. But the German army did not succeed in reaching Moscow. It faced the bloodiest battles in world history at Stalingrad. Hitler thought Stalingrad would be a prize catch, as it was a large industrial city producing armaments and tractors. He was also aiming for the rich oil fields of the Caucasus. In addition, seizing the city that bore the name of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin would add further glory to the image of Hitler. But even after it became clear that the German Army could not hold Stalingrad, Hitler refused to allow a strategic withdrawal. He was scared that the strategic withdrawal from Stalingrad would greatly dent Nazi prestige. Thus, Hitler condemned his best army to cold, starvation and death even as the Soviet army fired by a nationalist spirit fought without respite. The great Soviet counter-offensive in the summer (1942) turned the tide in favour of Soviet Union. Many military historians have argued that the fate of the war was decided in Stalingrad.

The victory at this “Great Patriotic War” set the Red Army on course to storm Berlin. Along with the Allied forces of Britain, France and America, Soviets defeated the German army, effectively ending World War II in Europe.

According to one estimate, the total number of Russians dead touched 20 million (13 million soldiers and seven million civilians).

Fall of Mussolini

At the end of 1942, the Allied cause was saved when German forces suffered their first reverses at El Alamein in north Africa. The Battle of El Alamein, fought between the German–Italian army commanded in the field by Erwin Rommel and the British forces, in the deserts of North Africa, led to a German Surrender in May 1943. The Allied forces then invaded Sicily. The same king, Victor Immanuel III, who had handed power to Mussolini in 1922 replaced him with General Badoglio and sued for peace. Mussolini was kept under house arrest. The General Badoglio government of Italy formally signed a surrender in Sicily on 3 September 1943.

During 1943 there were two high level conferences among the Allies. In January Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca. Here they decided to postpone the invasion of France, which for over four years (1940–44) was literally a German province, until the next year. (The Germans who had occupied France possessed sixty army divisions.) The second conference was at Teheran in Persia in which Stalin was also present. Based on the strategy planned, the Anglo–American invasion of France was fixed for 6 June 1944. The supreme commander of the Allied forces was the American General Eisenhower.

Invasion of Anglo–American Forces and Bombing of Dresden

The Allied forces under the command of Eisenhower invaded Normandy in France. Normandy was cleared of German forces and on 25 August 1944 Paris was liberated. By the beginning of September the Allies had gained control of the whole of the country, and also occupied Belgium. The Allied bombing of Germany (February 13–15, 1945) almost completely destroyed the German city of Dresden. The raids became a symbol of the “terror bombing” campaign against Germany. During this period, altogether 600,000 German citizens were killed. Slowly, the German army was forced back. But the Germans resisted and the war continued for another year.

In 1945 a final assault on Germany brought Western and Soviet forces face to face across central Germany. On April 30, 1945 Soviet forces neared Hitler’s command bunker in central Berlin. Hitler committed suicide. Berlin fell into the hands of Soviets on 2 May. The Soviet army had already captured much of Eastern Europe and Poland.

Dropping of Atomic Bombs and the End of World War II

Despite the defeat of Germany, the Japanese generals refused to surrender. Finally, the US on 6 August 1945 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and three days later (9 August) on Nagasaki. In the race to develop the atomic bomb, the US had overtaken Germany. Japan surrendered immediately, thereby bringing an end to World War II. Between 60,000–80,000 people were killed instantly when the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, and an estimated 140,000 died from its effects before the end of the year. The death toll increased to over 200,000 in subsequent decades, as people died of cancer (leukemia) and other diseases linked to dangerous radiation.

Historians differ in their interpretations of the causes of the war. Some attribute it to the Treaty of Versailles which was harsh and vindictive. So they justify Germany’s desire to change the terms of the treaty. There are others who blame the policy of appeasement followed by Britain and France. A few point out the failure of Britain and France to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union. They not only distrusted the Soviet Union but did not respond to proposals for collective security put forward from 1934 onward. But most historians hold Germany and Hitler responsible. They assert that it was the unscrupulous, ruthless and aggressive policies based on a belligerent nationalism and an ideology of racial (Aryan) purity, plunged the world into six years of devastating warfare. ‘The Second World War was Hitler’s war. He planned it, began it and ultimately lost it.’

Peace Making

The Atlantic Charter, a statement issued by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, formed the basis of the settlement of peace. Its essential principles were as follows:

1. No territorial changes without the consent of the people concerned.

2. The right of the people to choose the form of their government.

3. All states to enjoy on equal terms access to the trade and raw materials of the world.

4. Freedom to travel across the sea without hindrance

5. Disarmament of all nations that threaten aggression.

Otherwise there was no peace conference. Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the US, represented by Churchill, Stalin and Truman, agreed at the Potsdam meet to create a council of foreign ministers of five Powers – the Big three plus China and France – to continue the necessary preparatory work for the peace settlements. This council became the principal agency for peace-making in Europe. It was agreed upon that peace treaties with Italy, Hungary, Belgium, and Rumania be finalised before dealing treaties with Italy and Germany. Great Britain, USA, USSR and France would draft the Italian treaty, the Big three would draft the three Balkan treaties, Great Britain and Soviet Union would draft for Finland. Then the draft treaties would be considered at a general conference.

Peace Conference, 1946

1500 delegates from 21 nations met at Luxemburg Palace, Paris, from July 26 to 15 October 1946. After a great deal of deliberations the recommendations of the conference were reviewed by the Council of Foreign Ministers and adopted after slight modifications.

