In this Article I will be talking about World War Two and the reasons why war broke out in 1939. Carlo Rosselli, a Italian Action Party member exiled in Paris, wrote about this: “Beware A European conflict is developing. We have reached the moment when the two opposed worlds, the world of freedom and the world of authoritarianism, are about to find themselves face to face”. He was indicating that this would be a war concerned with the clash of ideologies, freedom and oppression. The war was made up of the western liberal and social ideologies, and the eastern fascist and communist dictatorships of the oppressed. The Treaty of Versailles, as well as the League of Nations, and the implications of their inevitable failure, are also key factors in the build-up to World War Two. I will also be exploring the effects of the failures of the appeasements and how it influenced things to ultimately create a more dominant Germany.
The Paris conference was initially held by the victors in World War One to set the peace terms for the defeated central powers, and the Treaty of Versailles was a product of the conference. The War Guilt Clause specified that Germany would have to accept that they started the First World War, in addition to having to pay massively high war reparation payments, which put Germany into high economic depression. There were also limitations enforced on the military, which put the German people to shame, as did the experience of losing the dismantled German Empire. They had lost their morale, and in their vulnerable state, bitterness began to brew towards the government and the West. Eventually, after the destruction of the Treaty, Germany was allowed to re-arm itself and gain back a certain amount of its lost territory. So, even though it had been created as a form of punishment, the Treaty of Versailles was a failure because it was not properly put into full force, and was left shattered.
In addition to the Treaty of Versailles, The League of Nations was established to settle disputes between nations by imposing sanctions. Its aim was to prevent another major war from happening, but it ultimately failed in its objective, and there are numerous reasons for this; the USA did not join initially, meaning that one of the world’s major superpowers was not a part of the League, depriving them of resources but also posing as a potential threat. There was also no standing army to protect it, making it weak and vulnerable. By the outbreak of World War Two, many major powers, including Japan, the USA, Italy, Germany and the USSR, had terminated their membership of the League, and so it had little influence, defeating its purpose. The League of Nations was not able to act quickly because it did not have much contact, and was therefore not able to stop the aggression; “take action against any member regarded as an aggressor”. Adolf Hitler demanded, at the World Disarmament Conference, to have the same level of militarisation as other countries or the other members of the League of Nations would have to dis-arm in the same way as the German nation had been forced to; they were not allowed the same level of military and economic strength as the western powers. The other nations, such as Great Britain, France and Italy did not meet Germany’s demands, and so Germany left both the League of Nations and the World Disarmament Conference. This, coupled with the disregard towards the Treaty of Versailles, was another step towards the outbreak of World War Two, because both unintentionally managed to give Germany more power, and more reasons to use it against the West.
However, the apparent failure of the Treaty of Versailles and The League of Nations were not the only reasons for the outbreak of war in 1939. The Czech Republic crisis of 1938 played an important part in setting the War into motion because, as there was a high population of Germans there – 3.5 million – the Sutherland was given a ultimatum by France and Britain to peacefully join Germany, or to fight alone. This shows that they were reluctant and not able to have a full-fold war with Germany in the short-term. At the Munich Conference, the four major powers of Western Europe – Great Britain; France; Italy and Germany – sat and talked about the Sutherland situation and returning their land to them. Britain and France, meanwhile, were desperate to avoid another conflict with Germany, even though Germany had violated many of the Peace Treaty terms, such as re-armament, introduction of conscription, and the increasing size of their military. Therefore it can be argued that Germany –having been allowed to break terms without any repercussions –became so confident that they started to demand the return of territories they had lost following WW1, such as Sutherland. Hitler promised that Germany would not make any more claims on disputed territories in Europe, and this is why the land was returned. But he soon broke this promise when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Still, no action was taken against Germany until Hitler started to demand land in Poland, at which point the Anglo-Polish Alliance was formed, with Britain being Poland’s guarantor of security.
Hitler had been busy capitalising on the situation in Germany, and did not want to waste more time. He gained more ammunition because he drew on the economic, moral and social factors in his political campaigns, and was able to deliver the results his campaign promised. This resulted in his rise to power and the rapid increase in his popularity amongst the German people, as he managed to gain their national pride and respect. The Weimar Republic was still attempting to deal with the failed issues of World War One, and couldn’t cope with the economic problems and major depression that was happening in Germany during the 1920s. In addition to this, they were also being blamed for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles. The lack of faith Germans had in their governmental institution was exploited by Hitler, and this is another reason for the outbreak of War.
