Throughout history, various historians have looked into the roots and causes of World War 2 and ended up with many different conclusions and results depending on what sources they looked at, how they interpreted and analyzed them and their own personal opinions; whether biased or neutral. There is no doubt that the Second World War was one of the most devastating and most brutal wars of all time. It was a wake-up call to the human race. This war showed just how cruel people can be and the full extent of what modern warfare was capable of. Millions upon millions of people died across the various continents of the world. But what on earth could bring up such a merciless war and why did it happen? Throughout this essay, numerous sources will be analyzed to give a concise and informative conclusion to this question through the analysis of many different sources.
First and foremost, it is widely believed by some people that World War II was not in fact an individual war of its own, but merely a continuation of World War I after its abrupt halting as a result of the German government at the time surrendering. Many soldiers and citizens of Germany were devastated and shocked both psychologically and morally as they believed that we’re going to be victorious no matter what happened. This meant that many blamed the current German government for this and were consequently put in a very bitter and vengeful mindset throughout the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, eager to continue what had been stopped. Although this is not fully proven, it is evident that this mindset was present through various German newspaper articles of the time stating how the German government had ‘gravely failed them’. The idea that World War I was just a continuation of World War II has been disputed by many however it is clear that it is a relatively long-term cause of the Second World War, although nowhere near enough to start a war on its own.
Secondly, the effects of World War one left Europe and other countries in a very vulnerable state. The shift from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy caused further problems. Italy and Japan (allies of Germany in World War One) suffered from too many people and too few resources after World War I. They eventually tried to solve their problems by territorial expansion. In Germany, runaway inflation destroyed the value of money and wiped out the savings of millions of people. In 1923, the German economy neared collapse. Loans from the United States helped Germany’s government restore order. By the late 1920s, Europe appeared to be entering a period of economic stability. A worldwide business slump known as The Great Depression began in the United States in 1929. By the early 1930s, it had halted Europe’s economic recovery. The Great Depression caused mass unemployment, widespread poverty and despair. It weakened democratic governments and strengthened extreme political movements that promised to end the economic problems.
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Two movements in particular gained strength. The forces of Communism, known as the Left, called for a revolution by the workers. The forces of fascism, called the Right, favoured a strong national government. Throughout Europe, the forces of the Left clashed with the forces of the Right. The general assumption was that Germany had taken up extreme fascism when Adolf Hitler came into power while Russia became an extreme communist country when Robert Stalin came to power. Adolf Hitler greatly disliked communism meaning that splits in opinions and policies between different leaders and countries were already re-appearing. If such opposing ideas of policies clashed to such a high extent, whole countries could go to war with each other because of this. In fact, the clashing of policies is usually undermined but is actually an extremely important factor as to why the war broke out because it is one of the cores and underlying factors why Hitler declared war on Russia in World War II.
Also with countries continuously competing for land for their ever-growing populations and to stabilize their plummeting economy, competition for colonizing weaker countries’ would have rapidly grown. Competition could be so furious that many countries went to war over colonial properties. Italy for example invaded Ethiopia to gain established status and wealth while Japan was on a quest to invade the whole of Eastern Asia, and nearly succeeded. Finally, Germany desperately wanted to gain more colonial lands in Northern Africa as it was well behind on this compared to other European powers. However, Germany was robbed of all the colonies it had ever had because of the Treaty of Versailles, which had proved to be a deadly mistake by Europe as Germany was extremely eager to regain these lands at all costs, even if it meant war.
Thirdly, the Treaty of Versailles was one of the main if not the most important long-term causes of the war. After surrendering in World War I, Germany was at the mercy of the leaders of the four big leaders of the time; Lloyd George of Britain, Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France and Woodrow Wilson of America. After a meeting that excluded Germany, even though Germany was the subject, these four leaders of the time decided to go along with Frances’s requests to severely damage Germany’s reputation, power, colonies, financial debuts and military forces. In the end, the main terms stated by the treaty were:
- The war guilt clause – Germany had to accept full responsibility for starting World War I. This greatly humiliated Germany as it probably wasn’t the sole cause of the First World War.
- Reparations – Germany was fined with a massive debt that totalled ½6,600 million pounds. This was well beyond Germany’s financial abilities and this huge debt eventually drove Germany over the edge and into a state of hyper-inflation rendering it financially unstable and giving German currency basically no value. This destroyed the morale of every citizen of Germany. The Wall Street crash in the 1930s had its effects ripple across every county in the globe. One of the worst affected was Germany as it was already in a state of hyperinflation. This meant that what would seemingly have been intolerable living conditions in Germany had just become double the times worse rendering hundreds of thousands unemployed and millions more left in poverty, abandoned by a hopeless government. This left every German citizen in a vengeful state, fuelling their anger and desperation for any way out of the current situation that they were in.
