Many historians have traced the causes of World War II to problems left unsolved by World War I (1914-1918). World War I and the treaties that ended it also created new political and economic problems. Forceful leaders in several countries took advantage of these problems to seize power. The desire of dictators in Germany, Italy, and Japan to conquer additional territory brought them into conflict with the democratic nations.
After World War I ended, representatives of the victorious nations met in Paris in 1919 to draw up peace treaties for the defeated countries. These treaties, known as the Peace of Paris, followed a long and bitter war. They were worked out in haste by these countries with opposing goals; and failed to satisfy even the victors. Of all the countries on the winning side, Italy and Japan left the peace conference most dissatisfied. Italy gained less territory than it felt it deserved and vowed to take action on its own. Japan gained control of German territories in the Pacific and thereby launched a program of expansion. But Japan was angered by the peacemakers’ failure to endorse the principle of the equality of all races.
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The countries that lost World War I–Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey–were especially dissatisfied with the Peace of Paris. They were stripped of territory, arms and were required to make reparations (payments for war damages).
The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed with Germany, punished Germany severely. The German government agreed to sign the treaty only after the victorious powers threatened to invade. Many Germans particularly resented the clause that forced Germany to accept responsibility for causing World War I.
World War I seriously damaged the economies of the European countries. Both the winners and the losers came out of the war deeply in debt. The defeated powers had difficulty paying reparations to the victors, and the victors had difficulty repaying their loans to the United States. The shift from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy caused further problems.
Italy and Japan 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 1920’s, 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. 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 political extremes gained the most support in countries with the greatest economic problems and the deepest resentment of the Peace of Paris.
Nationalism was an extreme form of patriotism that swept across Europe during the 1800’s. Supporters of nationalism placed loyalty to the aims of their nation, above any other public loyalty. Many nationalists viewed foreigners and members of minority groups as inferior. Such beliefs helped nations justify their conquest of other lands and the poor treatment of minorities within their borders. Nationalism was a chief cause of World War I, and it grew even stronger after that war.
Nationalism went hand in hand with feelings of national discontent. Many Germans felt humiliated by their country’s defeat in World War I and its harsh treatment under the Treaty of Versailles. During the 1930’s, they enthusiastically supported a violently nationalistic organization called The Nazi Party. The Nazi Party declared that Germany had a right to become strong again. Nationalism also gained strength in Italy and Japan.
The Peace of Paris established an international organization called The League of Nations to maintain peace. Each country backed its own interests at the expense of other countries this prevented The League from working effectively.. Only weak countries agreed to submit their disagreements to The League of Nations for settlement. Strong nations reserved the right to settle their disputes by threats or, force.
The political unrest and poor economic conditions that developed after World War I enabled dictatorships to arise in several countries. Especially in those countries that lacked a tradition of democratic government. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, dictatorships came in to power in the Soviet Union, Italy, Germany, and Japan. They held total power and ruled without regard to law. The dictatorships used terror and secret police to crush opposition to their rule. People who objected risked imprisonment or execution.
In the Soviet Union, the Communists, led by Lenin, had seized power in 1917. Lenin had set up a dictatorship that firmly controlled the country by the time he died in 1924. After Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin and other leading Communists struggled for power. Stalin eliminated his rivals one by one and became the Soviet dictator in 1929.
In Italy, economic distress after World War I led to strikes and riots. As a result of the violence, a strongly nationalistic group called The Fascist Party gained many supporters. Benito Mussolini, leader of the Fascists, promised to bring order and prosperity to Italy. He vowed to restore to Italy the glory it had known in the days of the ancient Roman Empire. By 1922, the Fascists had become powerful enough to force the king of Italy to appoint Mussolini premier. Mussolini, who took the title il Duce (the Leader), soon began to establish a dictatorship.
In Germany, The Nazi Party made spectacular gains as The Great Depression deepened during the early 1930’s.
Many Germans blamed all their country’s economic woes on the hated Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to give up territory, resources and pay large reparations. In 1933, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazis, was appointed chancellor of Germany. Hitler, who was called der Fuhrer (the Leader), soon made Germany a dictatorship. He vowed to ignore the Versailles Treaty and to avenge Germany’s defeat in World War I. Hitler preached that Germans were a “superior race” and that such peoples as Jews and Slavs were inferior. He began a campaign of hatred against Jews and Communists. He promised to rid the country of them. Hitler’s extreme nationalism appealed to many Germans.
