*Woodrow Wilson said that the Great
War was a
War to End all Wars. However, the primary cause of
World War II
War I. It left Germany poor,
humiliated, and bitter. Much of the rest of Europe was
also devastated. Russia—now
known as the Soviet
replaced its centuries-old monarchy with a communist
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
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 (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. 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 other infrastructure.
*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, which they had controlled since 1912.
*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, partly because the British and the French wanted to work with the Italians in case Germany became aggressive again.
*Even though the
Ethiopians were poorly
equipped (with weapons ranging from spears to late 19th
WWI surplus to an Air Force made up of three biplanes) they
Italians through the winter until Mussolini authorised his
army to use
gas. This was too much for the Ethiopians, and in May
*The League of Nations did eventually
criticise Italy for these actions, and Italy, despite a
desire to work with France, 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 needed the support of the army to such an extent that Spain effectively became a military dictatorship.
*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).
*Fascist and other right-wing governments were established in Roumania, 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
money almost completely valueless (at its worst, one US
trillion German marks) and unemployment high. Many
their government had betrayed them at Versailles—this
was known as the ‘stab in the back’ theory—particularly
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 (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 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.
*All Hitler needed at this point was a crisis, and soon he got one. 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.
*In 1933 Hitler was given the
Chancellor (like a prime minister). When
Paul von Hindenberg died of lung cancer in 1934, Hitler
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%.
*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 afterwards.
*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. In September, 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, thereby joining the Axis.
*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. 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, 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 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 other allies, such as 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, killing or enslaving those who were different, whereas the Communist government ran the entire 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 in the Molotov-von Ribbentrop (or Nazo-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
paratroops moved through the disrupted enemy lines. It
tactic as long as it could achieve victory in less than six
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
*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, 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 Gaulle.
*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
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
this. After World War I Japan became a member of
*Japan was a constitutional monarchy under the Diet and Emperor Hirohito (posthumously the Showa Emperor), 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 hands.
*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 civilians--men, women, and children.
*During the attack on Nanking, an American ship, USS Panay, which was evacuating American diplomatic personnel and other civilians and escorting three Standard Oil tankers, was bombed by Japanese warplanes and destroyed, along with the 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 similar to
the Nazis (although the Japanese also experimented with
*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).