Events preceding World War II in Europe
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Aftermath of World War I
World War II is generally viewed as having its roots in the aftermath of the First World War. In that war, the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II, with its allies, were defeated, chiefly by the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, France, and Japan.
The victors directly blamed Germany for the war; it was Germany that effectively started the war with an attack on France through Belgium. France had in 1871 suffered a defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and demanded compensation for its financial devastation during the First World War, which ensured that the various peace treaties, specifically the Treaty of Versailles imposed tough financial war reparations and restrictions on Germany in the aftermath of World War I. The British naval blockade of Germany was not lifted until the treaty was signed at the end of June 1919.
Weimar Republic becomes the Third Reich
The Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, blamed Germany's ruined economy on the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, on faults of democracy, and on the stab-in-the-back legend. In Germany, as in post-Austro-Hungarian Austria, citizens recalled the pre-war years under autocratic rule as prosperous but the post-war years under weak democratic rule as chaotic and economically disastrous. The situation was further aggravated by the worldwide economic depression that followed the Wall Street crash in 1929. Left-wing and right-wing anti-democratic parties in the Reichstag (the German parliament) obstructed parliamentary work, while different cabinets resorted to government by the special emergency powers of the Weimar constitution. This enabled the president and Cabinet to bypass the Parliament.
Mussolini comes into power
After several liberal governments failed to rein in these threats, and the fascists had increased their public profile by highly visible punishment expeditions to supposedly crush the socialist "threat", King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy invited Benito Mussolini to form a government on October 29, 1922. The fascists maintained an armed paramilitary wing, which they employed to fight anarchists, communists, and socialists.
Within a few years, Mussolini had consolidated dictatorial power and Italy became a police state. On January 7, 1935, he and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval signed the Franco–Italian Agreement giving him a free hand in the Abyssinia Crisis with Ethiopia, in return for an alliance against Hitler. There was little international protest. He then sent large forces into Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, the two colonies of Italy that bordered Ethiopia.
Britain attempted to broker peace but failed; Mussolini was bent on conquest. Britain then declared an arms embargo on both Italy and Ethiopia. Britain also cleared its warships from the Mediterranean, further allowing Italy unhindered access. Shortly after the League of Nations exonerated both parties in the Walwal incident, Italy attacked Ethiopia, resulting in the Second Italo–Abyssinian War.
Shortly after Italy conquered Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War began. During the Spanish Civil War, seen by many as a testing ground for the Second World War, Germany provided troops, weapons and other aid to Francisco Franco's nationalists. Italy also provided troops.
Spanish Civil War
While many nations refused to become involved in the Spanish Civil War, notably Britain and France, troops were sent by both Hitler and Mussolini to aid the Spanish nationalists, which included those with fascist leanings. It would prove to be a precursor to many of the tactics and methods employed in the Second World War, such as the test bombing of Guernica, which aimed to see how effective bombing of civilian areas could be. Spain was non-belligerent during World War II (although Spanish volunteers fought in Russia), but the civil war division of fascism (Germany and Italy) versus capitalist democracy (volunteers from neutral countries joined the fight against the nationalists) and communism (the USSR) was repeated.
Meanwhile in Germany, once political consolidation (Gleichschaltung) was in place, the Nazis turned their attention to foreign policy with several increasingly daring acts.
These steps produced nothing more than official protests from the United Kingdom and France; they were more serious about enforcing the economic provisions of the treaty than its military restrictions. Many Britons felt the restrictions placed on Germany in Versailles had been too harsh, and they believed that Hitler's aim was simply to undo the extremes of the treaty, not to go beyond that. This sentiment was underscored by the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which authorized Germany to build a fleet one third the size of the Royal Navy.
Hitler moved troops into the demilitarized Rhineland on March 7, 1936. But, as before, Hitler's defiance was met with inaction, despite Poland's proposal to put the Franco-Polish Military Alliance in action.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler demanded to have a private meeting with Arnold J. Toynbee who was visiting Berlin the same year to address the Nazi Law Society, and Toynbee accepted. In the meeting, Hitler emphasized his limited expansionist aim of building a greater German nation, and his desire for British understanding and cooperation. Toynbee was convinced of Hitler's sincerity, and endorsed Hitler's message in a confidential memorandum for the British prime minister and foreign secretary.
The first non-violent German conquest was Austria. After Italy had joined Germany in the Anti-Comintern Pact, quickly removing the main obstacle of an Anschluss of Austria, Germany announced the annexation on March 12, 1938, making it the province "Gau Ostmark" of what was now Greater Germany.
For more information see German occupation of Czechoslovakia
With Austria secured, Hitler turned his attention to the German-speaking population of the Sudetenland border regions of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia had a large and modern army backed with a sizable armament industry, and had military alliances with France and the USSR. It also had informal links with the United Kingdom, largely due to the United Kingdom being militarily allied with France. Despite this, Hitler, encouraged by reluctance of major European powers to stop his violation of post World War I treaties, was prepared to risk war. He was convinced that France would shrink back again, not fulfilling her treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. His first order was to seize Sudetenland, based on the right of self-determination for a unification with Germany. This region formed about 1/3 of Bohemia (western Czechoslovakia) in terms of territory, population and economy, and was claimed to be vital for Czechoslovakia's existence. With Austria in German hands, this part of Czechoslovakia, equipped with a defense system that was larger than the Maginot line (see Czechoslovak border fortifications), was nearly surrounded by Germany.
Following lengthy negotiations and blatant war threats from Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with French leaders tried to appease Hitler. In the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, the major European powers allowed German troops to occupy the Sudetenland, for the sake of "peace for our time". Czechoslovakia had already mobilized over one million men and was prepared to fight for independence, but was not allowed to participate in the conference. When the French and British negotiators informed the Czechoslovak representatives about the agreement, and that if Czechoslovakia would not accept it, France and Britain would consider Czechoslovakia to be responsible for war, President Edvard Beneš capitulated. German forces entered the Sudetenland unopposed, celebrated by the local ethnic German population. Soon after, Polish and Hungarian forces also invaded parts of Czechoslovakia. Poland annexed the Zaolzie area.
Hitler continued to put pressure on the Czech government. On March 14 Slovakia declared her independence under Jozef Tiso, which was recognized by France, Britain and other important powers. The following day, Emil Hácha accepted a German occupation of the remaining parts of the Czech lands. From the Prague Castle, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was proclaimed by Hitler.
Economic expansion of the Third Reich
The preparations for the Second World War were also made in the economic sphere, as the German government exerted pressure on weaker governments to place their economies at the disposal of the German war machine. One such case was the German-Romanian economic agreement of March 23, 1939.
- The Avoidable War: Pierr Laval and the Politics of Reality, 1935-1936
- * William H. McNeill (1989). Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506335-X., chapter 8, online from ACLS E-Books
- A film clip All Nations Shaken By War (1938) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]