There are many causes of World War Two, the roots of which can be traced back to the 1920s. In fact, the seeds of discontent were sown in the settling dust on the Western Front. Indeed, when World War One finally came to an end after four years of bloody battle, it presented as many problems as it answered.
It was clear unrest was growing on a global scale. The European economy was in tatters, while socially and politically speaking, unrest soon gave way to resentment.
Looking back on a 1939 newspaper and multiple headlines reporting on the events is a fantastic way to relive the start of the Second World War, but in reality, the catastrophe had been swelling for a long time prior to this.
World War One had been the ‘war to end all wars’ (H.G. Wells). Now came the challenge of ensuring an immediate and lasting peace across Europe, along with sustained political and economic stability. The uncertainty of such a goal was one of the harsh realities of what started World War Two.
Newspaper cover reporting on the Treaty of Versailles (image source)
There were three main players who felt the burden of handling the crisis. The responsibility was down to the French prime minister, Georges Clémenceau, Britain’s David Lloyd George and US president Woodrow Wilson, who met in Versailles in January 1919. The focus is therefore not so much on who started World War 2 as opposed to how World War 2 started.
Together the three men penned the Treaty of Versailles, which was comfortably the most important post-war settlement. In it, Wilson outlined his vision of a democratic world – one in which rights and freedoms were guaranteed.
The vision was idealistic and hopeful. The treaty was a gateway for a new beginning across Europe but the terms stated in the treaty can be held accountable for what caused the Second World War, or rather, a key factor of European unrest.
The treaty introduced a host of new democracies across Europe, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary. The problem, however, was that these fledgeling states contained high numbers of national and racial minorities, the incorporation of whom would lead to increasing tensions throughout the 1930s.
The League of Nations: The Departure of The WWI Associated Power
There were rising problems with the Treaty’s most significant introduction, the League of Nations too. The League suffered from initially excluding Germany and the Soviet Union, while the inclination of nations to sign peace agreements among each other also limited its scope.
Aiming to solve disputes before they developed into open warfare, The League of Nations founded its roots upon President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech, outlining his ideas for ensuring peace. The League’s goal was to maintain peace and protect newly formed democracies, but in reality, its influence was severely hampered by the USA’s decision not to join it.
America joined the First World War as an “associated power” on the grounds that Germany violated US neutrality. But America would ultimately have no final part in the League moving forward, due to the loss of American civilians as a result of WW1, and wanting to keep the US out of further European affairs.
Japan and The Treaty of Versailles Limitations
Moreover, Versailles as a whole failed to satisfy both the victors and the vanquished. Three nations, in particular, were left feeling very disillusioned. One of these nations, Japan, had actually profited economically from the war and yet they found their navy and arms development limited by the Treaty.
With Imperial Germany preoccupied with the war in Europe during WW1, Foreign Minister Kato Takaaki and Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu took advantage of the geographical distances of their masters. Together, they ordered Sun Yat-sen to attempt to expand Japanese influence in China, but ultimately failed. It was the Imperial Japanese Navy who captured Germany’s Micronesian territories.
As a result, the success of the operation allowed the Navy to increase the Army budget and expand Japan’s fleet. Japan gained a compelling political influence over national and international affairs. Soon, the limitations of Versailles would fast-track Japan’s frustrations and eventually materialise in the 1930s, in the most deplorable and tragic of circumstances.
The Beginning of World War 2 – Italy
Back in Europe, discontent in Italy stemmed from the Treaty’s failure to support the country’s territorial claims on its north-eastern borders. On top of that, there was a genuine fear of Bolshevism infiltrating a political system that ex-servicemen and the public alike felt was already failing them.
Certainly, between just 1919 and 1922, five governments failed to solve the nation’s problems, so when faced with the prospect of either Bolshevism or another flailing government, unrest was inevitable. It manifested itself in strikes and riots, and the emergence of the Italian Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini. In standing against communism, he posed as something of a saviour and was in place to seize power by 1922.
Benito Mussolini (image source)
Causes of World War II – Germany
And then, of course, there was Germany where, in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, there was widespread grievance. After all, Germany had signed the armistice and had never surrendered on the battlefield. It left them perplexed, therefore, when they were not invited to Versailles.
To make matters worse, Germany and their allies were then blamed solely for the war and ordered to pay reparations. This succession of events is what most will allude to as the main reason for what started World War 2. Germany was also required to disarm and relinquish its African colonies. It was a punishment that even German moderates viewed as harsh and vindictive, while the new Weimar Republic was subsequently tainted with the humiliation of having accepted the Treaty’s terms.
It came of little surprise, therefore, that with the German economy on its knees, a new, liberal government of the Weimar Republic was in place by August 1923. Under Gustav Stresemann it began to not only stabilise the financial crisis but also recognise and respect the country’s borders.
