American History
The Rise of Totalitarianism

*Woodrow Wilson said that the Great War was a War to End all Wars.  However, the primary cause of World War II was World War I.  It left Germany poor, humiliated, and bitter.  Much of the rest of Europe was also devastated.  Russia—now known as the Soviet Union—had replaced its centuries-old monarchy with a communist dictatorship, and had lost much of its western territory to Germany (who then lost it to Poland and the Baltic Republics).  Even some countries that had been on the winning side were in a bad position—Italy, in particular, felt it had not benefitted enough from the war.

*In this chaotic and bitter time, many countries turned to strong leaders who could offer simple answers and promises of a return to glory—and often someone else to blame for their problems.  As these leaders began to exert total control over their countries, the result was known as totalitarianism.

*In the Soviet Union, the first Communist leader, Lenin, died, and was replaced by Joseph Stalin (meaning ‘Man of Steel’) in 1924.  He would remain in power until 1953.  He was deeply paranoid, and enforced his rule by terrorising, imprisoning, starving, and killing his enemies, and even many people he though were his enemies who were not (including many high-ranking officers in the Soviet Army).  These were known as purges, and killed millions of people during Stalin’s reign.

*In Italy, the government was very weak and the economy was very bad.  Although Italy had gotten a little land from Austria-Hungary, it had wanted much more.  As veterans were unable to find work, they formed different groups to take care of themselves, including the Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini.  His men were also called Blackshirts, and became so powerful that the King of Italy asked Mussolini to lead the government.  He was known as Il Duce and tried to manage every part of Italian life, even to make the trains run on time.  To do so, he outlawed political parties, stopped freedom of speech and the press, and prevented strikes.

*In Germany, the post-war government, the Weimar Republic, was very weak.  The country was in a deep depression with money almost completely valueless (at its worst, one US dollar was worth three trillion German marks) and unemployment high.  Germany had lost the Alsace-Lorraine and the Polish Corridor.  Many Germans felt that their government had betrayed them at Versailles—this was known as the ‘stab in the back’ theory—particularly because when the war ended, almost all the fighting was still outside Germany.

*Many Germans turned to radical political movements like the Communists or the NSDAP—the Nazi Party, led by Adolph Hitler.  Soon after he joined, the Nazis tried to overthrow the Bavarian government, but were stopped and Hitler was imprisoned.

*In prison, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, or My Struggle, in which he described his plan to solve Germany’s problems.  Those problems, he said, were caused by communists, liberal politicians, and above all, non-German ethnic groups, especially Jews, whom he describes as a race of parasites.  He promised to restore the glory of the German Aryan people, and put lesser races in their place.  His book became an international best-seller.

*After his release from prison, Hitler returned to politics, and as Germany’s problems grew worse, more and more Nazis were elected to the German Reichstag.  Eventually Hitler was offered a position as Germany’s Chancellor (like a prime minister).

*Shortly after the Nazis became the dominant political power, the Reichstag building was burned out in a fire.  Although historians believe the Nazis probably started the fire themselves, they blamed it on a communist, and used their legal power to pass the Enabling Bill, giving Hitler dictatorial powers.  Thus, the Nazis used the democratic process to destroy democracy.

*Hitler became very popular in Germany.  He spent money building roads and other public works.  The autobahn dates from this time, and Hitler conceived of the Volkswagen, the people’s car affordable by all workers.  Unemployment fell to almost zero, whereas before it had been as high as 50%.

*In 1935 Hitler began to rebuild the army and to create and air force.  This was illegal, but Britain and France let him get away with it, because they felt bad about how hard the Versailles Treaty had been on Germany.  When the League of Nations complained, Germany walked out.  Italy would leave shortly afterwards.

*Hitler used this army in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, helping the Spanish fascists, called Nationalists, seize power.  Their leader, Francisco Franco, would remain in charge of Spain until his death in 1975.

*In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini signed an alliance.  Mussolini said that in the future Berlin and Rome were the axis around which Europe would turn, thus giving the name Axis to their alliance.  Japan would join them in 1940.

*Hitler began to suggest that Austrians, ethnic Germans, ought to join with Germany, and there was a certain amount of popular and political support for this in Austria.  The prime minister refused, but Hitler marched into Austria anyway in 1938, where his armies were greeted by cheering crowds.  Austria was made a part of Germany, and ceased to exist as a country.  This was called the Anschluss, or unification.  Britain and France did nothing.

*Later in 1938, Hitler suggested that the western part of Czechoslovakia ought to be part of Germany.  The area called the Sudetenland had many ethnic Germans in it, as well as most of Czechoslovakia’s border defences, and Hitler wanted to add it to Germany.  Hitler promised that this would be enough—if he could have the Sudentenland, he could have enough.  The British and French leaders met with Hitler in Munich in September.  There, Neville Chamberlain followed a policy of appeasement, letting Hitler have what he wanted.  The Czechs had no say in the matter at all, and felt betrayed.  Chamberlain, though, went home and promised his people that they would know ‘peace in our time.’

*Six months later, Hitler took over the rest of Czechoslovakia, keeping half for himself and giving the rest to other allies, such as Hungary.

*Shortly afterwards, Italy invaded Albania and Ethiopia.

*After appeasing Hitler for so long, Britain and France said they would put up with no more, but, understandably, Hitler did not believe them.  He began to mass troops along the Polish border, even though Britain and France promised to protect Poland.  Hitler was not worried about them, but he was worried about the USSR.

*Hitler and Stalin hated each other ideologically.  Although both ruled totalitarian states, they were otherwise different—the Nazis had free enterprise, and a racist, nationalist outlook, killing or enslaving those who were different, whereas the Communist government ran their economy, and had an internationalist worldview, assimilating everyone into the Red Menace.  Both, however, were opportunists.  On 23 August, 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to share Poland and the states east of it.

*On 1 September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland.  2 days later, Britain and France declared war.

*Hitler used blitzkrieg, or lightning war, in which dive-bombers shattered enemy defences and morale, then rapid-moving tanks, motorised infantry, and paratroops moved through the disrupted enemy lines.  It was an excellent tactic as long as it could achieve victory in less than six weeks, after which it would bog down into a lengthy ground war.  Fortunately for Hitler, Poland fell in less than a month, as Hitler and Stalin divided it up between themselves.

*From there, the rest of the world was next.  After a period of preparation, during which he claimed he wanted peace, Hitler began to move again.  On 9 April 1940 the Germans conquered Denmark and invaded Norway, which was betrayed by one of its own, Vidkun Quisling.  On 10 May, the Nazis invaded the Low Countries.  Luxembourg fell in a day, the Netherlands in five days, and Belgium in three weeks.

*Moving through the Ardennes Forest, the Germans got around the Maginot Line and broke through the hinge of the Allied lines and moved all the way to the English Channel, cutting the Allied forces in half.  The Northern half, mostly British but with some French and Belgian troops, fled to the port of Dunkirk.  There, between 26 May and 3 June, 338,000 soldiers were evacuated across the English Channel, not only by the Royal Navy, but by civilian boats as well.

*On 14 June, the Germans captured Paris.  On 22 June the French officially surrendered.  Northern France was occupied, and Southern France was ruled by collaborators from the new capital city of Vichy.  Other Frenchmen did resist, the most famous of whom was their eventual leader, Charles De Gaulle.

*Britain stood alone, and only the RAF in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940 prevented the Germans invading.




This page last updated 19 October, 2009.