Causes of the War
The Second World War begun in 1939, after the invasion of Belgium by Germany, which increased tensions on the continent. The causes of the war are less up for debate, but other factors caused the war:
First World War and the Treaty of Versailles
The First World War was a seminal event in the century, and caused tensions that were not resolved in the inter-war period. The societal changes caused by the war had a lasting impact, and caused the rise of new ideas of government, including extremism. The war created great disruption in politics and ideas on how to run nations, seeing Empires demise and the rise of national states – such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russian Empire. The war therefore was one factor for the Russian Revolution and the ideology of Communism would plague 20th century Europe. Nations still remained multi-ethnic, but were not as multi-ethnic as their predecessor Empires, and became more homogenous. The First World War, which saw Hitler in combat and helped forge his ideas, led to conspiracies of the ‘Stab in the Back’ theory that blamed the Jews for Germany’s loss in the war. Moreover the Treaty of Versailles, itself a result of the First World War, included unfavourable terms that carried over until the Second World War. Territorial losses and disputes, reparations and disarmament were all unpopular aspects of the treaty and used as political leverage by the far-right parties in Germany. Therefore, without the First World War and Treaty of Versailles, the Second World War arguably would not have happened.
German Aggression and Expansionism
The invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939 was part of a wider German plan to expand into Europe, and resulted in declarations of war against Britain and France. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and this was widely accepted as a German internal affair. Later in 1938, Germany threatened war when it wanted to annex the western border area of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, to claim its 3.5. million ethnic Germans. The U.S.S.R offered military help to protect this border territory, but were ignored by all the parties to the Munich Agreement. Talks at the time agreed for the surrender of Sudetenland, in return for Hitler to not seize more Czech territory, outlined in the Munich Pact. However, less than six months later, Hitler seized more Czech territory. In response to this, the British government pledged support to Poland in maintaining its independence, while France had its own defence treaty. Therefore, when Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France had no choice but to defend and thus started war. In August 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed which agreed U.S.S.R neutrality when Germany invaded nations like Poland, and to not go to war against each other. Moreover, the pact gave Stalin greater hand in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and eastern Romania.
Failure of Peace Efforts and Appeasement
After the First World War, there were attempts to achieve stability and peace, as shown in the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920. The League of Nations aimed to settle disputes, and focussed on ‘minority’ ethnic demands and nationality claims, which caused the First World War. The League’s powers were limited however to persuasion and some economic sanctions. Without the involvement of the U.S.A, the League of Nations did not garner a reputation that was always respected or regarded as all-powerful. In 1935, Germany left the League of Nations. The Locarno Conference of 1925 saw a treaty relating to the German-French boundary and an agreement between Germany and Poland. The Kellogg-Briande Pact of 1928 saw 63 countries including all the Great Powers except the USSR renounce war as an ‘instrument of national policy’, agreeing to exempt wars of self defence. In the 1930s, as Hitler became Chancellor, the strategy was appeasement towards Germany and compromising on some demands in the hope Germany would cease their expansion eventually. Although widely criticised, the appeasement strategy also granted time for Britain and France to build up their military and strategy in anticipation of war.
Rise of the Far-Right and Extremism
A number of societal issues, as it adjusted after the war, caused tensions throughout Europe, including political extremism. In the aftermath of the war, some nations experienced rebellions and change of government, more so as Empires collapsed and national states took their place. Extremism would increase during times of turmoil, such as after the war and the Great Depression of 1929. Europeans feared Communism in the U.S.S.R, and this fuelled far-right support, and led to the rise of National-Socialism (Nazism) and Fascism. The far-right idolised Conservative ideals, including national pride, sense of superiority and entitlement to other lands and resources, as well as subtle ideals on gender stereotypes, censorship and anxiety over the ‘national stock’, i.e. population. The far-right, like the far-left, believed democracy did not work and could propose a better alternative. Treaties between Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1936-7, like the Anti-Comintern Pact, effectively joined far-right forces in Europe and internationally. The Axis, the name given to this pact, saw far-right parties, though not completely identical in ideology, link up to ‘defeat’ the left.