The origins of World War Two have exercised the minds of historians and filled hundreds of thousands of pages, without tiring either the fascination of the subject or the energy of the reader. Many still remember the war like it was yesterday and were directly affected by it. Others, born after the war, barely know anything about it. Either way, we are still living in the shadows of it. Maybe the physical ruins in Europe were quickly repaired, but the destruction has left its mark in great cities and left forty to fifty million dead. One might ask why and how? Why and how can a war break out including at least eight major powers and kill over forty millions people?
When looking at the causes of World War II it is not like looking at the causes of World War I. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia, and within a week, five of the six European great powers were at war. One day Europe was at peace the next day at war. But with World War II it was totally different. It is even difficult to say when precisely the war began.1 Some say it started in 1936, with the Spanish Civil War. It is when a Nationalist, Francisco Franco took up arms against the republic and in a few weeks controlled half the country. Then the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany came to help fight for three years and lost half a million lives there.
While the Spanish War was going on, many other things were happing all across Europe, Germany took over Austria on March 1938; the Czechoslovakian crisis of September 1938, when the French army was mobilized and war seemed in the near future; the German seizure of Bohemia and Memel on March 1939; and the Italian invasion of Albanian on April 1939. Now could one honestly call this peace? Then on September first, Germany attacked Poland; and on September third, Britain and France declared War on Germany.
War was fought on April 1940 when Germany attacked Denmark and Norway; in May with the German invasion of the Low Countries and France; and June when Italy extended the conflict to the Mediterranean.2 In October 1940 Italy attacked Greece; in April 1941 the Germans conquered Yugoslavia and Greece; and finally in June 1941 they invaded the Soviet Union, which by then engulfed almost the entire Continent. It moved from a civil war, to a war by proxy, to a local war (Germany and Poland), to a regional war (Scandinavia and Western Europe), and finally to a Continental War. How and why did all these countries get involved in a massive World War?
One cause of World War II is the Treaty of Versailles which, brought with it German aggression. This was the major treaty ending military actions against Germany in World War I. It was signed on June 28, 1919 and went into effect on January 10, 1920.3 Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan ratified the treaty but it was not ratified by the United States. The League of Nations constituted the first part of the treaty. Its general purpose was to maintain peace, promote international cooperation and encourage disarmament. The treaty made Germany give up much land to Poland, France, and to Belgium, and ceased its leasehold in Shantung, China, and Japan. The treaty also restricted both the manpower and the equipment permissible for Germany’s army and navy; prohibited conscription; dissolved the grand general staff, and forbid Germany to have any air force at all. It also made Germany pay reparations, over and beyond damages, and impose dramatic limitations on German armaments and trade. Obviously, Germany resented the treaty, and the seeds of trouble for the next twenty years were sown in those articles.
Germany felt threatened and taken advantage of and wanted to get back what they lost in the treaty. So, Hitler played with Great Britain and France to make territorial gains in Europe.4 France bordered Germany and had much to loose, so they tried to avoid war as long as they could. Although France and Britain used the policy of appeasement to avoid war it didn’t work and Hitler keep going trying to take over more land.
So what Great Britain and France did was promise to aid Poland if their independence was threaten by Germany and they formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. This placed Germany in a bad position in the middle of a two front war if they attacked. However Stalin canceled his alliance and signed a pact with Hitler and promised to stay neutral when Hitler attacked Poland. On September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland and because of a promise France and Britain declared war.
Great Britain was not the only country that Germany was after to use and take over. Italy too was part of Hitler’s plan. Hitler knew that Germany could not survive another two possibly three front wars. Hitler wanted them as his alliance so, in 1936 he signed the Axis Agreement, which agreed that Rome and Berlin were the strongest cities in Europe, and therefore acted as an axis for all power to resolve around.5 The two leaders, Hitler and Mussolini worked well together because they were both fascist leaders in a world of communists and capitalists.
Although Hitler was after the alliance with Italy, Italy had other things on their minds. The Italian aggression was another big cause of the war. There were two big causes within this aggression that brought out the war. One was the Spanish Civil War and the other was Italy takeover of Ethiopia. Mussolini wanted Ethiopia because he wanted the Suez Canal since it is a quicker route to Asia, and because he already controlled the surrounding countries of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. He made a treaty called the Italo-Ethiopian treaty but never had any intention to live up to it. Mussolini though, wanted an excuse to invade and take over Ethiopia not just to do it and on December fifth he got the incident at Wells, a yelling, and threatening fight, just what he was waiting for. A few months later he destroyed Ethiopia. Then in 1940 he joined forces with the Nazi party and then France and Britain broke off her Alliances with Mussolini.