- Disarmament – Germany was only allowed to have six small naval ships. No tanks, air-force, or submarines (U-boats) were allowed. Their army was also reduced to a mere amount of 100,000 men. Not only did Disarmament destroy what Germany had been working so hard for, but it also left Germany completely undefended and humiliated. Germany was now truly ruined. In one letter a rebellious German official quoted this in a letter to a friend; “The Germany we used to know was strong and did not take orders from others. We never bowed down to others; we used to be proud, leading people my friend. Those pastimes are fading legends now Augustus but the twenty years we endured felt like one hundred years of never-ending pain. Now we are vulnerable, weak and we are the worlds’ laughing stock. As much as this government is corrupt so are the others. For God have mercy on us because the world does not.” This shows the sheer soul-diminishing way of life people were enduring while living in Germany. The way the German official describes Germany as ‘weak and vulnerable’ proves how helpless people felt in Germany at the time.
- Territorial Clauses – Germany was forced to hand over the land of Alsace Lorraine back over to France and had to give up countless other plots of land all over the world especially in Africa. This would have left Germany in a bitter but determined state to regain the lands that German people thought were rightfully theirs.
Overall it seems clear that whatever happens, one of the main but not the most important causes of the Second World War was the Treaty of Versailles, which stemmed from the First World War. This is because the severe and punishing clauses which were forced onto Germany were the only reason why Germany ended up in such a mess. If it were not for the harshness of the treaty of Versailles, financial instability and poverty wouldn’t have flourished throughout Germany at such high levels. Without the treaty of Versailles, people like Hitler would maybe have felt no need for revenge and hatred to other countries meaning there may have been no need or reason for a war to take place in the first place.
Hitler’s actions and rise to power are the fourth reason why the Second World War had broken out. After having a fairly stable, although sometimes troubling childhood, Adolf Hitler went on to become a soldier fighting for Germany in World War One. He had to watch all his friends die in the War and upon finding out that Germany had surrendered and had lost the war, became emotionally devastated. He blamed this on the current monarchy and on the Jewish people for ruining and corrupting the German government, both morally and financially. Some argued that he needed scapegoats, excuses for Germany’s loss, anything to avoid the thought that Germany may have been responsible for losing the war or too weak to win the war. This clearly shows the extremely patriotic and nationalistic views he had towards Germany. He was later employed by the current German government to spy on a new political group that was founded to see if they posed any threat to overthrowing the German government.
At that time Hitler felt great disdain towards the current government as he thought they were bowing down to the ‘Big Four’ and were doing anything to stay in power regardless if Germany lost all power and dignity. So Adolf Hitler went to spy on this new party. They were merely a group of 8 people but Hitler was fascinated by the ideas and policies they put forward that he ended up joining them and eventually became their leader. The leader of the newly powerful Nazi party. He portrayed such challenging and strong ideas throughout the media and through propaganda that the German government would not tolerate it, had him arrested and put him in prison for around 2-3years. In his time in prison, he subsequently wrote the famous book; “Mein Kampf”. The book was very interesting as it portrays Hitler’s mindset, his extreme beliefs and how sensitive and unsure he was of himself deep down within. He explained his nationalistic pride and how he thought only the ‘Aryan’ race was superior to all of humanity.
Meanwhile, the remaining Nazi supporters campaigned for Hitler’s release. He was released after about 3 years and instead of being looked upon badly for being imprisoned, German people thought he was a hero as a result of propaganda. Hitler was subsequently voted into government as Chancellor in 1933 and then later took over to be the official leader of Germany due to popular vote. He gained popularity with German people because he was what they considered as ‘a way out’. Many people saw Hitler as the saviour of their time, the hero that would lead Germany to unstoppable victory. This later was proven not to be the case. Although Hitler’s actions were what put World War II into motion, he is not the actual cause of World War II. In fact, it could be argued that Hitler was just a person carrying out a certain movement that he believed in, one that he learnt from others.
If Hitler had never been there, then another member of the Nazi party or one of its many supporters could just have taken the same roles as Hitler carry out the same movements with the same beliefs, but just have a different identity. However, this may not be completely true as some Historians say that the Nazi party may never have been recognized in the first place if it wasn’t for Hitler and his unique skills in speaking and manipulating the media. Despite this, the fact remains that it was his nationalistic and racial beliefs that he learnt from others that caused him to act the way he did. A fifth reason why World War II broke out is the Re-armament and Re-militarisation of Germany under the rule of Hitler. During the time of Hitler’s power, one of his primary aims was to re-arm Germany and make it as powerful as possible for him to achieve his aims. However, there were two main problems standing in Hitler’s way. The first was the Treaty of Versailles and the second was The League of Nations.
The League of Nations consisted of Britain, France and various other European countries. It was set up in order to force peaceful negotiations between countries around the world and as a result, abolish war. However, The League of Nations lacked two necessary things which it needed to be successful. It needed America to back it up in stature and legitimacy, and it also needed an army so its decisions could be taken seriously by other countries. Because the League of Nations lacked these two features Hitler played on its weaknesses and thought of it as a type of joke. In a way he was right. When he started building German submarines and tanks, all the League of Nations did was ‘stare disapprovingly’. It had no physical force with which to act with and Hitler used this to his advantage. However, the real test for Hitler was to see if he could push the boundaries of the Treaty of Versailles and if any of the opposing European countries would react. Hitler wanted to see if the Treaty of Versailles was actually serious enforcement, no matter how harsh the punishments the Treaty itself could actually be hollow.