Italian Peace treaty: The issue of Trieste dragged for several years. Italy demanded Trieste. Soviet Union had promised it to Yugoslavia. Finally, in 1954, Trieste was divided into Zone A and Zone B. Zone A went to Italy, while Zone B was awarded to Yugoslavia. The Italian reparation was fixed at $ 260,000,000 (most of it to go to Greece and Yugoslavia).

Reparation to Russia: Hungary, Belgium and Finland were to give $100,000,000 to Russia. Bulgaria was to pay $25,000,000 to Yugoslavia and $4,000,000 to Greece. Rumania agreed to give back Bessarabia, acquired in 1919, and Bukovina to Russia. The Belgium treaties guaranteed the free navigation of the Danube. But it was blocked by Russia. The treaties came into effect from 15 September 1947. But the provisions were either violated or ignored.

Austria: Disputes arose over the claim of Yugoslavia to a portion of Austrian territory in southern Carinthia. Yugoslavia also demanded $150,000,000 as reparation. The problematic issue of defining German assets could not be resolved even though the commission set up for this purpose met in 85 sessions. The issue of reparation with Russia was settled with the Soviet extension of rights to the oil and shipping facilities in Austria and a cash payment of $150,000,000 over a six year period in lieu of the German assets. Austria was reestablished as a sovereign, independent and democratic state with the same frontiers it had before the forced union with Germany in 1938. Austria agreed not to enter into political or economic union with Germany in any form.

Germany: The conference held at Potsdam, near Berlin, issued the following formal declarations: 1. East Prussia to be divided into two parts: northern part going to the Soviet Union, and the southern part to Poland. 2. Poland to receive the former free city of Danzig. The military power of Germany was to be totally destroyed, and Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones to be governed by the USSR, Great Britain, the United States and France. Thus substantial portions of pre-war Germany were transferred to the USSR and to Poland. Berlin in the heart of Russian sphere and the rest of the country was divided into four zones. In April 1949 the German Democratic Republic was proclaimed in the Soviet zone. NATO decided to approve the Federal Republic of Germany. In September the newly elected parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany was established.


Poland moved some 200 miles to the west, losing about 69,000 sq.miles to the Soviet Union and gaining slightly less from Germany in the west. Poland would surrender its eastern provinces to Russia and the existing government of Poland, setup under Soviet aegis, was to be reorganised with the inclusion of democratic leaders from among the Poles.


Roosevelt, Churchill and Nationalist China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek met in Cairo as early as in November 1943 and decided the fate of the Japanese empire. All the territories taken by Japan from China, with the exception of Korea, were to be restored to the Chinese Republic. Korea was to become free and independent. Japan lost all conquests it had made since 1931. It was also obliged to give up Formosa (now Taiwan) and the Pacific islands that it had gained decades earlier.

After meeting in a conference at Yalta, in the Crimea (February 1945), Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin declared their plans for the unconditional surrender of Germany, upon methods of controlling Germany and her allies after the war, and upon the establishment of United Nations Organisation to preserve the peace, the economic organisations, known collectively as the Bretton Woods system, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs to achieve post-War reconstruction of the economies which had been devastated by the War. Unlike after the First World War, this time, Roosevelt was determined that the United States should join the world peace organisation.

Results of the Second World War

The Second World War caused unprecedented hardship. As many as 60 million died, and great cities such as Warsaw, Kiev, Tokyo and Berlin were reduced to rubble. The majority of ports in Europe and many in Asia were destroyed or badly damaged; bridges were blown up; railway locomotives and rolling stock vanished. Millions of people lost their homes. Germany ceased to be a great power. Europe lost its status and prestige. The economy was in a shambles. It was clear that the two dominating powers in the world were the United States and Soviet Russia. The ideological divisions between the two made the post -war cooperation impossible, as we shall see in the next lesson.

Great Britain emerged with enormous prestige, but her position as a world power diminished on account of reduced wealth, and the shrinking of its empire. The Second World War was fatal to many European monarchies. Kingship was abolished in Rumania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Italy. Apart from Britain, it survived only in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Holland and Belgium and that too only as constitutional monarchies.

The world had been one in its effort to defeat fascism which had threatened world peace. The Allied victory had been underpinned by the popular support for the war effort. The struggle against fascism also empowered the common people. The shared suffering and sacrifice of the war years strengthened the belief in most democracies that governments had an obligation to provide basic care for all citizens. When it was elected in the summer of 1945, for example, the Labour government in Britain moved rapidly to establish a welfare state. It became the government’s obligation in Britain to provide insurance against accident, sickness, old age and unemployment. The rights of women also took a huge step forward as their contribution to the war effort, and their share in the suffering, were recognised. In France and Italy, women finally got the vote.

The most significant outcome of the War was the transformation that had taken place in colonies. The fight for democracy encouraged the nationalist forces to intensify their liberations struggles. The defeat of armed forces of the Western countries by Japan in Southeast Asia and also the initial setback suffered by Britain and France in the War at the hands of Germans sent a clear signal that white men and their states could be defeated. The old empires also realised that the Age of Empire was definitely at the end. The Dutch, for instance, found it difficult to maintain adequate military forces in the huge Indonesia archipelago. In Indo-China the French, supported by the British and later by the USA, made a desperate attempt to hold back its independence. But the French were defeated and forced to withdraw in 1954. The attempt by Britain and France to reassert themselves as global imperial powers in the Suez Crisis of 1956 was doomed. Later the US war against Vietnam turned out to be a shameful failure.

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