World War II : Setting the Stage

Post by: Hayden Love, NSLA Research Project Specialist

The Second World War was fought in a thousand places, for one - initial - reason. By the war’s end, over 65 million had been killed worldwide, cementing the conflict as the bloodiest in human history. In spite of the staggering death figures and unparalleled destruction, one question lingers: Why did the Second World War happen?

Europe had drowned in blood just two decades prior. Families had been robbed of their fathers and sons. Small towns had lost entire generations of young men on foreign soil. The world map had been redrawn, giving birth to new nations and bringing down others. So why, with the memory of the Great War so fresh in the world’s collective memory, would armies be mobilized and war waged again?

To some, the First World War did not have a definitive end. Though it stood alone, the Imperial German Army was still a formidable fighting force when the armistice took effect on November 11th, 1918. Millions of Germans had fought and died for their country - only to be “stabbed in the back” by politicians and cowardly citizens who lacked the will to fight. This sparked a deep divide between those who saw the war as a fruitless cause and embittered nationalists who wanted to fight until the very end.

While Germany experienced a brief resurgence during the late 1920’s, small, yet passionate, political groups were founded on the premise that the German Army had never truly lost, and that certain groups (such as Communists and the Jewish community) had forced the war to end for their own personal gain. One such group was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party; otherwise known as the Nazi Party.

Headed by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party used both the economic climate of the Great Depression and powerful political propaganda to come to power in 1933. Hitler pushed against the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and called for a pure, united German state.

While the nations that had formed the Allied Powers dealt with the Great Depression, Hitler began to secretly re-arm the German Armed Forces and disenfranchise those deemed “undesirable” - Jews, Communists, Homosexuals, mentally and physically handicapped peoples, and gypsies.

At the same time, two new dictatorships rose to power in the world. Italy and Japan had both fought for the Allies in the First World War. Though they stood victorious in the outcome, both nations felt they had been deprived of any real gain for the sacrifices they had made. Both nations began a policy of aggressive territorial expansion in the 1930’s.

Italy, under the fascist leader Benito Mussolini, conquered Ethiopia in 1937. Mussolini’s vision was similar to Hitler’s - he wanted to restore national pride to Italy, and forge a “new Roman Empire”.

Japan’s aims fell in line with its future allies. During the First World War, the Japanese played a vital role in securing the Pacific and captured Germany’s South Pacific colonies. In spite of this, it had little bargaining power during the Versailles negotiations, leaving the Japanese feeling isolated politically and geographically. As a result, the Imperial Japanese Army began a period of brutal conquest during the 1930’s, culminating in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Other nations were not blind to these happenings. Britain, France, and other states in the League of Nations protested these moves, but were unwilling to act against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Why? Partly because they lacked the support of the United States, which had slipped back into isolation following the First World War, but primarily out of fear of another Great War.

As such, Britain and France allowed Germany to re-establish control over territories lost in the Treaty of Versailles. In 1938, Germany forcefully annexed Austria, and soon moved into the newly-formed country of Czechoslovakia.

This led to what was known as the Munich Conference; a gathering of the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, set on discussing Hitler’s land claims around Europe. Taking place on September 30th, 1938, and in the interest of avoiding war, it was agreed that Germany would be allowed to annex the Sudetenland, a mostly German speaking portion of the Czech state. Hitler declared this was his last territorial claim in Europe, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously declared that the agreement guaranteed “peace for our time.”

He would soon be proven disastrously wrong.

From left to right Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany.

From left to right Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany.

Germany would soon annex the rest of Czechoslovakia and parts of Lithuania, while Italy launched an invasion of Albania. It was clear that war was unavoidable if Germany was to be checked in power. In an attempt to ward Hitler off of any further land grabs, Britain and France both guaranteed military assistance to the young nation of Poland in the event of a German attack.

This did not dissuade Hitler. Having forged an anti-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and with allies in the Japanese Empire and Italy, Hitler felt secure enough to invade Poland (under false pretences) on September 1st, 1939. Bound by their pact, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd.

The Second World War had begun.

HAYDEN LOVE  NSLA Research Project Specialist

NSLA Research Project Specialist