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Compare and Contrast the Causes of the First World War and the Second World War

Both the First World War and the Second World War were initially blamed on German aggression. There are definite similarities in the ways in which the wars broke out however it could be argued that the Second World War was a result mainly of the First, along with and the failure of the peacemakers at Versailles to make a sustainable peace treaty. This essay will demonstrate the similarities between the causes of both wars but will also show the significance of the failure of the peace treaties during the interwar years on the causes of the Second World War. This essay will argue that it was the failure of the peace settlements that directly led to WWII and that this is the main difference between the causes of the two total wars. The orthodox view on the causes of WWI is that it was due to German aggression. This can be supported by a quote from historian A.J.P Taylor who said; “Schlieffen’s dead hand automatically pulled the trigger.”

The Schlieffen plan can be used to argue that Germany specifically wanted war; they had planned a system of mobilization very far in advance. Similarly, it could be argued that Germany planned to go to war a second time pre-WWII, the evidence supporting this being Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf ‘ which clearly outlined Hitler’s expansionist aims. These two examples show how in both cases of the causes of WWI and WWII it can be argued that German aggression acted as a major catalyst. It can also be argued, however, that it was specifically due to the failure of the ToV that Hitler came to write ‘Mein Kamf’ at all, or indeed that he communicated his message successfully. The loss of 13% of German territory due to the peace settlements, and the restricted army, meant that Hitler’s nationalist and imperialist message broke through to the public far more powerfully than it would perhaps have had otherwise.

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A major cause of WWI was the growing feeling of nationalism in both Western and Eastern Europe. Imperialist rivalries, such as that between France and Germany after the Franco-Prussian war, aroused nationalist feelings. Historian Gordon Craig describes the situation in Europe as having “increased the opportunities for friction between the major powers and inflamed the resentments of minor ones.” During the run-up to WWII, Hitler ruthlessly wished to pursue the policy of Lebensraum which has similar connections to the growing nationalism pre-World War I. Due to the Treaty of Versailles (ToV), Germany had been humiliated and forced into agreeing to a diktat, article 231 – blaming Germany for starting the war. Having felt that they had lost the war unjustly in the first place and that they had been “stabbed in the back” by the liberal, “November criminals” who had signed the agreement, mass feelings of nationalism spread throughout Germany, in turn helping Hitler (who appealed to a traditional, conservative public) rise to power.

The policy of Lebensraum promised nationalists a return to the powerful, proud Germany that they had known post-WWI. In both cases of WWI and WWII feelings of nationalism played an important role in causing total war. It is interesting that it was specifically nationalism caused by the problems of WWI peace settlements that prompted WWII. In this way it can be argued that whilst both wars were encouraged by nationalism, the Second World War was due to nationalism that actually originated from the First. Historian Michael Howard argues that the Pre-WWI Great Powers went to war “to fulfil a precise obligation which could not be abandoned without shattering consequences of national prestige, morale and interests”. Without going to war, it could be argued, the Great Powers would not have kept their Great Power status. In this way, it was very much imperialism that was a major cause of WWI. Another example of this can be seen in Russia who was lured into war by the Balkans, Constantinople and the Straights.

England wanted to maintain their Empire and France had ambitions in Morocco, as did Germany. James Joll argues that “war was inevitable if vital national interests were to be preserved.” A major reason as to why WWII took place lies in the fact that Hitler went against the peace settlements decided at the ToV and marched into Austria in 1939 to achieve the Anschluss. This shows German imperialist and expansionist aims. At the time, not wanting to risk war, the other countries did nothing, only increasing tension when Hitler further breached the terms drawn up in the ToV. In both cases of WWI and WWII imperialism and preserving national interests were major causes of tension. The major difference between the two is that pre-WWI all major powers felt imperialistic, however post-WWI it was only Germany. Imperialism acting as a cause of WWII was directly due to the fact that it was a breach of the ToV.

Once again this shows how, although both WWI and WWII had a similar cause, the causes of WWII were directly due to the failure to produce an effective peace treaty and therefore indirectly due and connected to WWI. Another major cause of WWI is the system of alliances that tangled up the European nations together and made it so that if anyone nation went to war the others would be pulled along and bound to join in as well. The ToV wanted to ensure that this kind of system would never be put into place again. In one of its clauses, it banned the formation of any secret alliances. WWII did not take place because countries were bound to one another in alliance systems, however, the failure of appeasement can be seen as a similarity to the alliance system pre-WWI. Appeasement towards Germany was justified because people believed the ToV had been unfair and that Hitler’s actions, in breaching ToV terms, were justified.

Both the alliance system and policy of appeasement were systems that countries relied on to maintain stability and order in Europe, however, both, with historians who have the benefit of hindsight, are reviewed as being failures and actually understood as being major causes of the two total wars. On the other hand, the fact that appeasement was a result of a reaction towards the ToV, once more shows that the ToV played a major role in the outbreak of WWII. In conclusion, both the cause of WWI and WWII have many similarities, both being blamed by orthodox historians as being the result of German aggression, both having roots in nationalism and imperialism and both being due to the unorganized and muddled state of Europe at the time; either due to alliance systems in pre-WWI or economically as a result of the great depression pre-WWII. This is described best by David Lloyd George post-WWI; “we slithered over the brink”.

President Kennedy argues that not all the blame of WWII should rest on the problems of the ToV, as the war did not happen directly after it, but rather after the great depression. This shows another point of view and another difference between the two wars, how WWI came from an industrially rich Europe whilst WWII broke out in an economically weakened one. Before WWI there was no punitive settlement generating tension, but rather a colonial rivalry, which in turn was not present in the run-up to WWII. Both wars had similar causes, the main differences in the roots of the two World wars lie in the fact that WWII was in some ways a consequence of the failures of the ToV and in this way was indirectly connected to WWI.

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Compare and Contrast the Causes of the First World War and the Second World War. (2021, May 30). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/compare-and-contrast-the-causes-of-the-first-world-war-and-the-second-world-war/