Hitler was then faced with the same dilemma that the leaders of Pre World War I were faced with. The French were on the west, and the Russians on the east. This was a threat to Germany. To solve this problem he needed to form two alliances but he knew a Franco-German alliance was out of the question so; he decided to appease the USSR.6 Both countries agreed to sign a treaty because they both got out of it what they wanted. They signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This was also a big cause of the war. The German’s needed a place to train their men since the Treaty of Versailles said that they were only allowed to have 100,000 men. So German troops joined the SA or the SS and then they weren’t technically in the German army.7 For Hitler it removed the threat of war on two fronts. Before this, he would not dare invade Poland because this would mean fighting France and Britain in the West, and the Soviet Union in the east, and this would be a nightmare. But once the treaty was signed, he could do what he wanted, and that is when he invaded Poland, which directly lead to Britain declaring war.
While all of this was going on in Europe, Japan had many aggressions too that lead to the Second World War. In World War One Japan gained some German colonies in Asia and then 1931 occupied Manchuria the Northeast of China and then in 1937 invaded the rest of China. Japan like Germany was acquired by militarists who were similar to Nazis and had in mind to take over all of Asia.8 Now fully established as a world aggressor, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, allying themselves with Germany and Italy. In 1940, the Tripartite Pact replaced this pact and so Japan became a formal member of the infamous Axis alliance. Then Japan continued to invade China and Indochina and the United Stated responded by freezing Japanese assets and invoking and oil embargo. This made Japan very angry. Japan then destroyed much of the U.S. Navy in a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. This threatened the United States security and brought the United States right into the war.
Another cause of World War II would be the Great Depression. The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939 and was brought along by the First World War along with the terms of peace that ended it.9 Production was very high and the economy was booming because of the extreme high demands of goods and services in World War I. There were two reasons why the Great Depression became an important cause of the war. The first cause is that there were a large number of unemployed people. Then when Hitler came in and gave them all jobs, he became more appealing, the country grew nationality, trusted him, liked him, and pretty much did anything for him that he wanted. The second was the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty really satisfied England and France because they became rich, but irritated Germany because they became economically poor. This treaty angered Germany and Hitler enough to rebel against it, and cause a war. This part is a really important cause because if Hitler never had this aggression, there probably would not have been a war.
Another part of the Treaty of Versailles is Britain and France. They didn’t want to go to war for economic, political and social reasons so they did all they could to prevent it. When Hitler in early 1939 demanded Danzig, a German speaking port that had been declared a free city under the Treaty of Versailles, instead of going to war, took up a policy of appeasement, and allowed Hitler to reoccupy the Rhineland.10 Then they neglected to respond to the plead for help from Loyalists in Spain, and they said Germany’s annexation of Austria was an internal affair. Finally at the Munich conference they gave Germany the Sudetenland if Hitler promised to stop there. After Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, he did not stop. In just six moths later it was obvious that appeasement didn’t help it just worsened the problem because it made Britain and France weak.
Over across seas the United States wanted to stay as far away from war as they could. The United States too was having economic, and domestic problems but the sudden fall of France in June 1940 and the desperate troubles of Britain aroused some deep fear in the United States.11 However when the United States realized Hitler’s plan of completely taking over Europe they had to do something. Some wanted to remain neutral but the majority did not. After Japan launched a major attack on the US, they knew it was time. On December 8, 1941 President Roosevelt signed the declaration of war, and then Germany and Italy had to declare war on the United States three days later, and the war became a World War.
To sum up German aggression in one word, it would be, Hitler. Hitler was part of the National Socialist German Workers Party and spent some time in prison for trying to take over Germany. While he was there he wrote a book called Mein Kampf. In the book he talked of a German empire that would rule for 1,000 years. It also talked about regaining the territory lost in the Treaty of Versailles. Then he became the leader of the Nazi party and that is when he became real popular. In 1933 he was voted chancellor of Germany and six months later he made himself absolute ruler of Germany. The Nazi party promised peace from internal fighting, and rebirth of prosperity. Hitler reinitiated nationalism in Germany by giving most of the country jobs that did not have any. Hitler frequently expressed his hatred towards the Treaty of Versailles and since he had all the people of Germany on his side he wanted to do something about it. Hitler was out to rebel against the Treaty of Versailles and he did. Many agree that the immediate origin of World War II was Adolf Hitler.
