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
*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
*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.