UNITED STATES 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
benefited 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 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 purges killed millions of people during
Stalin’s reign. Even more starved to death as collective
farms failed to be as productive as privately-run one.
However, Stalin had more luck industrialising the USSR, and poured
great resources into building factories, mines, railroads, and
*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 communist groups and the Fascist Party under
Benito Mussolini. His men were also called Blackshirts.
*In 1922, Mussolini’s Blackshirts began a March on Rome, in which
they overthrew the prime minister when King Victor Emmanuel III
refused to allow him to stop the Blackshirts. Mussolini and
the king agreed to work together, and the king handed control of
the government to Mussolini, who had the support of many
businessmen and aristocrats. Once in power, Mussolini
created an authoritarian 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.
*To rebuild the glory of Rome, Mussolini consolidated Italian
power in Libya and Italy’s other African colonies.
*Mussolini also tried to avenge the one great African defeat of a
European colonial power, King Menelik II’s defeat of Italy in
1896. In October 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia from its
neighbouring colonies in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.
Emperor Haile Selassie went to the League of Nations to protest,
but was initially ignored.
*Even though the Ethiopians were poorly equipped (with weapons
ranging from spears to late 19th century artillery to WWI surplus
to an Air Force made up of three biplanes) they held off the
Italians through the winter until Mussolini authorised his army to
use mustard gas. This was too much for the Ethiopians, and
in May 1936, they surrendered.
*The League of Nations did eventually criticise Italy for these
actions, and Italy began to turn towards other fascist countries,
such as Germany and Spain.
*During the 1800s, Spain had a number of civil wars that polarised
the population. Both the right wing and left wing held
extreme positions, and there was little room for moderate
politicians or compromises. Spain was a constitutional
monarchy, but by the 1920s the king needed the support of the army
to such an extent that Spain effectively became a military
*In 1930 the dictatorship was overthrown, and in 1931 King Alfonso
XIII was deposed and Spain became a Republic, but one in which
strongly anti-traditionalist and anti-clerical socialists called
Republicans fought right-wing Nationalists led by Francisco
Franco. The USSR and socialists and liberals from many
countries (including about 2,800 Americans in the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade) supported the Republicans while European fascists
supported Franco, who eventually won in 1939 (after which Spain
would sit out WWII).
*Right-wing governments were also established in Romania, Hungary,
Portugal, Austria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Bulgaria.
*In Germany, the post-war government, the Weimar Republic, was
very weak. The country went into a deep depression in the
early 1920s with money almost completely valueless (at its worst,
one US dollar was worth three trillion German marks) and
unemployment high. 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 Adolf 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 (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 described 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
*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.
*In 1930 the Great Depression hit Germany, which already had a
weak economy (despite the efforts of the Dawes Plan and the Young
Plan to make its reparations payments less painful). By
1932, Germany was in a serious economic crisis with 6 million
unemployed, but this was a crisis Hitler promised to solve.
*In 1933 Hitler was given the position of Chancellor (like a prime
minister). When President Paul von Hindenberg died of lung
cancer in 1934, Hitler combined his office with that of the
president, taking the title Führer.
*Shortly after the Nazis became the dominant political power, the
Reichstag 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 Act, 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%.
*He also began the programs of discrimination against Jews and
other ‘subhuman’ groups that would end in the Holocaust.
*In 1935 Hitler began to rebuild the army and to create an 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
*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
*Hitler began to suggest that Austrians, ethnic Germans, ought to
join with Germany, and there was some (although not complete)
popular and political support for this in Austria. Hitler
marched into Austria 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. Although this violated the Treaty of
Versailles, 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, and Hitler wanted
to add it to Germany. Hitler promised that this would be
enough—if he could have the Sudetenland, 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 for our time.’
*Six months later, Hitler took over the rest of Czechoslovakia,
keeping half for himself and giving the rest to Hungary.
*In April, 1939, Italy invaded and conquered Albania, which it had
already dominated through a puppet king, Zog I.
*After appeasing Hitler (and ignoring Italy) 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,
whereas the Communist government ran the entire economy, and had
an internationalist worldview based on class solidarity.
Both, however, were opportunists. On 23 August, 1939, Hitler
and Stalin agreed to share Poland and the states east of it in the
Molotov-von Ribbentrop (or Nazi-Soviet) Pact.
*On 1 September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Two 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.
*When the Soviets over-ran Poland, they massacred nearly 22,000
Polish army officers and other members of the middle and upper
classes, partly picking victims by taking their prisoners of war
and looking at the palms of their hands and condemning anyone with
soft, un-calloused hands to death, on the grounds that working
class people had rough hands and anyone with soft hands must be
part of the upper classes and should be killed. This is
known as the Katyn Massacre, as the first mass graves from these
killings were discovered in the Kaytn Forest, but there were
*After Hitler conquered Poland, 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. 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, and this government turned all its colonies
over to the Axis. Some Frenchmen did resist, the most famous
of whom was the eventual leader of the Free French, Charles De
*Britain stood alone, and only the RAF in the Battle of Britain in
August and September 1940 prevented the Germans invading.