In Japan, military officers began to hold political office during the 1930’s. By 1936, they had strong control of the government. Japan’s military government glorified war and the training of warriors. In 1941, General Hideki Tojo became premier of Japan.
During the 1930’s, Japan, Italy, and Germany followed a policy of aggressive. They invaded weak lands; that could be taken over easily. The dictatorships knew what they wanted, and they grabbed it. The democratic countries responded with timidity and indecision to the aggression of the dictatorships.
Japan was the first dictatorship to begin a program of conquest. In 1931, Japanese forces seized control of Manchuria, a region of China rich in natural resources. Some historians consider Japan’s conquest of Manchuria as the real start of World War II. Japan made Manchuria a puppet state called Manchukuo. In 1937, Japan launched a major attack against China. It occupied most of eastern China by the end of 1938, though the two countries had not officially declared war. Japan’s military leaders began to speak about bringing all of eastern Asia under Japanese control.
Italy looked to Africa to fulfill its ambitions for an empire. In 1935, Italian troops invaded Ethiopia, one of the few independent countries in Africa. The Italians used machine guns, tanks, and airplanes to overpower Ethiopia’s poorly equipped army. They had conquered the country by May 1936.
After Hitler took power, he began to build up Germany’s armed forces in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, a region of Germany along the banks of the Rhine River. Under the treaty, the Rhineland was to remain free of troops. In March 1938, German soldiers marched into Austria and united it with Germany. Many people in Germany and Austria welcomed that move.
The acts of aggression were easy victories for the dictatorships. The League of Nations proved incapable of stopping them. It lacked an army and the power to enforce international law. The United States had refused to join the League or become involved in European disputes. Great Britain and France were unwilling to risk another war so soon after World War I. The two powers knew they would bear the burden of any fighting.
The aggressors soon formed an alliance. In 1936, Germany and Italy agreed to support one another’s foreign policy. The alliance was known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. Japan joined the alliance in 1940, and it became the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. In 1936, many of Spain’s army officers revolted against the government. The army rebels chose General Francisco Franco as their leader. Franco’s forces were known as Nationalists or Rebels. The forces that supported Spain’s elected government were called Loyalists or Republicans. The Spanish Civil War drew worldwide attention. Yet during the war, the dictatorships again displayed their might while the democracies remained helpless.
Hitler and Mussolini sent troops, weapons, aircraft, and advisers to aid the Nationalists. The Soviet Union was the only power to help the Loyalists. France, Britain, and the United States decided not to become involved. However, Loyalist sympathizers from many countries joined the International Brigades that the Communists formed to fight in Spain.
The Spanish Civil War served as a military testing ground for World War II. Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union used it to test their weapons and tactics. The war in Spain was also a rehearsal for World War II, in that it split the world into forces that either supported or opposed Nazism and Fascism.
Hitler prepared to strike again soon after Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938. German territory then bordered Czechoslovakia on three sides. Czechoslovakia had become an independent nation after World War I. Its population consisted of many nationalities, including more than 3 million people of German descent. Hitler sought control of the Sudetenland, a region of western Czechoslovakia where most of the Germans lived. Urged on by Hitler, the Sudeten Germans began to clamor for union with Germany.
Czechoslovakia was determined to defend its territory. France and the Soviet Union had pledged their support. As tension mounted, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to restore calm. Chamberlain wished to preserve peace at all cost. He believed that war could be prevented by meeting Hitler’s demands. That policy became known as appeasement.
Chamberlain had several meetings with Hitler during September 1938 as Europe teetered on the edge of war. Hitler raised his demands at each meeting. On September 29, Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier met with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich, Germany. Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to turn over the Sudetenland to Germany, and they forced Czechoslovakia to accept the agreement. Hitler promised that he had no more territorial demands.
The Munich Agreement marked the height of the policy of appeasement. Chamberlain and Daladier hoped that the agreement would satisfy Hitler and prevent war–or that it would at least prolong the peace until Britain and France were ready for war. The two leaders were mistaken on both counts.
The failure of appeasement soon became clear. Hitler broke the Munich Agreement in March 1939 and seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. He thereby added Czechoslovakia’s armed forces and industries to Germany’s military might. In the months before World War II began, Germany’s preparations for war moved ahead faster than did the military build-up of Britain and France.
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