Chamberlain was the British Prime Minister, and tried to make peace with Germany, and tried everything in his power to avoid war. He didn’t realize Hitler’s plan of the domination of Europe. Chamberlain was a weak man compared to Hitler who didn’t back down. In fact, Chamberlain’s appeasement and procrastination allowed Hitler to learn Britain’s weakness and prepare for a greater war. Although you cannot always blame the political leader accountable for their country, Chamberlain is the man behind the final decision and he did give into Hitler’s plan.
On the other hand, the man behind France was Charles De Gualle who was president, and a military man who thought the French should build up their army. But this was very unpopular with the parliament, the left wing, (which was the part of France which wanted peace, opposed to the right wing who wanted if not war, the threat of war), and the common Frenchman, so they used more passive solutions like the Maginot line and Munich Agreement. The Munich Agreement obviously failed and the Maginot line has mostly been regarded as a failure too. It was networks of mostly underground fortifications along the borders of Germany and Switzerland. It was built to compensate for France’s inferior military in the event of war with Germany.12 The problem with the line was that it was to short and Hitler attacked around the line. Charles De Gualle wanted to do other things incase of a war but because his did not have his nation on his side, he went through with the nation-state plan, failed, and because of that Hitler had more power and Paris fell to the Nazis.
Mussolini also made many decisions that affected our history and many decisions that might have changed it. Maybe if Mussolini hadn’t destroyed Ethiopia and become alliances with Germany in 1940, Britain and France would not have broken off their alliance with Italy and the war would have been a lot different if, there even was a war.
When one looks at the situation from the Russian eye it is looked at much differently. Lenin had negated the military aid need with Germany in March 1921, and Stalin continued until Hitler wanted no part of assisting an enemy. Stalin had many of the same ideas as Hitler. He wanted to make the USSR into the dominant economy and military state. Russia’s plan of imperialism began in 1939 with Poland and Finland a few months later and then attacked and reassumed control of the Baltic States. Finally Russia was officially forced into the war on June 22, 1941 when Germany attacked Russia. These are all decisions that Lenin made that helped cause World War II. He wanted to make the USSR a utopian global state and did everything that had to be done to achieve that goal even if it upset others countries which would cause a war.
The last cause of World War II is Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku. He was one of the reasons for the United States to enter the war in the Pacific.13 If Isoroku would have made peace treaties or done things differently instead of bombing Pearl Harbor, the Unites States probably would not have gone to war in the Pacific.
When one looks back on the causes of the war it is obvious that it was an end product of unresolved economic clashes, diplomatic squabbles and plotting, and unsound conception of security. As one can clearly see this was a war of many causes. It didn’t happen over night it was a mixture of many irritated countries, with many problems. War is a terrible thing, but when one country threatens another country politically, economically, or socially, sometimes there is no other alternative, and it might even be the best solution.
1. Appleman, Roy E., Burns, James M., Gugeler, Russell A., and Stevens, John. United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, Okinawa, The last Battle. Washington D.C. 1948
2. Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989
3. Macdonald, John. Great Battles of World War II. London, 1986
4. Stokesbury, James. A Short History of World War II. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1980
5. Ready, J. Lee. The Forgotten Axis, Germany’s Partners and Foreign Volunteers in World War II. North Carolina: Jefferson, 1987
1 James Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II, William Morrow and company, Inc, (New York: 1980). Pp 30
2 Ibid. Pp 34
3 Martin Gilbert, The Second World War, Henry Hold and Company, (New York: 1989). Pp 26
4 Ibid. Pp 104
5 John Macdonald, Great Battles of World War II, (London: 1986). Pp 46
6 Ibid. Pp 57
7 Ibid. Pp 61
8 Lee Ready, The Forgotten Axis, Germany’s Partners and Foreign Volunteers in World War II, Jefferson, (North Carolina: 1987). Pp 94
9 Ibid. Pp 102
10 James Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II, William Morrow and company, Inc, (New York: 1980). Pp 202
11 Ibid. Pp 206
12 Martin Gilbert, The Second World War, Henry Hold and Company, (New York: 1989). Pp 306
13 Ibid. Pp 502