*Europe, of course, only one theatre of the Second World
War. In Asia, another empire was expanding ruthlessly.
*In the early 20th Century, Japan was a rapidly growing
power. The Meiji Restoration had brought Japan from a
Mediæval economy to a modern one. Victories in the Sino-Japanese
and Russo-Japanese Wars had established Japan as a major power and
its acquisition of a few German Pacific colonies after World War I
had confirmed this. After World War I Japan became a member
of the League of Nations.
*Japan was a constitutional monarchy under the Diet and Emperor
Hirohito, but Japan had also developed an authoritarian
government, with Shinto as a state religion that viewed the
Emperor as a god and an embodiment of the Japanese nation.
The military was also viewed as the highest expression of national
power and will, and the old samurai tradition of bushido (way of
the warrior) which valued bravery, honour, and
self-sacrifice. Surrender was out of the question: a
soldier who could not fight any more should commit ritual suicide
to avoid the dishonour of capture—and so enemy soldiers who
surrendered were treated with disdain and brutality (particularly
as Japan had not signed the Geneva accords).
*The Japanese empire after World War I included Korea, Formosa,
and several small islands in the western Pacific. They also
controlled Port Arthur and the railroads in Manchuria. They
wanted more, though, both as a matter of national pride and
because Japan is poor in natural resources.
*On 18 September, 1931, at Mukden, part of the South Manchuria
Railway was blown up. The Japanese blamed it on the Chinese,
although many historians believe Mukden Incident was actually
created by the Japanese as a pretext for invasion.
*On 19 September, the Japanese attacked Manchuria and by 27
February, 1932 controlled it, and renamed it Manchukuo.
*In 1933, The League of Nations criticised Japan’s invasion of
Manchuria, so Japan withdrew.
*On 7 June, 1937, Japanese soldiers in Peiping (allowed there
since the Boxer Rebellion) were practising night manœuvres at the
Marco Polo Bridge without giving advance as they had been asked to
do. The Chinese were afraid this was an invasion, and fired
a few shots. A Japanese solider went missing, and was
(falsely) presumed to be kidnapped. The Japanese demanded
the right to search the area. Although they were permitted
to do so, they moved more troops into the area and by the end of
July Japan and China were at war, and Peiping was in Japanese
*The Japanese invasion of China (sometimes called the Second
Sino-Japanese War) was brutal. The Japanese managed to
conquer most of North-Eastern China by about 1940, although they
found it difficult to control.
*While conquering China, the Japanese treated the Chinese
cruelly. The most infamous of many incidents was called the
Rape of Nanking (Nanjing). From December 1937 to February
1938, the Japanese Army engaged in rape, murder, arson, and theft,
killing between 150,000 and 300,000 men, women, and
*During the attack on Nanking, an American ship, USS Panay,
which was evacuating American diplomatic personnel and other
civilians, was bombed by Japanese warplanes and destroyed, along
with three oil tankers it was escorting. Three Americans and
many Chinese were killed, and many more wounded.
*American diplomats wanted to make sure the Panay Incident
did not spark a new war, with Americans remembering the Panay
as they had the Maine, and the Japanese were willing
to issue an apology for this 'accident' and pay an
indemnity. In fact, this was no accident, as Japan hoped to
provoke a war with the United States while the USA was unprepared,
and America’s eagerness to avoid a fight convinced the Japanese
that Americans were weak.
*In Nanking and elsewhere, the Japanese kidnapped women and forced
them to work in military brothels as 'comfort women.'
*Prisoners were kept in terrible POW camps, and in some cases
performed medical experiments like those performed by the Nazis.
*The Japanese government often denies that these (and other)
atrocities occurred, or says that if they did happen, they have
been grossly exaggerated. Unlike the post-war German
government, the Japanese have never apologised for any of their
actions during World War II.
*In 1938, Japan invaded the USSR but was defeated in 1939.
In 1941 Japan and the Soviet Union signed a Neutrality Pact that
would last until 1945.
*In September, 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany
and Italy, thereby joining the Axis.
*Japan went on to occupy the lands of Vichy France’s Asian empire,
taking complete control of Indo-China and creating new puppet
states in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
*In 1942, Japan would pressure Siam (Thailand) into allying with
Japan, although Thailand’s main role in the war was allowing
Japanese forces to move through its territory, though a few
Siamese forces did support Japanese attacks on Burma and China.
*All this was part of Japan’s efforts to create a Greater East
Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, an Asia for Asians (but with the
Japanese in charge).
This page last updated 5 November, 2020.