Indeed, such was the positive impact that by 1928 Germany was invited to join the League of Nations. The upturn in fortunes was marked, until, in 1929, Wall Street crashed. In a case of ‘back to square one’, a new, all-consuming global crisis meant that Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party had found themselves a foothold in German society and the national conscience…
The reason for this was simple – unemployment exceeded six million. As such, the 1932 election was fought in an atmosphere of political disorder and violence. And whereas the Nazi vote appeared to be declining in the build-up to the election itself, an increase in support for the nation’s communists persuaded the country’s industrialists and bankers to back the Nazis.
Whilst not single handedly cementing the cause of World War 2, this significant moment in history certainly laid the foundations for the start of the Second World War in 1939. Thereafter, various political manoeuvring resulted in Hitler becoming chancellor.
It was a massive miscalculation by those responsible for the brokering because despite hoping that Hitler and the Nazis could be tamed once in power, nothing could have been further from the truth. When Hitler was finally elected in February 1933, Nazism had effectively been legitimised. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, it became perfectly clear that the League was failing in its attempts to maintain peace through discourse.
These fascist regimes were becoming increasingly aggressive in their expansionist ambitions, with Japan seizing Manchuria in 1931 and Italy invading Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935. All the while, the USA’s isolationism only encouraged the move of fascist governments towards further extremism and political violence.
In Germany, Hitler was by now embarking on a large rearmament programme while also introducing conscription. Thereafter, the League’s failure to adequately respond to any of these violations made a mockery of its power and ultimately convinced Hitler to commit troops to reoccupy the demilitarised Rhineland in March 1936. This was yet another significant action, and date, contributing to what caused the 2nd World War. Again, the League failed to respond adequately to the aggressive expansionism.
Adolf Hitler and Nazi party members (image source)
Spain and The Rise of Right-Wing Nationalism
Then, in July 1936, Hitler was at it again, this time with the assistance of Mussolini in supporting the Spanish right-wing nationalists who were attempting to overthrow the democratically elected republican government. The conflict quickly began making world headlines when the German and Italian governments started sending military aid to nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco.
The subsequent resolutions passed by the League were certainly sympathetic to the existing Spanish government but proved largely ineffective in halting the fascist rise. It was all a fatal error in judgement on behalf of the League and only served to highlight how ineffectual it had become. And with Hitler now feeling ‘braver’ than ever, he signed the Rome-Berlin Axis with Mussolini in October 1936, before agreeing on an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan the following month.
Thereafter, Germany, Italy and Japan all withdrew from the League of Nations in 1937, marking a pivotal moment in the build-up to World War 2 events.
To make matters worse, Britain and France only compounded the situation, and therefore contributed to what caused the 2nd World War. Their support of the League’s non-intervention suggested indifference towards the political upheaval elsewhere in Europe, despite the fact that democracies were under threat from the right and left.
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (image source)
The Invasion of Northern China
Meanwhile, with all eyes on Europe, Japan embarked on a full-scale invasion of northern China, in July 1937. Five months later, in December, they committed arguably the most shocking of pre-war atrocities. Known as the Rape of Nanking, the city was destroyed under the orders of General Matsui Iwane.
In the six-week period, 50,000 Japanese troops embarked of a mass spree of brutality and murder. Victims were burned and buried alive, shot, bayoneted and often beheaded. Even women and children were tortured and raped, before being slain. Mutilated bodies lined the street, with estimates as to the total dead varying from 100,000 to as many as 300,000.
Practically speaking, the United States was the only power capable of stopping Japan, but the former’s continued policy of isolationism meant that the Japanese war with China, like that which engulfed the rest of the world, would last until 1945.
Europe and Hitler’s “Final” Territorial Demand
In Europe, the Rome-Berlin Axis had changed the continent’s balance of power and in March 1938, Hitler fulfilled his ambition of annexing his homeland of Austria. And yet in spite of this continued expansionism, Britain and France continued on the path of appeasement.
Indeed, in Munich in September 1938, the two governments actually consented to Hitler’s claims on the Sudetenland. However, it was an agreement reached on the understanding that it would be Hitler’s final territorial demand, so when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, it finally prompted Britain and France to confront the German aggression with more than just words on paper.
The Invasion of Poland
The tipping point wasn’t far away. With Britain and France’s new resolve, they were determined to ensure Poland’s continued independence – something that was coming under threat from Nazi expansionism. Hitler’s response was to sign the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939, an act he believed would show Britain and France the futility of their efforts to protect Polish autonomy.
When, however, Germany invaded Poland on the 1st September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. So regardless of the causes of the Second World War, 21 years after Armistice Day, Europe was about to be ripped apart once more as the beginning of World War 2 was marked…
Polish infantry (image source)