The Spanish Civil War was also playing an important part in the building towards World War Two, because as a deeply divided country, it was politically torn between right-wing nationalist and left-wing republican parties. The importance of Spain to its western allies was significant because it was a potential ally against the communist and fascist regimes in eastern and central Europe. The reason why Spain was important was because of its strategic point, and the European powers feared that, if Spain succumbed, they would be surrounded by fascist powers (Germany and Italy). Spain had an important strategic geographical base on the Mediterranean and Atlantic Seas. The reason why this would cause problems with the fascist regime is because it consequently put military and economic pressure on the other European powers. Hitler was aware of this and, like he did with the situation in Germany, planned to exploit it; “For his new feats of strength, Hitler would take advantage of a major event: the Spanish Civil War”. Both Hitler and Mussolini sent an immense amount of resources, financial and military aid to the Spanish nationalism forces so that frankly they could build up support for both Nazism and fascism, and to see how much of a built up drive for nationalism took in place in Spain. The Russian USSR only sold military arms, and to the Republican side this would have caused an effect of a battle ground from the outside forces to test their might and ideology, because they arguably would have believed any ideology which showed them to be a ‘power to be reckoned with’.
“Germany and Italy did not want to see Bolshevism triumph in Spain, where they continually intervened.”. This showed the potential threat from the USSR; that this was a war of ‘ideology’, and their military might in the Spanish Civil War, because it was evident that Germany and Italy had an agenda to use this as war propaganda, and indirectly as ideological warfare. This would be able to gain them an alliance with Spain, or persuade them to choose the side that would be better for them to be on in the long-run, i.e. Germany and Italy’s side, or that of the USSR. This also gave them a chance to see the newly trained armies of Germany and Italy, and to see how practical they were in the Civil War in Spain, as well as to see whether their weaponry was forceful enough and the same as the USSR, who, as I mentioned earlier, had sold a substantial amount of arms to the republican side of Spain. The British government’s Non-Intervention Agreement was an agreement to not be involved, indirectly or directly, with the Spanish Civil War, and at first France, the USSR, Germany and Italy all agreed to it. However, Britain was ultimately the only country that remained loyal to it. This eventually turned into a ‘proxy war’ for the USSR, Germany and Italy’s individual ideological regimes in preparation for the major war.
The clash of ideologies between communism and fascism increased tensions between the Communist USSR, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, which resulted in the Rome- Berlin Axis. The Rome-Berlin Axis was a military and political alliance which confirmed the preparation for the Second World War. “Hitler was laying the foundations of his alliances: he drew closer to Italy and Japan. With the League of Nations reduced to powerlessness”.This shows that Hitler had already cemented an alliance between Germany and Italy, and was on the way to gain an alliance with Japan. This changed the balance of power within Europe, and also gained more of a unity because fascist Italy had agendas alongside Germany. A month later, the ‘Pact of Steel’ was created. This pact was between Germany and Italy, and it was centred around the military and economy, with the purpose of promoting ‘fascist propaganda’.
Another factor is the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This was significant because Hitler was confident that Germany would not have to fight a war on two fronts if they were able to invade Poland. He was able to implement his plans towards the west, and keep his long-term focus there temporarily before going back to the eastern front. One month later, Germany did manage to invade Poland, and Britain was then compelled to take action. Neville Chamberlin, Britain’s Prime Minister, felt that Germany was treated badly, and he thought that if he was to give in to some of Hitler’s demands, it would stop him from carrying out his plans and prevent another major war in Europe. The appeasement would have worked if he had stuck by his policy, but eventually he abandoned it and, like the Treaty of Versailles and The League of Nations, failed. This gave Hitler ammunition to be able to go forward more forcibly in his European conquests. I believe that the Western European powers unintentionally let Adolf Hitler gain more confidence to be able to exercise more power with many unfortunate and devastating consequences, so therefore the build-up of the war was less malicious and more accidental than it is often portrayed to be. I think this shows how the Western powers were scared of confrontation in the long-term, and how it would shake the balance of Europe as a continent in many different ways.
The harsh treatment of Germany after the First World War resulted in difficult social and economic conditions, and low morale, which made it possible for Hitler to rise to power through the vulnerability of the country and its people. Germany was effectively allowed to break terms of the Paris Peace Treaty and become powerful once more, as other countries turned a blind eye. According to the historian A.J.P. Taylor, because there were so many different ideologies and rises of dictatorships happening in the early 1930s, there was not one justifiable cause that led to the build-up of distrust. There were so many social and economic factors that led to the build-up of the Second World War that it is impossible to pin point one in particular as the sole cause. There were many inter-war periods between both World Wars, as well as proxy wars, which contributed to the rising tension within Europe, despite the efforts of appeasement during the 1930s. Another point to mention is that there were lots of indirect and direct implications that lead to the outbreak of World War Two, and I believe that, because it is such a wide ranging and complicated topic to write about, its not easy to blame one particular factor, but an awareness of each of them is important when forming an overall understanding of the conflict.
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