After some time of re-taking lost land and colonies, strengthening his army and updating his army technologies, Hitler saw how reluctant the other European countries were to act if they even decided to act at all. So as a result Hitler had made himself a very formidable foe and nobody had stopped him. This is a fairly important factor as to why the Second World War broke out but it is not as relevant as others. The fact that Germany was allowed to re-arm is the soul act that allows Germany to even consider having another war. This is why some people say that the fact that Germany was allowed to re-arm was the sole reason for the war breaking out as it gave Germany everything it needed to become powerful again. Although this can be agreed with, it doesn’t mean that re-armament was the most important cause of the war because it was caused by the moral values of Hitler and his beliefs and desires that caused him to want to start a war in the first place.
A seventh reason why World War II broke out is appeasement- During 1933 and 1939, before the war was declared, Hitler made sure he could regain as much land as he possibly could. He forcefully re-militarised and took over the Rhineland and the Sudetenland, knowing that he would not be stopped. He yet again betrayed the Treaty of Versailles by making an Anschluss with Austria (allying with Austria) and Italy. After this, he was aware that the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain was watching his actions. So Hitler daringly set off to Czechoslovakia to invade it, using the excuse; “Czechoslovakia was annoying its neighbour Serbia”. He also wanted to unite all German-speaking people and make sure that the ‘superior’ German race expanded constantly. He believed that he needed to invade Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe, especially Russia. This was philosophy was called; ‘Lebensraum’ (living space). The concept of lebensraum was coined by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel.
He stated that in order to be successful all species on earth, including humans had to migrate and expand in numbers and area of land owned. In fact, one of Hitler’s main priorities was to gain more land and unite all German-speaking people for lebensraum. As a result, he set about retaking and re-militarising the Rhineland and the Sudetenland. He did this with almost no opposition at all and by taking over the Sudetenland, he had a very good strategic area in which to take over Czechoslovakia. The Munich agreement that was made in 1938 made sure of this. It was certain by this time that Hitler was going to take over Czechoslovakia, and nobody was willing to do anything about it. When Hitler clearly was going to use force to take over Czechoslovakia, France and Britain pressurized Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler and hand over its land. The Czechoslovakian president knew that he didn’t really have much choice except to hand over the country.
So in 1938, Czechoslovakia handed over its land to Germany in appeasement, bowing down to Germany’s requests hoping that Germany would do it no harm. Hitler saw such golden opportunities unfold. Chamberlain of Britain had continuously agreed with giving Hitler land in the policy of appeasement when the Sudetenland and the Rhineland were taken over by Hitler. Clearly when Czechoslovakia was finally taken over by Hitler Chamberlain was no longer seen as a good leader of Britain anymore. He had allowed Hitler to barge his way through and take over an entire country. Now Britain looked for a new leader, Winston Churchill. Churchill ridiculed Chamberlains’ policies and then put forward the ultimate question that worried the whole of Europe ‘Where would Hitler go next?’ This shows just how easily Hitler gained power he rapidly took over lands through the policy of appeasement, meaning that appeasement was a relatively important short term or trigger cause of the war as it provided him with land for lebensraum and proved to him that lebensraum was achievable at a fairly easier pace than he thought.
Appeasement would strengthen his beliefs, widen the reach of the German empire in both areas of land taken over and resources taken from them. Ultimately it would give rapidly growing determination to Hitler, edging him on to take even more land through appeasement or force, especially the two countries he had his eyes on most; Russia and Poland. Finally, in conclusion, and in my opinion, the most important cause of all is nationalism. Hitler was the leader of Germany who put the whole of World War II into motion. He forcibly took over lands and countries throughout the process of appeasement and lebensraum which were a result of wanting Germany to be a great country again, to regain its pride and power after losing them through the Treaty of Versailles and continue, as he thought, the disrupted World War I. However before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Hitler and many Germans had extreme nationalistic pride and believed that their country was superior to all others in the world.
Even if the Treaty of Versailles never existed I believe that World War II would have taken place anyway because of Hitler’s and many people before him, beliefs. All the Treaty of Versailles would have consequently done is just fuel their anger and desire for revenge on the world and give greater urge for German dominance. Even if Hitler had never existed, many people who shared his ideas and had even stronger beliefs of German dominance would have taken his place anyway. It could almost be compared to the consuming thoughts of nationalistic pride and superiority using German people as vessels spreading to more and more people. Overall it seems clear that the concepts and beliefs brought on by nationalism led to the concepts of lebensraum and Nazism which were the foundational beliefs of Hitler and many other Germans of the time meaning that nationalism and extreme patriotism were at the core of the causes of World War II and led to a long chain of events that together ultimately put World War II into motion.