World War II, Origins

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This article deals with the origins and causes of World War II in the Pacific (1937-41) and in Europe (1939).


The conflict was not pan-global in immediate terms, being initially concentrated in Europe, the North Atlantic and North Africa. Large areas of the inhabited world were unaffected by the warfare between the European militarised powers. It acquired broader geographic spread when Germany broke ties with Russia in 1941, and later when Japan entered the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbour.


The defeat, manner of defeat and the terms and conditions for the surrender of Germany at the end of World War I in 1918 were ultimately to cast a long shadow over the 20th century. The failure of the weak post-war Weimar Republic and the factional warfare between the radical left and the extreme right, coupled with the devastated economy in a time of global economic failure, one moreover bankrupted by what most Germans considered the excessive reparational demands of the Treaty of Versailles, were all instrumental in paving the way for the inexorable rise of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party, the Nazis. In the east, the collapse of nascent democracy in Russia with the 1917 communist revolution, was also a significant contributory factor, greatly fuelling social instability in western European countries.

The March on Rome

The March on Rome which occurred between October 27 and 29 of 1922 was a show of force by Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party which culminated in a transfer of power to Mussolini by King Victor Emmanuel II to avoid a civil war. The status ante quo saw Mussolini as a bulwark against rising socialist and communist forces and were generally speaking more than happy with this accommodation.

Demand for Reparations for World War I

The Papiermark came under severe pressure in 1921 in the wake of the presentation of a demand for reparations (principally by the French and British governments) for World War I to the tune of approximately 33 billion dollars to the German government. The value of the mark slipped from four to the dollar to nearer four-hundred to the dollar by early 1922; inflation spiraled out of control. The German government defaulted on repayments of reparations, and in January 1923 the French and Belgian governments responded by occupying the industrial heartland of Germany, the Ruhr valley.

The German government of Wilhelm Kuno responded to the French invasion by declaring a general strike, workers being supported by the German government. Because of run-away government expenses coupled with a complete shutdown of (at least) the Rhenish economy, the inflation continued at such a pace that it became hyperinflation. At some times during 1923, prices were doubling every two days. Wage increases were unable to remain abreast of it. Social unrest, strikes and hunger riots were the inevitable corollary.

Because neither the French nor German governments were willing to back down, and the crisis threaten the default of the French government on war debts owed the US, US President Calvin Coolidge dispatch his director of budget Charles G. Dawes to Europe to mediate a solution.

The Dawes Plan guaranteed US loans to Germany for reparations. It also scaled down of demands for reparations. Reparations were further scaled down with the 1929 Young Plan. In 1931, US President Herbert Hoover suggested a war debt moratorium as a Great Depression relief measure. With the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, reparations became a dead letter.

Beer Hall putsch

The failed Beer Hall Putsch of November 8 and 9 of 1923 was an early indicator of the fact that not all was well within post-World War I Germany. Adolf Hitler (by then leader of the NSDAP), General Erich Ludendorff and other members of the kampfbund, sought to overthrow the Weimar Republic whose leadership they depicted as being complicit in the Dolchstosslegende, traitors who had sold out Germany in World War I for their own gain. Inspired by Mussolini's March on Rome, and seizure of power, and also aware that if action was not taken events would overtake him, Hitler precipitated an attempt to effect a coup d'etat. The early overnight success of the putsch soon was rolled up; both tactically and strategically the putsch had been a shambles. Hitler's subsequent arrest and trial however gave him a mouthpiece to articulate his vision; a sympathetic judge gave him a token and minimum five year sentence of Festungshaft (fortress confinement) for treason, although Hitler served little of this time. It was during this period of imprisonment that Hitler's political manifesto Mein Kampf was written. He was released in December 1924.

The reinvention of the Nazi Party

On his release from prison, Hitler took steps to reform and reshape the NSDAP from a paramilitary organisation to one which overtly eschewed taking power by force; the political turmoil of 1923 by this time had largely subsided. The party began to contest elections to both the Reichstag and to the regional assemblies, albeit fruitlessly initially. With a capable administrative superstructure in place, however, the party began to grow, appealing mainly to the middle and lower middle classes who had borne the brunt of the excesses of hyperinflation of previous years. By 1930 the party was in the mainstream, and Germany was again in the grip of economic depression, with widespread unemployment, and frequent business failures. Hitler's anti-semitic oratory, laying the blame for the economic mess at the door of Jewish financiers and communist agitators, struck a chord with voters to the extent that in the 1930 Reichstag elections the Nazis became the second largest parliamentary party. The political crisis in Germany deepened further in 1931 and 1932, and in January 1933 Hitler became Reich Chancellor.

The rise of the dictatorships

In the 1930s the dictatorships of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy continued to expand their armed strength and then began to use it in unprovoked aggressions against small or relatively defenseless nations. Italy moved against Ethiopia (October 1935); Germany, after first indicating its aims by marching back into the Rhineland (March 1936), absorbed Austria (March, 1938) and then put pressure on Czechoslovakia. Both Germany and Italy provided arms to the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, with the Soviet Union providing aid to the Republican cause, while Britain, Framce and the U.S. remained neutral

These actions provided a dual test of their own war machinery and of the temper of the other large powers. They did not, however, provoke a general armament race or promote a resolute reaction in any of the other nations. During Italy's aggression against Ethiopia, Britain and France took refuge in the impotent League of Nations, and at the Munich Conference, (September 1938), Czechoslovakia, under pressure from the Western powers, yielded its western lands to Germany, thus stripping itself of a defensible independence.

In the spring of 1939 the Nationalist victory in Spain established another Fascist state in Europe. During the World War, Spain remained neutral, while sending "volunteer" divisions to help germany on the Eastern front.

In March 1939, Germany, having committed itself by the pact of Munich to desist from molesting Czechoslovakia, occupied the whole of the country. Two weeks later, on April 7, Italy invaded and occupied Albania, abetted by Germany's pledge of support in the event that any other power tried to interfere.

The effect on Europe's other major powers, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union, was the realization thaty appeasement policies had failed. While their separate governments at long last recognized the measure of the danger, that recognition did not persuade them either to make common cause or separately to make preparations for war, except in one vital respect--the vigorous building-up of a defensive air force in Britain.

When Germany followed its grab of Czechoslovakia by making menacing demands upon Poland, after signing a full military alliance ("Axis") with Italy (May 1939), the other great powers could not unify behind Poland. Attempts were made, but Britain shied from such an alliance and would agree to nothing but consultation in case of attack. The Soviet Union was estranged equally by Britain's half-hearted approach and the refusal of Poland to admit Soviet troops to its soil in the event of war. Further, Moscow asked for a free hand with all border states as the price of a three-power alliance. Thus after long negotiations, Britain and France were unable to come to terms with Josef Stalin, who instead made his deal with Hitler.

In mid-April, 1939, Britain and France formed a united front in behalf of Turkey, Greece, Romania, and Poland, pledging their armed support to these states if they were attacked by Germany or Italy.

Throughout the summer of 1939, the issue remained in balance for peace or war in Europe, Germany meanwhile stepping up the campaign of violence and intimidation against Poland, but hesitating to move because of uncertainty about the Soviet Union's attitude.

On August 23, 1939, came the bombshell: a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that pledged both countries to keep the peace between themselves for ten years, allowed for critical sales of oil to Germany, divided Poland between the two, and (secretly) assigned the Baltics to the Soviets. This pact did not bind the two nations to joint military action in war, they had virtually that impact upon the peace balance of Europe. Germany felt free to proceed against Poland; the Soviet Union had signed the pact knowing that it would weigh the scale for a general war.